Demosthenes had the Agora, Franklin D. Roosevelt had the fireside chats, and Gough Whitlam had the Blacktown Civic Centre.
Scott Morrison has breakfast television.
It may seem quaint to give a lot of importance to breakfast telly, given that young people don’t watch it. You’re lucky to find someone under the age of 25 who even owns a television set.
But those morning programs – which dress up advertorial with some light entertainment and often alarmingly off- kilter talking points – have become vital for any serious political media strategy in Australia.
Kevin Rudd was the master. His regular spot with Joe Hockey on Sunrise helped create his public image in the lead up to the Kevin 07 campaign. Rudd worked hard to be relatable, doing his best to make sure we – voters – saw past his nerdiness and policy wonkery.
Being relatable is key. Pauline Hanson, also a Sunrise regular, leveraged the exposure to come in from the political cold, all the way back to the hot and arid madness of the Senate. Nothing says, “They’re just like us!” than an appearance on breakfast television bemoaning the madness in Canberra. (Don’t let your desire to cause some of the madness get in the way.)
Does a regular spot on breakfast television guarantee political success? Of course not, but it must do something. Why else would Morrison turn up six times for the breakfast television cameras in a month?
There’s an election coming. Morrison has confirmed as much on his breakfast television appearances. He’s pulled out the classic line: that the government will get on with the business of governing. Yes, there’s an election coming, but don’t you worry about that.
Morrison has the difficult task of making everything seem normal when it clearly isn’t. His party, despite a long history of sanctimony, convulsed and ate itself just as their opposition Labor colleagues did in the Rudd-Gillard era. Now, the government is leaking like a sieve. The Liberals are also strapped for cash and need to splash some to make sure they retrain Wentworth, fending off any by-election threats opened up by Turnbull’s swift departure.
So he’s making it as easy for himself as possible. Older Australians watch breakfast television, and they’re more likely to vote Liberal. The interviews are short and breezy. Any appearance of depth or policy insight or probing questioning is just a mirage.
On breakfast television everyone is a “mate”. “G’day” is the standard greeting when the PM appears on a live cross from whichever campaign backdrop suits the moment: solar farms, major infrastructure sites, that weird place called Canberra. The questions are softballs.
Georgia Gardner, The Today Show: “All right, let’s add that to your to do list, Pprime Mminister, because you’ve been in the job for just month and boy, oh boy, you haven’t stopped! From the drought, to aged care, Catholic school funding, strawberry sabotage saga, you have been described as a man in constant motion. ‘ScoMomentum’ they’re calling you, fair assessment?”
“Oh definitely not,” Scott Morrison didn’t say. “I really think our lack of action on climate change, housing affordability or raising Newstart is hampering our chances of winning the next election, don’t you?”
The media has a lot to answer for in making politicians palatable. Politicians aren’t like ordinary people, even though they pretend to be. They shouldn’t be like us. I’m glad they’re not like me, for instance. I get distracted far too easily and quite like to sleep in. But that doesn’t mean their conservative views, bad decisions or personal grinding axes to grind should be airbrushed from their public image.
Morrison’s transformation began as soon as he got the top job in the messy and nasty events of August. The Australian Financial Review called him “ScoMo” on the front page, a jovial nickname, the kind of thing you’d call a bloke down the pub.
It isn’t just about respecting the person who is prime minister. There are some who contend no respect is necessary – and proceed in politics accordingly. This is about making sure journalists and those they report on are not mates. It helps if they get along but friendship is a dangerous development in journalism.
The perception of it is perhaps even worse.
Meanwhile, Morrison has accused the opposition leader, Bill Shorten, of swanning about like he owns the place. Speaking in Western Sydney, the traditional battle ground for all of our political and culture wars, Morrison said: “Bill Shorten thinks he’s already there and he’s strutting around, whether it’s Melbourne or Brisbane or Sydney or anywhere else around the country, as if he’s already in the job.”
Can you blame him? Morrison has already shown he’s not the savviest political operator and the polls certainly aren’t in his favour. He’s been backed into a corner over Australia Day and the need to change the date. Then Morrison started to brick himself in, announcing a thought bubble: maybe we could have another day as well?
This totally misses the point of changing the date, and Morrison soon distanced himself from the idea. He also reiterated the position of his predecessor, rejecting an Indigenous Voice to parliament.
Pat Dodson, Warren Snowdon and Malarndirri McCarthy – Indigenous Labor parliamentarians – issued a joint statement to say they were disappointed by the Prime Minister’s view. But they weren’t surprised.
It sums it up nicely. Morrison’s view is part of that widespread belief that politicians make the decisions and those decided upon will have to live with it, dealt with and not heard. Funny how conviction politicians have their strongest convictions when it’s out of step with the public they represent.
If only issues were as simple as the strawberry crisis.
Jasper Lindell is Woroni’s political columnist and a former news editor