Crispin Hull / The Australian Way

There on the slim pamphlet cobbled together at the last minute by Prime Minister Scott Morrison before the Glasgow climate conference were the words: “The Australian Way”.

It was a glossy, catchy phrase appropriated by Scotty from Marketing. But we have seen the phrase before – for a long time it was the name of the monthly in-flight Qantas magazine.

The in-flight magazine was glossy, but at least there was a clear route to the destination; proven technology to get there and accurate costings.

If Qantas had not already changed its magazine’s name, it would have had to in the wake of Morrison’s thorough trashing of the meaning of the phrase in the past couple of weeks, not just on net-zero, but also on his handling of AUKUS and the nuclear-submarine debacle.

In doing that trashing, Morrison inflicted a bit of shame on all of us.

I used to think that the Australian Way meant people being hard-working, realistic and practical with no bullshit.

People inspiration and never giving up concept

But what is Morrison’s net-zero carbon emissions via the Australian Way? It was quickly cobbled together. There was no hard work with modelling. It is not realistic, but a fantasy relying on as-yet unproven technology. It was the lazy way out. Doing nothing and hoping for the best.

The original Australian Way decried bludgers, expected everyone to do their fair share and required a bit of effort and sacrifice. Under Morrison’s Australian Way, we can continue with new coal mines, coal exports and pretty much business as usual while the rest of the world does the heavy lifting.

Is it the Australian Way to ignore the pleas of your mates and neighbours as we have done to Pacific Islanders who face the inundation of their homes with rising sea levels?

In this harsh land, Australians have got a reputation for ingenuity and adaptability. But Morrison’s Australian Way is to practically ignore the new opportunities of renewable energy.

Then Morrison took his Australian Way pamphlet to the Glasgow climate conference via the G20. It was apparent that Australia was not pulling its weight and Morrison was looking weak, vulnerable and out of his depth in the big international arena.

As it happened, the pre-Glasgow G20 conference brought Australian journalists face-to-face with French President Emmanuel Macron. Various French officials and Ministers have accused Australia of duplicity over the decision to dump the $90 billion contract with France to build conventional submarines without any notice while all along pretending that the contract would stay on foot.

One of the Australian journalists asked Macron whether he thought Morrison had lied to him.

Macron shot back, “I don’t think. I know.”

This was not going to be an unprovable he-said-she-said matter, because US President Joe Biden chimed in sympathising with the French position.

Morrison’s reaction to Macron exposes yet again his character and way of thinking.

Macron was quite pointed in saying that he had “a lot of respect and friendship” for the Australian people.

So how did Morrison respond? With a mash of deflection and deliberate misinterpretation. Morrison said he would not accept “statements questioning Australia’s integrity”.

“But those slurs, I’m not going to cop sledging at Australia,” he said. “I’m not going to cop that on behalf of Australians.”

Guess what? Australians are not asking Morrison to cop the questioning of our integrity on our behalf. Our integrity was not questioned by Macron. Morrison’s was.

It was clever. Morrison presumably thought Australians would be jingoistic and xenophobic enough to think, “How dare this French President accuse Australia of lying”. But that, I hope, is not the Australian Way.

Morrison then cleverly said, “I don’t want to personalise this. There’s no element of that from my perspective. I must say that I think the statements that were made questioning Australia’s integrity and the slurs that have been placed on Australia, not me, I’ve got broad shoulders. I can deal with that. 

“I can deal with whatever people throw at me. But Australia has a proud record when it comes to our defence capability. That’s why we will be building these. We’ll be building others. And Australia’s service record, I think needs no elaboration. And so that’s where we are.”

Morrison desperately tried to deflect the sting. Macron did not accuse Australia of lying. He accused Morrison of lying. It was personal. It was meant to be personal. For very good reason. It was deserved. No wonder Morrison said he did not want to “personalise it”. Of course, he didn’t when it was his character in question, not that of Australia or Australians.

Morrison’s illogical deflection to Australia’s defence capability again was a misleading distraction. France has never questioned Australia’s right to make sovereign decisions about its defence, even breaking the contract with the French, subject to contractual penalties. But the French are rightly angry and hurt because Morrison had pretended to the French that the contract was still on foot.

And then a private text message from Macron to Morrison leaked (and it could only have come from Morrison’s office and Morrison has not denied it). The text purported to suggest that Macron knew Australia was going to change course on the submarines. It did no such thing. At best it was ambiguous.

But it made clear that Morrison will happily trash the confidentiality of communications with foreign leaders for short-term domestic political advantage.

After the bushfire debacle in January last year, I wrote: “When you look at the seriousness that Fraser, Hawke, Keating and Howard brought to the prime ministerial task, Morrison does not cut it. He is just a grab bag of slogans and PR mush. He is happy to apply any slogan or fake news to win an instant cheap point against his opponents or to try to justify the unjustifiable.”

His response to well-founded criticisms his handling of the bushfires, vaccines, quarantine, net-zero, submarines and grants rorts shows nothing has changed. It is a matter of character.

One can only hope that foreigners do not see Morrison’s Australian Way as a true reflection of our national character, but it must have done some damage to the national reputation and we are all the poorer for it.

This article was first published in The Canberra Times and rother Australian media on 6 November 2021.

Crispin Hull BA, LLB (Hons) | Property Convenor  |  ANU School of Legal Practice Lawyer of the Supreme Court of the ACT, on the Register of Practitioners kept by the High Court of Australia