I once attended a lecture by the critic James Wood, in which he quoted from a letter written by his wife, novelist Claire Messud: “There is this strangeness of a life story having no shape – or more accurately, nothing but its present – until it has its ending; and then suddenly the whole trajectory is visible.” Wood made an additional point: that there is something about the arrival of death that serves to flatten a life. At that moment, we become one of millions. While we are living, though, we tend to forget this fact: we are far too busy to dwell on such matters, engaged in the demanding task of writing the story of our own life. It is only after it ends that this task is handed to others.
Scott Morrison’s government has not reached its ending. And yet there was a sense last week that its story was being brought to resolution, major themes revisited one final time, loose plot-ends tied up neatly, as though the scriptwriters were in a rush before the credits rolled.
On Tuesday, the former Attorney-General Christian Porter gave his valedictory speech, which served as reminder of the crisis around gender inequality and violence that consumed so much of the government’s term. On that day, too, came the brutal speech of Liberal senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, labeling Morrison a bully “not fit to be Prime Minister”. This was followed a few days later by the revelation of statutory declarations alleging Morrison had used racist tactics to win preselection, followed by a public statement from the alleged victim of those tactics.
One of the most important facts about Morrison’s career is how successful he has been, through much of it, in dictating the story that is told. He is not “ruthless” or “fickle”; instead he is “pragmatic”, a word he often used about himself before it was taken up by media. The most important facts about him before the last election were, it often seemed, the fact he liked footy and cooked curry. Then there was the suggestion he had little to do with the three most important political events of his life: his preselection, and the removals of Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull.
The most interesting fact about last week was that Morrison was no longer telling his own story. To some extent, that has been true all year. As though Morrison’s prime ministership were already in the past, others have taken over the narration: Grace Tame, Coalition MPs (via text message), Towke and Fierravanti-Wells. Even the story of the budget, usually so tightly managed, seemed this year to be seized by others, with media across the board presenting it as largely a political exercise.
Did Anthony Albanese’s opposition always mean to wait this long until it began telling its own story? There must have been moments, in the past month, when it worried it had missed its chance. Last week, Albanese properly began the task of telling a coherent tale about a government he might lead. Interestingly, its coherence came from ideology. “Care” – aged care, childcare, healthcare – was dominant, but there were many mentions of “climate” and of “wages” too, all presented within the context that it “is only Labor that ever does the big reforms”.
There is an irony here. Morrison no longer has control of his own narrative. In a way, though, he remains the most important author of Labor’s. This often happens: much of Kevin Rudd’s early agenda came directly from what the Howard government hadn’t done: signing the Kyoto Protocol, the Apology. The same was true of Tony Abbott: stopping the boats and scrapping the carbon price. This can be a way of telling when an old government is approaching the end: to what extent has it done the opposition’s work for it?
An Albanese government would be kept busy for some time with such matters. Delivering on a national integrity commission, the Jenkins report into sexual harassment and the Uluru Statement, as well as fixing aged care and doing something credible on climate change. But what happens after that? At some point a new Albanese government would have to write its own story, without Morrison’s prompts. This is often where first-term governments get into trouble.
Albanese’s saving might well be what currently seems like a weak spot: the sense of him as ideological. As a former colleague recently remarked, coming up with an agenda in government is hard. But it is made easier if you have a clear sense of the direction in which you want to head. Albanese’s budget reply was not merely a pitch for government administered by Labor; it was for a Labor government. It is possible to read this too as determined by Morrison’s own flaws. Thirteen times Albanese said “I believe”, surely a response to the sense that Morrison believes in little.
If there is still a chance for Morrison to challenge the story Albanese wants to tell, then it lies in the gaps Albanese has deliberately left. He will be pressed for more details; the decision whether to provide them is a tough one. What are Albanese’s “big reforms” – are they the changes he has already promised? There will be Coalition speculation about what might come in government.
We might think we see the trajectory of Morrison’s government already, but that is an illusion. Morrison will not lightly give away the opportunity to keep writing his own political story. Albanese’s recent interviews suggest a new assuredness – but there was also a moment, last week, when he failed to rule out new taxes. Morrison leaped on it. Labor has since made its position clearer, but it was a reminder that telling the stories you want to tell, about yourself and others, without interference, is a skill – and one that Morrison, with one successful campaign under his belt, has had more practice at than Albanese.