Content warning: mentions of suicide and self-harm.
When it comes to Prime Ministers, Australia has had some real shockers. No one who came of age in the era of Tony Abbott’s raw onion consumption can be under any illusion that dignity and sanity are inherent to Australia’s highest political office. But having very recently escaped the black-comedic procession of errors and egregiousness that characterised the years of Scott Morrison’s Prime Ministership, it feels as though the ScoMo years were a uniquely terrible period. So, were they?
In judging which Prime Minister should be buried deepest in the bin-juice of the dustbin of history, we have to establish some criteria for what makes a bad PM.
The metric that occurred to me first is that PMs, by and large, ought to prevent the citizens they lead from dying — and, for that matter, citizens of other countries too. There are many ways in which poor leadership can lead to early deaths, and a look through Australian history provides some prime examples.
The 8,000 deaths from COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic cannot be wholly attributed to Scott Morrison, but government mismanagement played a part. The Morrison Government’s sluggishness and passivity in securing appropriate vaccine supplies saw Australia’s vaccination rates languish and gave anti-vax sentiment time to foment. Scott Morrison’s Liberal predecessor Malcolm Turnbull said at the time: “I can’t think of a bigger black and white failure of public administration than this.” Damning.
Morrison’s cavalier attitude towards the spread of Omicron in aged care homes was roundly condemned by everyone from the CEO of BaptistCare to the Queensland Nurses and Midwives Union. His recalcitrance in playing politics with locked-down states desperate for vaccines and financial aid only worsens matters. Overall, a poor performance.
Morrison is certainly not the only PM who has played fast and loose with human life. Many of the most sordid attacks on human dignity arise not out of once-in-a-century pandemics but from the everyday march of austerity. Over 2000 people died after receiving unlawful Robodebt debt recovery notices between 2016 and 2018. While the Human Services Minister at the time, Michael Keenan, rejected a causal link, the families of young people who died by suicide after receiving the notices argue that Robodebt contributed to their deaths.
The Howard Government had a penchant for ruthless attacks on workers (see: WorkChoices), and the establishment of their anti-union construction watchdog, the Australian Building and Construction Commission, saw fatalities per 100,000 workers in the construction sector spike. Construction deaths lessened after the body was abolished by the Gillard Labor Government.
Howard’s thirst for blood wasn’t confined to Australian shores — the decision to send Australian troops into Iraq based on spurious allegations of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction contributed to the wholesale murder of Iraqi civilians (most estimates conclude that well over 100,000 violent civilian deaths have occurred since 2003) and subsequent destabilisation of the region. It would be unwise to excuse malice as incompetence here: despite his protestations to the contrary, contemporaneous questions about the flimsy intelligence on WMDs were well and truly available. Following the US into war on the basis of a lie makes the Howard Government irrevocably complicit in the destruction the invasion caused.
It goes without saying that Howard’s cynical exploitation of asylum seekers and the Tampa affair created two decades and counting of Australia’s horrific treatment of refugees. In 2021, this twisted political charade saw 195 instances of self-harm in immigration detention centres.
Morrison and Howard seem to be the front-runners in the modern Prime Ministerial race to the bottom on this metric. But there are other obligations of a PM that we ought to account for.
A major obligation of any national leader is to represent their nation in the international community. Becoming an international laughing stock is a fairly reliable way to sabotage your legacy.
Undoubtedly, Tony Abbott was a persistent menace on the world stage — consistently snubbed by his fellow leaders, and looking hapless on the perimeter of international photo ops, the man’s drive to be the world’s best-known idiocrat was irrepressible. Abbott’s pettish 2014 speech to the G-20 summit eschewed statesmanship, instead complaining about the rejection of his Medicare co-payment and boasting of Australia’s status as a laggard state on climate action. The moment was described variously as “parochial”, “point-scoring”, “cringe”, and “weird and graceless”. Those adjectives double as descriptors of the pugilist’s unhinged — but ultimately empty — promise to ‘shirt-front’ Vladimir Putin.
On this metric, however, ScoMo still pulls ahead. Like Abbott, Morrison had a knack for getting photographed looking lost and rejected at international summits, and it’s no wonder. Morrison’s bumbling duplicity on Australia’s submarine deal with the French, “insulting” and “dismissive” treatment of Pacific Islands nations, and brazen absence from international climate talks depict a man with deeply undiplomatic instincts.
Given the Liberals’ economy-centric electioneering, perhaps the metric ScoMo would prefer to be judged on is economic performance. Economic success is determined by a complex mix of outcomes, but what is evident is that Liberals’ claims to be better economic managers are not borne out by data: there is no consistent trend of Liberal governments having better figures on interest rates and unemployment, or even lower taxes.
Perhaps the most telling depiction of ScoMo’s tenure comes from the reports of those within his own ranks. Liberal Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells described the PM as an “autocrat and bully who has no moral compass”, while leaked texts among senior Liberals described him as “a horrible, horrible man”, “a bully”, and “a fraud”. Pretty grim character references, all up.
Choosing Australia’s worst-ever PM is a hard job, requiring an assessment of a buffoonish set of macho-men and machiavels: Howard’s war-mongering, Abbott’s sheer ludicracy, Turnbull’s spinelessness. But perhaps what distinguishes ScoMo as a uniquely shit leader is his particular combination of crude incompetence and casual cruelty. Morrison’s legacy is a morass of directionless responses to real crises and suffering, accompanied by base, mean-minded culture-warring. Morrison banked on voters’ worst impulses — selfishness, insularity, an appetite for spin — and, thank fuck, he failed.