Politics in the Shallows

Booboisie journalism is part of the cost we pay for democracy, for, as de Tocqueville noted in 1835, censorship of the press and universal suffrage are two things which are irreconcilably opposed. The digestion of politics and its regurgitation in simplified form for the average reader is an aspect of the oiling of the machine. The resultant books are by-products of the symptomatic agitation of a free people which political journalism seeks to lead, even if the product is simplistic, bothersome, purveying of half-truths, hearsay and rumour, aiming to persuade through simplified narratives of good and evil, driven by cartoon characters and appeals to faction and prejudice.

This review appears in March’s Quadrant.
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Critics interested in the literary health of our society, though, should not promote such stuff as literature. Stephen Loosely has written that Bulldozed by Niki Savva is “the definitive study of the fall of the Morrison government” which sets “new benchmarks in forensic evaluation of the deceit that accompanies leadership changes in Canberra” with “Savva’s laser-like examination of the political players”. Paul Williams has written in the Australian Book Review: “The result is a forensically researched and brutally revealing chronicle of the days and weeks before and after the August coup—one told with the precision of an investigative journalist but in the elegant narrative style that always makes Savva a great read.” Brett Evans in the Sydney Morning Herald: “suspenseful and full of fascinating, granular detail”. Frank Bongiorno (now a professor of history!) in The Conversation: “Bulldozed is a big, sprawling book. Sometimes, it sprawls a little too much. The narrative can jump around in a way that might confuse those not already familiar with the broad outline of events. Savva is not one of the country’s great prose stylists, but there are lines here that only the humourless would complain about, such as Barnaby Joyce being ‘to Liberal voters what Roundup was to weeds’.” A Mr S. Larkin, a mere customer, opined on the Amazon website that the book was “more a collection of articles”.

Savva writes from a partisan angle, which she seems to assume the reader shares. I would say the book is more in the style of the eighteenth-century pamphlet and the squibs of pre-democratic New South Wales left lying around Farm Cove to undermine rivals for power and influence in the colony. Not much has changed—this book is in that fractious tradition. It also chimes in with the publisher’s commercial necessities—released on December 2 in time for the Christmas market, a stocking-filler for ideas. (Glebe Books in Blackheath had it marked down to $29.99 by December 4.) But the perspicacious reader can draw out its meanings for the contemporary state of our higher journalism and the level of political sophistication in Australia.

Savva tells the story of the Morrison government since its 2019 election victory, covering the lead-up to the 2022 election, the successful machinations of the Greens and the Teals, the defeat of erstwhile safe-seat Liberal MPs and the success in the election of the Albanese-led Labor Party. The first and longer part of the book is a hatchet job on Scott Morrison, which really writes itself. The effect of the concertinaed account of Morrison’s serial pratfalls in office is devastating. As a piece of writing, though, the book reads like pre-draft notes, cobbling together in a roughly chronological order the news stories and press conferences marking the stations of the cross for the Morrison government.

Interspersed at relevant points are paraphrases and quotations from interviews conducted by Savva with political participants in the events, or sometimes handy informed commentators putting in their two-pennyworth, and, quite often, just anonymous gossip. It is these interviews that have supposedly disclosed important and significant “revelations”. The material has been organised into topical chapters: the Hawaiian holiday, the religious associations, Morrison’s conduct of the national cabinet during the Covid emergency, his interference with preselections, bushfire bloopers, the handling of the Brittany Higgins affair, the failure to deal with the Teal movement, the unsuccessful election campaign, and finally the revelations about Morrison’s extra ministerial appointments.

Savva has asked a lot of questions but proffers little in the way of considered answers. She rarely advances an incisive or coherent personal opinion but tends to adopt or repeat the opinions of others. It is perhaps significant that in her more personal “Acknowledgments” section at the end she writes: “If Morrison had won, there would have been no story, and while I would have been free of the burden of having to write Bulldozed, it would have triggered a crisis of faith in Australian voters.” Good Booboisie stuff.

The story is all told within the familiar constrained frame of the personality psychodrama that is the narrative of Australian politics, mostly based on the usual binary oppositions of Labor and Liberal (not as distinct political philosophies any more, but as organisational soap opera and sociopathy), climate change and climate sceptic, activist and misogynist. Here is an example: 

Among his detractors, and there were many, Morrison was regarded as the worst prime minister since Billy McMahon. After news of his secret ministries emerged, they revised that to say he was worse than McMahon. Worse even than Tony Abbott, who lasted a scant two years in the job, whose chief accomplishments were that he destroyed Julia Gillard and then himself, and then, aided and abetted by Dutton and Morrison, destroyed Turnbull.

This passage contains many characteristics of the book: the repetition of anonymous material and hearsay as important fact which must be taken by the reader on faith, the confusing elision of the opinions of others with those of Savva, the lack of analysis of any principles and practice of government, the cartoon presentation of individual politicians, and the general sense of bathos accompanying the whole exercise. Savva laments the decline of the Liberal Party, for whom she once worked, and she marshals opinions about why it is in trouble. Those opinions are often not particularly edifying: “‘There were prayers in the prime minister’s office, and crap like that,’ one MP said. ‘People were going in there and praying. It was just f****d.’” “One woman said that the prime minister was behaving ‘like a toddler having a tantrum’.”

“Writers, like teeth, are divided into incisors and grinders,” wrote Walter Bagehot. Niki Savva is a grinder. The book is “forensic” in the accumulation of details and the opinions of others (though the forensics did not extend to providing an index), but not in any interesting analysis, insight or explication. When the narrative fixation on personalities encounters a meaty issue, like the introduction of optional preferential voting, the asserted failures of the national cabinet (a constitutional innovation worthy of some discussion), the cashless debit card, the involvement of transgender men in women’s sport or the appointment of Morrison as a minister to administer departments for which a responsible minister was already appointed, there is no useful explanation or discussion of the underlying legal or political issues. Savva is no Andrew Marr or Lord Hennessy.

The politicians are described in terms that suggest they are mythical characters, following some tragic or comedic trajectory that has significance for all of us. But are they not mostly, at least the most senior of them, the flotsam and jetsam left over from Whitlam’s free universities and their Student Representative Councils, who discovered in themselves, in the free environment that existed in universities in those days, a preternatural ability to get ahead in organisational hierarchies by giving in to their worst instincts, rather than any ability for or attraction to objectively worthwhile occupations and professions?

Here is one of Savva’s risible summations of Albanese, not perhaps a comforting advertisement for a person seeking responsible political office: 

Unlike some of his other acquaintances, Plibersek knew way back then that Albanese would make it. She thought that, though he lacked polish, he had outstanding natural leadership abilities. He was a firebrand. He was confident. He could make decisions quickly, he would stand his ground, and he would stare down his opponents. He was the kind of person who would pull the pin on a grenade and hold it till his opponents surrendered, or keep holding it until it exploded. He would take everyone down with him if necessary to convince them of the rightness of his actions.

Dealing with Josh Frydenberg’s trouncing in his seat of Kooyong, Savva writes: 

Josh Frydenberg’s loss in Kooyong left him unable to fulfil—for the time being at least—what seemed predestined. That he would lead the Liberal Party. That he would become the first Jewish prime minister of Australia. That he would be the first prime minister from Victoria since Malcolm Fraser in 1975.

Savva indulges in an earnest sifting of the reasons why this man’s “dream” and “destiny” to become the leader of the Liberal Party and prime minister had been dashed from his grasp, as if the country owed him a successful political career. The main answer to most of the Liberal woes is “There is no doubt that Morrison’s unpopularity cost Frydenberg his seat”. She says Frydenberg “lost every which way”: undermined by Simon Holmes a Court due to a petty falling out (instigated by Frydenberg), manipulated by Morrison into staying loyal and not mounting a leadership challenge, making the mistake of debating Monique Ryan and choosing to stay at The Lodge. Even through Savva’s restraint, her description portrays a bright, cosseted, maladroit and over-praised personality, who thought the way to save his seat was to erect East Asian-style strongman hoardings in conspicuous places shouting the words “Keep Josh”, an invitation to Australian voters, if there ever was one, to give him the boot. But all this ignores the real problems: Frydenberg just didn’t do much as Treasurer, was happy at times to act as Morrison’s hatchet man and cut his jib to be successor whatever it took. And then again, the bathos: “‘Loyal to a fault’, was how he would describe himself, and he was right. Later, he would say that if he got back, he would be different.”

Savva does not apply “forensic” analysis to these people. She just assumes that the interests and controversies of her characters have intrinsic value and importance, what I would call the “Everest syndrome” of Australian politics—they are important because they are there, even if their achievements, ideas and motivations are perfunctory and mediocre. Savva has spent her working life serving politicians and as a journalist writing about the same people. This experience is advertised on the cover page of the book as a recommendation when in fact it is deleterious to her ability to think independently and outside the bubble. Australia deserves better criticism of its politics.

The most touted “revelations” in the book are those from Frydenberg about Morrison’s extra ministerial appointments. The book was completed before the release of the November 2022 Bell Report commissioned by Albanese, but after the Solicitor-General had issued his opinion that the appointments were legal but the failure to make them public undermined principles of responsible government. Savva writes that the appointments were “profoundly wrong on every level” without identifying any of the levels. In her opening chapter Savva creates a good deal of confusion rushing between interviews with different players, none of whom provide a consistent or conclusive account of what happened, engaging in the journalistic fetish of who-knew-what-when and who-said-what-to-whom-when Morrison had himself appointed as minister responsible for resources and overrode Keith Pitt’s ministerial job of determining an exploration licence extension. The value of this exercise is doubtful. The Bell Report provides a more succinct and useful record.

Savva returns to the topic in her last chapter. She blames the Governor-General, Major-General David Hurley, for undermining responsible government by failing to “see it as his duty or responsibility to notify the public that the prime minister had secretly sworn himself in to five additional portfolios”. This is not based on any referenced research into governmental principles, conventions or practice; Savva simply lambastes Hurley by applying what the Solicitor-General had said about Morrison to the Governor-General. Savva quotes another anonymous source (“a former staffer”) to the effect that the acquiescence of the Governor-General was a result of weak institutions, processes and people, and that Hurley should have written a letter stating his disapproval of the appointments. That would appear to go beyond the recognised capacities of the governor-general when provided with prime ministerial advice to make ministerial appointments under section 64 of the Constitution, he having only the right to be consulted, to encourage and to warn. What sort of outcry would have been raised if the representative of the Crown had expressed publicly and in writing disagreement and disapproval of such ministerial advice? The Bell Report confirmed that the appointments were lawful and made no criticism of the Governor-General, finding that in fact the responsibility for gazetting these appointments lay with the Prime Minister’s Office.

Savva secured an interview with Frydenberg about the appointment of Morrison to the Treasury portfolio. Frydenberg, she says, was furious. The appointment, he said, was “wrong and profoundly disappointing”, it was “extreme overreach”. Frydenberg said he knew about the earlier appointment of Morrison to the health portfolio in March 2020. That appointment was also not made public. Frydenberg must have been part of the informal “leadership group” which the Bell Report found knew about that appointment, but which took no steps to have it made public. The Bell Report also recorded Michael McCormack’s evidence that at the time this group was told that Morrison might take and fill other senior ministerial roles, as the case arises, and none of them raised any concerns about this. Savva’s forensics don’t cover any of this, but she details Frydenberg’s convoluted attempts to think of reasons why Morrison “betrayed” him, all of which seems to be pointless surmise, revealing nothing. In the end neither Frydenberg nor Savva provides any satisfactory reasons, and in truth Morrison, like Iago, seems to be motivated by a need to engage in purposeless manipulation.

The problem with Scott Morrison is that he is the final product of the system with which Savva has collaborated. Savva’s portrait of Morrison reveals no deep insight. She prefers to repeat many observations of his colleagues (sometimes anonymously): he and his office were “too blokey”, he was too presidential in style, he was very tactical, he hated Matt Kean, he became addicted to executive authority, he lacked empathy, he was paranoid, he was constantly reinventing himself, he believed his own bullshit, he didn’t seem to stand for any particular values, he was a bit of a bulldozer. At one moment he is an “evangelical idiot” pushing the selection of Katherine Deves as a candidate, in the next he is a clever and intelligent manipulator of events and people, apparently smarter than him, in order to get the top job and stay there. But was he really much different from quite a few of his predecessors, who just wanted to be prime minister, and when they got there had little idea what to do with it? They all had different personalities but cataloguing what they were like might be not as profitable or interesting an exercise as working out why our society is now led by such hollow men and women and why they are enabled by the journo-politico clerisy to conduct themselves irresponsibly. Savva revels in the superficial drama of the system instead of deconstructing it.

An aspect of the book so far little commented on is the coincidence that Morrison in particular, and the Liberal Party more generally, are depicted as unable to do anything worthwhile or having any political virtue, whereas the Labor Party and its campaign managers, the Greens and the Teals all get a free and uncritical ride. One supposes that if your capacity to write books about Australian politics that contain saleable and blurbable “revelations” is reliant on access to the surviving senior players, then one cannot be too critical of the game they are playing. It’s safe to carry out a hatchet job on Morrison, because, let’s face it, he is now toast. The other targets of the book are Katherine Deves, who also lost (Savva spends twenty-four pages devoted to her candidature being a huge mistake), the Governor-General, who cannot respond, and Kimberley Kitching, who is dead.

The book is strangely uncritical of the remaining personnel of potential power and influence on both sides of politics—Frydenberg, Dutton, the Mean Girls of the Labor Party, Albanese and his senior colleagues, the Greens and even, oddly, Kristina Keneally. The female “rebels” of the Liberal Party, like Bridget Archer and Fiona Martin, who crossed the floor, made public statements against party policy and spoke out of turn to the media, are championed and approved, whereas Kitching, a Labor rebel, is denounced: 

Soon after, on 10 March, tragedy struck, threatening to derail Labor. It also threw the government completely off track. The untimely death of Labor Senator Kimberly Kitching, at the age of 52 from a heart attack, triggered a flood of recriminations that led to three of Labor’s most effective advocates being sidelined for weeks by a concerned campaign to damage them as well as Albanese and his deputy, Richard Marles.

It’s bad when these things happen to the new incumbents! Savva goes out of her way to refute any possible bad behaviour by Labor’s female leaders and provides them with detailed exculpations. She mentions they had all experienced personal tragedies, as if that were relevant. And then: 

So, for those who knew them and knew about their experiences, the notion that they were callous or would act out of spite towards Kitching was ridiculous … The bullying accusations were not taken seriously by insiders who knew what had happened.

The public can be reassured, then, that the in-club do not accept the allegations about Wong, Keneally and Gallagher. Kitching is criticised for having acted on a genuine apprehension about Chinese Communist Party influence in Australia, for publicly questioning Mike Burgess of ASIO about its concerns about Chau Chak Wing. Kitching had told Savva that she did this for transparency. But this usually much-admired aspiration for women within the Liberal Party is not satisfactory when bucking Labor. In a rare advancing of an opinion of her own, Savva writes: 

It seemed to me that Kitching had dropped her own side in it by pursuing Burgess so vigorously … she said “they”—meaning her colleagues—thought she had been put up to it by the prime minister’s office … None of her colleagues had said any such thing to me then, in fact they were wary about responding to queries about her.

But there may be good reasons not to tell Savva anything. And on the page before this, Savva records that Kitching “was accused of briefing Coalition MPs, former Liberal Party officials and even senior staff in the prime minister’s office”. She does not say who made those accusations, but it is unlikely to have been the Liberals.

Keneally’s loss of the seat of Fowler is ascribed to the Covid lockdowns and troublesome local party members and the mayor, who took a stand against Keneally. Unlike with the Deves preselection, those responsible, Albanese and his campaign managers Gartrell and Erikson, are not criticised for pushing Keneally, and the fact that Keneally herself may not be popular (she failed to win Bennelong in 2017) or that the offence to the local electors was such that it caused a seat with a 14 per cent margin in favour of Labor to be lost, is never explored.

Savva attempts to illustrate that “parachuting” outsiders in is not a problem by citing the success of Andrew Charlton in Parramatta, where, Savva says, only the Liberals carped. Simple research reveals that in fact the outgoing Labor MP, Julia Owens, publicly complained about Charlton’s preselection overriding local Tamil and Indian candidates. And Charlton won despite Parramatta having only a 3 per cent margin in favour of Labor, his way being smoothed by promises of a $3.5 million tourist hub celebrating South Asian communities and $6.5 million worth of Sri Om Care ethno-specific aged care services, which the compliant local mayor naturally supported. Charlton was a better candidate with a better message.

Savva’s essential thesis about the election is that it was lost because of Morrison’s unpopularity, even in the seats where the Teals succeeded. For example, she claims that in “just about” every booth in North Sydney, voters said they wanted to vote for Trent Zimmerman but couldn’t vote for Morrison. Zimmerman is presented as a victim of the Deves preselection. This analysis of the Teal victory is, in my view, quite wrong. The Voices of North Sydney had conducted in-depth surveys of the electorate, mainly by face-to-face interviews with many of the voters, and collated results, ranked in order of importance, on which they wanted their local MP to represent them. Zimmerman was the only candidate who refused to attend a candidate forum organised by the Voices.

The Voices arranged to meet with him and delivered the results of their research, asking him to speak for them in Parliament on the major voter concerns of climate change and integrity in federal politics. He told them, in effect, that it was his job to decide what was important for the voters. The reasons the Teals succeeded were fourfold: first, they were all overtly uncorrupted people; second, they were all people who had engaged in careers and interests other than politics for most of their working lives and in which they applied to some worthwhile end a proper education; third, they were all, largely because of the first two elements, engaged in their communities in some real way; and fourth, they were prepared to represent the voters on the immediate issues of concern to them.

Such people were once regarded as “good citizens” and worthy of entering politics. The current employment scheme run by the main political parties is manned by people who do not regard the Teals as worthwhile politicians but as “doctors’ wives”. Savva quotes even the sainted Nick Minchin to the effect that the Teals may feel differently about politics after they have had to attend to working their electorates. Such is the institutional prejudice they face.

I would suggest that, contrary to the standard impoverished presentation of politics in Australia as class war, snakes-and-ladders economics and envy-go-round, Australian voters are not averse to educated middle-class representatives going into politics after other careers, and, indeed, understand that once the parliaments that established the country and survived two world wars were full of such people. And so it was for what once was Labor politics, peopled by men and women who had held working-class employment, knew how practical things that benefited the community worked, and had an honest belief in the ameliorative potential of socialism. Now politics is peopled by cynics and time-servers, reliant on a tribe of party-selected “staffers”, expert in devising immature japes to remain in power, all scrabbling over the remaining titles and baubles, engaged in a co-operative game of Buggins’s turn, and exemplified by Scott Morrison. They are hardy and hidebound, can survive with very little water, and, like Paterson’s Curse, have too easily proliferated, taken over and poisoned the field. Savva’s book is an apt monument to them.

Bulldozed: Scott Morrison’s Fall and Anthony Albanese’s Rise
by Niki Savva

Scribe, 2022, 400 pages, $35

Matthew White is a Senior Counsel in Sydney.

5 thoughts on “Politics in the Shallows

  • BalancedObservation says:

    Niki Savva has been around for a long time in the halls of power and has had a lot of experience in day-to-day politics but, despite all that, in my view, she’s a lightweight as a commentator.
    You might not like the personal political views of say Michelle Grattan who’s also had a great depth of experience and longevity as a political commentator. But I’d argue as a commentator she’s fair, balanced, extremely well informed and quite specific where she needs to be. It’s unsurprising she’s respected by both side of politics.

  • BalancedObservation says:

    A factor in the teal’s win was not that they’d had previous real jobs, as admirable as that might be in contrast with career political operators from the major parties.
    An extremely high percentage of all independents who have stood for office have had real jobs and they haven’t been as successful as the teals were this time. And it should be remembered that the teals didn’t poll all that many votes in total. Their successes were more obvious because they were strategically important.
    The teals were helped by a virtual policy vaccum. Labor ran a dishonest but successful small target campaign and the Coalition offered nothing new.
    The actual election results reflect that – both major parties polled poorly at the election. Labor has improved hugely in the polls since the election and the Liberals have declined below the 70-year-low they suffered at the election. That’s happened NOT under Scott Morrison’s leadership but that of the hapless Peter Dutton.
    In addition the teals were extremely well funded for independents.

  • BalancedObservation says:

    Here’s a tip for anyone wishing to comment on this interesting article: don’t try and sign in here. You’ll probably won’t be able to sign in. You’re likely to be met with a message that you’ve blocked cookies and you need to unblock them. You still won’t be able to sign in.
    Simply sign in on the second article and you’ll be ok. Hope that’s helped.

  • BalancedObservation says:

    It seems that everyone including Labor, Liberals, commentators and possibly even the writer of this article attribute the election loss in significant part to what is essentially a myth: the dire unpopularity of Scott Morrison.
    It’s a reflection of the echo chamber that political commentary has become in this country. So are the comments from other commentators that this article quotes about Niki Savva’s book.
    I’m not saying Scott Morrison wasn’t unpopular among commentators. It’s pretty obvious that he was and continues to be. He seems to grow even more unpopular by the day with commentators. But in nearly every preferred PM poll he led Anthony Albanese by a clear margin. However commentators seem to prefer the straw poll in their narrow echo chamber of other commentators.
    Scott Morrison conveniently seems to be gaining steadily in unpopularity among election postmortem Liberals too. So nice to have someone to blame it all on, so they can ignore the irrelevant policy free zone the Liberal party has become over recent years.
    The facts are that the Liberal Party is polling far worse under Peter Dutton than it polled under Scott Morrison at the last election and Peter Dutton would be elated to poll as well as Scott Morrison did in preferred PM polls.
    But you won’t hear continuously and monotonously in the mainstream left media how unpopular Peter Dutton is, as we heard about Scott Morrison in that media. Nor will you hear how disastrously the Coalition is now polling under Peter Dutton. Why? They’re happy to see Peter Dutton as leader because there’s no hope he could ever win an election.
    And the longer everyone continues to blame the last election loss on Scott Morrison’s unpopularity the less likely the Liberals are to wake up to themselves and look to fix their weaknesses and become competitive with Labor. That also would make the left very happy.

  • Charles says:

    Firstly, I’m surprised that Scott Morrison doesn’t like Matt Keane, he hid that well. Obviously to the average Liberal voter Matt Keane is complete anathema, and if ScoMo didn’t like him then why did he spit in the face of long term Liberal voters and support the Matt Keane agenda, that makes no sense.

    Apart from that, traditional Liberal voters should sue the Liberal party for fraud, as there are hardly any left in the party who represent what historical Liberal party values are, and they are now more of a uniparty ticket with the Left and even in some cases the Extreme Left (see Matt Keane). They are aren’t what they are supposed to be and they have no right to be representing people who hold completely different views to the public servants and party apparatchiks that currently occupy parliamentary and senior positions in the Liberal party.

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