Giggles and Groans at Boris Johnson’s Sydney Show

Scott Morrison introduced him as “Bo-Jo!” and the scruffy-haired, dumpy, charmingly befuddled former UK Prime Minister stepped onto the podium amid rapturous applause. Boris Johnson was in Sydney and he did exactly as you would expect: he played to the crowd. That is to say, he played to the crowd until he talked policy.

The 2023 John Howard Lecture was a curious event. Morrison spoke competently and with conviction about the former British prime minister’s emphasis on sovereignty. John Howard is a superb elder statesman and reminded us with his response to, and interview with, Johnson why he could win over a party room and a nation for so long .

Boris was a mixed bag. The 1000-strong audience at the Fullerton Hotel ballroom waited with baited breath. Johnson peered out with gaiety in his eyes, ready to crack his first joke. In many ways his very persona is the joke. Johnson acts baffled, looks unkempt and speaks in a manner that makes one think of Bertie Wooster. He did not disappoint the crowd gathered under the auspices of the Menzies Research Centre (whose video of the address is embedded below).

Johnson opened with a cracking tale about being mistakenly invited to be a visiting fellow in European Thought at Monash University. He reportedly turned up in Clayton and carried out his duties by raging against the European Union, despite them getting the wrong Johnson. This anti-EU passion is what makes him a true conservative hero in the Anglophone world. He made the case for Brexit and helped the Tories execute it.

For this, he is rightly lauded, despite the shambles that Brexit has turned out to be, and despite the current Tory administration helicoptering in Johnson’s referendum opponent as the new Foreign Secretary. British politics can be boring, but it certainly isn’t at this juncture.

Neither was Johnson’s lecture, which was replete with some ill-prepared and oddly delivered praises of Australia’s greatest living prime minister, John Howard, along with fond recollections of working with Scott Morrison on AUKUS and the COVID pandemic. The latter issue was one on which Johnson came unstuck. I have no reason to doubt that he was speaking with real conviction, but public revelations about the efficacy and safety of the various COVID vaccines, including the AstraZeneca vaccine upon which Johnson heaped praise, made his extensive and repeated comments about Western democratic triumph in the face of the pandemic seem hollow, even tone-deaf.

Perhaps even more egregious was his doubling down on “net-zero.” Australia is in the throes of a serious debate about this issue, and the recent COP28 meeting in Dubai reveals that any utopian transition from fossil fuels is surely a pipe dream. Nevertheless, Boris, complete with a comical grumpy frown at the Australian chain-draggers, repeated his call for a zero-carbon future.

The room, filled with Liberal Party policy wonks, conservative-minded business leaders and other interested onlookers, seemed unsure how to respond to this. A collective sigh of relief was released when Johnson moved from propounding “green free-market” solutions to proclaiming “We need nuclear!” The audience broke out into enthusiastic cheers and applause, a sentiment which reflects the seemingly inexorable direction of energy policy in Australia. Nuclear must become our baseload, and it must do so as soon as possible.

Much of the rest of the speech was taken up with Johnson imitating Winston Churchill, the topic of his recent book. He has obviously lost none of his passion on the issue of Ukraine. “They will win, and they must win!”, Johnson cried while pounding the podium. He then claimed “they are fighting for all of us, and for freedom everywhere.” That received a smattering of applause, but most of the crowd would have been all too aware that military and diplomatic realities point away from a Ukrainian victory. Many world leaders, including those in the White House and Congress, seem to have realised that, while Putin may not exactly win, Ukraine will probably lose.

Johnson’s rhetoric of placing freedom in a cosmic battle against autocracy came across as hollow. He located Ukraine alongside Israel, arguing that we need to “stick up for these two democracies.” Democracies, plural? Ukraine might be under the thumb of a Russian autocrat, and perhaps the Ukrainians aspire to democratic credentials, but Volodymyr Zelensky’s government is hardly the equivalent of New Zealand’s or Norway’s.

This is why, I suppose, Johnson had to widen his lens to unveil a “great global continuum of evil,” wherein he grouped Iran, Russia and China. Once again, evil autocracies versus virtuous democracies. As virtuous democracies, we must fight for freedom everywhere against every foe. Even in Nagorno-Karabakh, I asked myself? Will we also go into Guyana?

It is a nice idea to fight for freedom against evil, just as it is a nice idea to abandon dirty fossil fuels in favour of green free-market alternatives. But Bo-Jo, as he was affectionately introduced by Sco-Mo, seemed out of touch. Luckily, he was a barrel of laughs, which covered a multitude of sins.

Simon Kennedy is an Associate Editor at Quadrant. He is also a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Queensland and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Danube Institute

18 thoughts on “Giggles and Groans at Boris Johnson’s Sydney Show

  • Sindri says:

    “Ukraine might be under the thumb of a Russian autocrat”
    A smarmy and vile remark. Ukraine is under attack and at war. Not quite possible to be “Norway or New Zealand” in those circumstances.

  • Sindri says:

    And spare us the strawmen. “Iran, Russia and China. Once again, evil autocracies versus virtuous democracies”
    I’m curious: would Mr Kennedy describe Iran, Russia and China?
    “Virtuous democracies? By no means, but light years ahead of Iran, Russia and China.

    • Simon Kennedy says:

      I think you’re missing the point, which is definitely not to relativize the horrible and outrageous actions of Putin and Russia, nor do I want to diminish the horrors that are occurring to Ukraine and her people. My point is that Johnson is an exemplar of geopolitical and international relations idealism that divides the world into moral and immoral, good and evil. But this kind of rhetoric covers over the underlying reality that nations act in self-interest to protect access to resources and to gain power. Johnson is, perhaps naively, providing rhetorical cover for what is basically western self-interest. If the UK, the EU, and the US really wanted to defeat Russia and “defend democracy”, they would have done so by now. But they have chosen not to take that course of action, presumably because it isn’t in their geopolitical interests to do so. Hence my cynicism about Johnson’s talk of democracy vs. autocracy.

      • Occidental says:

        Idealism is often the description applied post facto to a failed policy or a loss. The support of Ukraine upon the basis that it weakens Russia (possibly to the point of collapse), in turn weakening China and forestalling its territorial ambitions is hardly a policy of idealism, but one of base pragmatism. The fact that support of Ukraine coincidentally is support for a democracy against a state that has been a threat to Western Europe and international norms since WWII is merely icing on the cake. Make no mistake if Ukraine fails or “loses” it will be a monumental loss for the West. By the way quite obviously, Johnson as a former Prime Minister of core Western state, can not publicly articulate any other rationale for the support of Ukraine. Likewise the support for Kuwait was never about oil.

        • Simon Kennedy says:

          That’s an interesting point about post-facto analysis. In this case, I am using idealism to describe a way of thinking about international relations. I don’t think we know much about how this war is helping or hindering anyone at the moment, apart from it holding Russia at bay in Eastern Europe. That is no small thing, I agree.

        • Lewis P Buckingham says:

          Agreed Occidental.
          You have to look at the calibre of those involved .
          Stoltenberg is quite sanguine and pragmatic in a seminal interview.
          “We know that most wars end at the negotiating table,” he said. “But what happens at the negotiating table is totally dependent on the situation on the battlefield, so we have to ensure that Ukraine has the strongest possible position to uphold the right to self-defense, to protect their sovereign nation, and that’s exactly what NATO allies are doing.” The point for Stoltenberg is to make sure whatever concessions Ukraine does make are on its terms.
          Yesterday Ukraine claimed 1140 Russians ‘eliminated’, together with 15 tanks and 19 APV’s with 15 artillery systems and 3 MLRS.
          The Russian casualties are appalling.
          The Ukranians have a greater self interest,survival, than the Russians who can always withdraw with impunity.
          Always back self interest, at least you know its working hard.

      • Sindri says:

        Thanks for this explanation. You are, nevertheless, setting up a straw-man here when you talk about “geopolitical and international relations idealism that divides the world into moral and immoral, good and evil”. No sensible person, not me, and I am quite sure not Boris Johnson, asserts that democracies are repositories of perfect virtue and Russia or China are pits of utter wickedness. Obviously there is a lot going horribly wrong in the west; China has in the space of a few decades transformed itself. Reality is more nuanced. But for all their corruptions and wretched failures, democratic countries such as Australia are still light-years ahead of your Russia, China or Iran by every measure you can think of: opportunity, fairness, rule of law, corruption and protection of the individual.
        It used to be lefties who, safe, warm and with full stomachs, droned on self-indulgently about the rottenness of their society while cheering on dictators and murderers. It’s incredibly distasteful to observe the contemporary phenomenon of conservatives doing the same thing. Just look at the excuses made for Putin (the same thing occurred in the 30s). It’s childish, too: to take at face value the platitudes of someone like Putin on social issues, and conclude that he’s a jolly fine chap with amoral backbone, when the reality is that his actions, public and indeed private, are wholly at variance with his words.
        Grown-ups realise that there’s no alternative but to try to make our flawed society better, difficult as that may be.
        I’m not suggesting that I’ve described your attitudes, but any thinking person worried about the trajectory of our society, as I am, should set their face against cheering on politicians (our own and others) who tear down core values. That applies to people like Orban, whom I assume you admire. There’s no doubt plenty to like about Orban, but the fact remains that his government completely controls the state broadcaster and has corrupted the courts. Yes, I know, the ABC is biased and there are activist judges in Australia, but nothing like in Hungary. Do you approve of that because the corruption tends in the conservative direction? Is that what you would want for Australia?
        And finally, sometimes, and indeed usually, the obvious explanation for bad policy is the correct one. Ukraine hasn’t been given the right or sufficient tools to repel Russia because Biden is too timid and afraid of provoking Russia. That may be the correct policy, I’m not getting onto that debate here. But I seem to be getting the message here that the reason Ukraine hasn’t got what it needs because of a deliberate policy to provide just enough assistance keep the war bubbling over so that Russia is weakened. That’s pathetic nonsense, tiresome conspiracy theory that is peddled by TV shock jocks.
        And BTW you still haven’t justified your contemptible remark about Ukraine being “under the thumb of a Russian autocrat”.

  • Stephen Due says:

    Politics is all about acting. Reality is practically irrelevant. It’s the script that matters, or what, today, is called the ‘narrative’. We need politicians who are, by some miracle of intellect and information, connected with reality, but also have acting ability, and the capacity to wrench control of the script from the ‘media’.

  • W.A. Reid says:

    Boris Johnson is a prime example of a British ‘upper class’ prat: rakish by preference, driven by a conceited sense of entitlement and intellectual superiority, and characterised by hubris, base opportunism, and contrived affectations.

    Although beguilingly trenchant in prose and speech, Johnson failed as a PM because a ‘lack of moral seriousness’ and an ‘inability to value truth’ meant, as Sir Anthony Seldon and Raymond Newell observed recently (‘Johnson at 10’), that causes, commitments, colleagues, pledges and policies ‘were regarded as merely transitory and transactional’.

  • Occidental says:

    All politicians “fail” at some point. John Howard in the end couldn’t hold his own seat from a one term, political novice. As to your comment about upper class prat, save for the sense of entitlement, “characterised by hubris, base opportunism, and contrived affectations” describes every “successful” politician in Australia, and most probably elsewhere.

  • christopher.coney says:

    Kennedy suggests that Johnson’s humour “covered a multitude of sins”. This is a very strange thing to say.
    The article itself reminds us of Johnson’s involvement in supporting the continuing slaughter of Ukrainians and Russians, which only continues because Englishmen and Americans are not being killed.
    Oh, and our own John Howard was there – he could have reminded Johnson that his Australian government were all on board with President Bush in attacking Iraq, killing a million people, all for the purpose of getting at those WMDs which, alas, didn’t exist.
    And the last of the selfish troika, Mr Morrison – we in Australia have recently been reminded that he gutlessly threw in the towel to the MeToo Brigade by blaming Fiona Brown for her heartless treatment of poor, little Brittany Higgins. Brown is now all but unemployable, and Brittany has taken her tax-free $2 million to live in rural France.
    I hope the guests enjoyed the night sucking up to these monsters.

  • awtjdavies says:

    “The 1000-strong audience at the Fullerton Hotel ballroom waited with baited breath”
    “The room, filled with Liberal Party policy wonks, conservative-minded business leaders and other interested onlookers,..”

    As a member of the 1000-strong audience, my wife and I hardly fit the profile of “Liberal Party policy wonks” and “conservative-minded business leaders”. Neither did the two young ladies sitting on one side of us or the two older ladies waiting for a third friend sitting on the other side. I didn’t get the impression that the people sitting in front or behind us also met this description. So we must fit into that curious group of “other interested onlookers”. Funny we felt fully engaged members of the audience and Menzies Research Centre supporters in attendance primarily to honor John Howard, Perhaps we were sitting in the wrong aisle.

    And we did enjoy the evening, especially Boris Johnson’s remarks about supporting Ukraine and Israel!

  • jmanners says:

    “The 1000-strong audience at the Fullerton Hotel ballroom waited with baited breath”?
    Is halitosis the new, must-have fashion accessory?

    John Manners

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