Currying favour: Scott Morrison on Kitchen Cabinet

9377507826_85688be57c_bWhen I read in the telly guide that the Treasurer Scott Morrison was going to be making Annabel Crabb a Sri Lankan curry on the season-opener of Kitchen Cabinet I thought it must be a joke. Oh right, I can remember thinking; and what else will the one-time Minister in Charge of Not Answering Questions about Border Security and Refugees be rustling up? Bolani bread from Afghanistan? Rice from Burma? Kebabs from Iraq? Perhaps he’s planning to have a Tamil or a Hazara carry the dishes in one by one. Get outa town … you!

But a joke it wasn’t, apparently. And not only was it not a joke, it afforded the former Minister for Locking People Up in Crappy Camps the opportunity to say how much he liked the country – Sri Lanka, that is – and its spicy cuisine. Presumably that’s why he and his predecessors at the Ministry of Immigration and Border Control are so keen for the people who want to leave that part of the world and come to Australia to stay where they are.

Morrison is in many ways the perfect subject for Kitchen Cabinet. Many have talked and written at length about the gap between the politician and the man, between the public face and the private soul. Here was an opportunity, not just to show his cooking skills, but to, um, curry favour with the electorate – to show that, though no wimp, he’s no monster either.

Key to this rebranding exercise is Morrison’s religious faith, mentions of which he appears to regard as a species of ad hominem attack as opposed to, say, legitimate enquiries into why someone who expresses love for his neighbours is so fantastically mean to so many of them. With a defensiveness bordering on self-pity (why, he asks at one point, are people unprepared to ascribe to him the good faith he ascribes to others), he attempted to square this particular circle by suggesting that the government’s policies on unsolicited migrants were in fact humanitarian in nature – aimed not at punishing refugees but at undermining the people smugglers who rob them blind and leave them for dead. Gosh! One would think that the Liberal government had never politicised the issue of immigration; that it had never cynically mixed its messages on drownings at sea and border security; that Tony Abbott hadn’t just delivered a speech in the UK to a bemused and embarrassed congregation of Tories in which he identifies the real problem as the economic refugees who seem to have mistaken globalisation to mean that labour (and not just capital) can go in search of a better return … At any rate, it’s reassuring to know that it was all for the good of the boat people themselves.

One of the talking points from At Home with ScoMo will be his insistence that he never wanted the job of Treasurer. Crabb’s program was recorded before Abbott’s booting-out and Turnbull’s subsequent cabinet reshuffle, and the ambitions of the then-Minister for Social Services was at that point a question much on the minds of his colleagues and the journalists in the Canberra press gallery. His insistence that he doesn’t want the job he now has (‘They’re wrong! They’re just wrong!’ he tells his interlocutor when asked if the rumours have any foundation) is interesting in two respects: one, because it probably isn’t true; and two, because the fact that it probably isn’t true reveals a weakness in what is, in other ways, a successful and entertaining format. For the problem with Kitchen Cabinet is that it invites us to suspend our cynicism at exactly the point that it should be cranked up to 10. The self-presentation of politicians doesn’t cease when they open a jar of pesto; and for some (Kevin Rudd anyone?) it goes up a gear. My sense is that Crabb is trying to push back against a general cynicism about politics by demonstrating that it involves real people with real lives etc, and there have been some notable successes in that regard. But politicians are representatives first (of a constituency and a set of ideas), and journalists who try to tell us that, hey, they’re human beings too, really – as Chris Ullman was at pains to do on the night Abbott got rolled by his party – are, I think, rather missing the point. I don’t need to know that Abbott is a ‘good’ man and that he always did what he thought was ‘right’ for the country. I need to know that my kids will grow up in a world in which governments are beginning to take climate change seriously; in which they will have meaningful work to do and supportive communities in which to live; in which wealth and power are shared among the many and not concentrated in the hands of a few …

Normally this wouldn’t bother me, much. But what makes it so nauseating in Morrison’s case is that the policy he prosecuted as Minister for Immigration, and which continues to be prosecuted by his successor Peter Dutton, depends on our knowing nothing at all about the lives and loves of its desperate victims. Crabb touches briefly on this point when she asks her guest (actually she’s his guest, but anyway …) whether the human fallout from ‘stop the boats’ was a case of politics as usual – politics being a game, right?, where a policy designed to help one section of the community will discomfit some other section of it. But that, I think, is to misunderstand what the Abbott government did in this instance. It didn’t put forward a policy it knew would help some and disadvantage others; it used one group of people as a warning to others and, in so doing, laid magnificent waste to one of the key principles of human dignity as it is conceived by all but the most severe utilitarians – the principle that people are not to be treated as means to an end but as ends in themselves. The current ‘border protection’ regime is something quite different to, say, a tax-hike that hits some Australians harder than others. It instrumentalises the pain of one group of people as a disincentive to another one.

The show ends with Morrison laughing on his balcony; it is dusk and the vino is winking at the brim; his curry, it seems, has gone down well. It is impossible not to think of Nauru and Manus – of the people who will wake tomorrow morning (if, indeed, they sleep at all) to another day in contemplation of their own desperation and deteriorating children.

What would they make of this scene, I wonder? I guess we’ll never know.