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Missing chapters

8 May 2021

9:00 AM

8 May 2021

9:00 AM

How Good is Scott Morrison? Peter van Onselen and Wayne Errington

Hachette, pp.320, $35

Beautiful Things: A Memoir Hunter Biden

Simon & Schuster, pp.272, $33

Between them, Peter van Onselen and Wayne Errington have a wealth of research and writing experience, and their biography of John Howard was both insightful and entertaining. So it is surprising, and rather disappointing, that How Good Is Scott Morrison? leaves a great deal to be desired. In fact, it simply leaves a great deal out, to the point where there is a question of whether it is actually a biography at all.

The book really looks at only a few events: the Liberal leadership change that put Morrison in the big chair, the ‘unwinnable’ election campaign, the 2019 bushfires, and the Covid-19 pandemic. Yes, these are important aspects of Morrison’s tenure as Prime Minister, but to tell the truth there is not much new to say about them. It looks as if van Onselen and Errington mainly sorted through two years’ worth of press clippings, rather than delve deeply into the formation of their subject’s political personality.

There is almost nothing on Morrison’s upbringing and adolescence in the Sydney suburbs, for example. His university days are virtually ignored (he studied economics and geography). The influence of his family is passed over (his father was a local political figure, as an independent). His periods as the head of Tourism Australia and as director of the Liberal party in New South Wales are mentioned but not really examined.

Perhaps the most surprising omission is Morrison’s tenure as Minister for Immigration. It was here that he established a reputation for whatever-it-takes determination and it was here that he first moved into the public eye. But how did he go from stop-the-boats tough guy to daggy-but-likeable ScoMo? That is a big jump, after all, and just brushing it away as a series of marketing manoeuvres tells us nothing.

True, Morrison is not an easy subject for a biography. He never had the sense of destiny or the charisma associated with, say, Bob Hawke, or the raw drive and ambition of someone like Tony Abbott. When he saw his chance for leadership by riding through the middle he grabbed it, as would be expected. That’s about it.


Van Onselen and Errington assert that Morrison does not have much in the way of core beliefs, although they also note that ideology does not play particularly well in Australia. He often makes grand pronouncements that are not followed up. He is very good at taking all the credit and shifting all the blame. Well, guys, that’s politics for you.

Yes, Morrison made a thorough mess of handling the 2019 bushfires, leaving the country for a holiday in Hawaii at the worst possible time and, when he eventually returned, looking generally uninterested in the plight of victims. But he seemed to learn the lessons and when the Covid-19 crisis hit he moved quickly and with personal involvement. Tough decisions had to be made with imperfect and contradictory information but he generally got it right. Any sense of fiscal rectitude went out the window as the government struggled to stop the downturn turning into a collapse. Hypocrisy? Maybe – or maybe the most appropriate response to unprecedented circumstances.

Van Onselen and Errington give all due credit to Morrison, whose pragmatism in this case turned out to be the best path. They go so far as to say that his approach, and the broad public support for it, will make him a sure bet in the next election. Perhaps, although the 2019 election demonstrated how unpredictable campaigns can be.

The issue, they argue, is what he will do after another win. Will he undertake courageous reform or opt for the quiet life of administration? Essentially, they don’t know. Peter, Wayne, here’s a news flash: the point of a biography is to provide informed analysis. Leaving the question hanging makes one wonder about the point of the exercise.

If Morrison is defined by an exceptional degree of ordinariness, Hunter Biden – son of Joe – wants everyone to know how remarkable he is, even in the depth and variety of his vices. In Beautiful Things he points to the death of his brother Beau from cancer as a pivotal event of his life but even before that he seemed bent on self-destruction. From the heights of having everything, it was a long way down.

Crack cocaine and vodka were his weapons of choice, and he says he simply loved the high of ‘riding bareback on a rocket ship’. There are lengthy chapters devoted to his binges, which often included high-priced prostitutes (although he also had an affair with Beau’s widow – and later her sister). He claims to have cleaned up after meeting the woman who would become his second wife,  although that should probably go into the wait-and-see category.

All this was paid for by the money people threw at him. He says he was qualified for a board seat on Ukrainian gas company Burisma but it seems unlikely. He never seemed to question why shady Chinese companies showered him with funds. The obvious question is: would there have been so much largesse if his name was Hunter Jones?

Joe, for his part, has said that Hunter has never done anything wrong. But that seems ridiculous after this string of lurid confessions. Is this very poor judgement or the gullibility of a loving father? Both, perhaps.

In the end, Beautiful Things is an exercise in narcissism. Hunter believes he is entitled to forgiveness merely because he acknowledges his transgressions. But then, he thinks he is entitled to everything. Because his name is Biden.

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