How leaders rise and fall in the most powerful of ‘meritocracies’

How leaders rise and fall in the most powerful of ‘meritocracies’

Julie Bishop in 2014, as foreign mininster in the Coalition meritocracy

Great leaders should be able to admit their faults, learn from their mistakes and take responsibility for their actions. 

But in certain so-called meritocracies across business and politics, accountability means nothing when it comes to leadership. 

Indeed, an ability to lie, deny, dodge reality and blame someone else for your “regrets” can be a much greater path to the top.

And there are few greater examples of this than former prime minister Scott Morrison. 

The ABC’s final installment of Nemesis showed this over and over again, as Morrison was asked to answer some of the moments that ultimately came to define his leadership record. 

Unfortunately for Morrison, as was the fate of his predecessors Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott, the full series also depicted the role of ego, enemies and retributive justice in ‘meritocracies’ and how they can bring leaders down, even at the expense of the party.

Underpinning it all was the Coalition’s lack of women in power and failure to do anything about it. From former PM Tony Abbott failing to include more than one woman in his Cabinet, to Julie Bishop receiving just eleven votes out of the 85 member party room during her bid for party leadership, despite being the most qualified and experienced among them. And finally, Morrison’s “clumsy” and “regretful” approach to women.

Morrison’s finger-pointing started early during the episode dedicated to his government, with him making subtle suggestions about his staff being “clunky” and making mistakes about informing people of his whereabouts in the scandal that broke when he took a holiday to Hawaii during the bushfire crisis.

“As prime minister, you don’t blame your staff. Some of those issues were clunky in their handling. But people don’t get everything right. At the end of the day I’m responsible for all of that.” 

He continued to downplay his bungled handling on the bushfires, the vaccine rollout, his relationship with other premiers, Brittany Higgins, Christine Holgate, France and much more.

There were the comments he made during a press conference when Morrison said that he’d spoken to his wife about Brittany Higgins, and Jenny and had clarified things to him with the comment, “what would you want to happen if it were our girls?” 

He said his key “regret” was bringing Jenny into it. “I should never have disclosed what Jenny and I talk about,” he said. 

Asked about the infamous line suggesting women protesting outside parliament should be grateful not to be “met with bullets”, Morrison said his response was “clumsy” and that “Jenny would agree”. He laughed it off, comparing himself to being, “like most suburban dads”. 

There was the PM’s treatment of former Australia Post CEO Christine Holgate, who was humiliated and effectively fired on the floor of parliament. Even Barnaby Joyce could see the issue here, “you don’t go into a public forum and berate another person,” he said. 

But Morrison, again, had little time to reflect on the moment or extensively reconsider his actions. Instead, he said he probably should have drunk some water before speaking.

There was Morrison’s declaration that the vaccine rollout was “not a race”, sparking fury from many Australians and especially health professionals.

Once again, Morrison had “regrets” over his words, but he was also quick to point the finger – noting that former health secretary Brendan Murphy “had been using this phrase quite regularly in our briefing.” 

There was, more generally, Morrison’s overall record on women, which many would argue played a huge factor in the Coalition being decimated at the last election. 

Morrison denied he had a problem with women and his “professional record of where I’ve worked and how I’ve worked for my entire life, I don’t think indicates that at all.” 

Many women in his government disagreed, including former MP Julia Banks, who said he “has a really weak, if no regard, particularly for working women with children.” 

The PM was “brutal” and “disrespectful”, former Queensland (Labor) Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said, reflecting on a particularly “threatening” phone call in September 2020.

Finally, there was the revelation of Morrison’s many secret ministries that came out three months after the Coalition lost the 2022 election. Treasurer Frydenberg – whom Morrison said had shared many nights playing pool and watching Yes Minister with at the lodge during lockdowns – said he was extremely disappointed and thought it was an example of “extreme overreach.” Frydenberg said the matter impacted their relationship and “still does to this day”. 

But Morrison saw things differently. He said he apologised to the former Treasurer and they are “as good a friends as you could hope for”. 

Nationals Senator Bridget McKenzie said that she’d hate for people to look at the nine years the Coalition spent in government and think it “was all about leadership, rivalry, revenge, factional warfare, Liberals versus National Party turf wars.” 

But it’s hard to think of anything else. How much was actually achieved? As for what was achieved, how much of it was done to appease individuals and make good on alliances? 

Would things have been different if those nine years if more women had been included in this Liberal party’s idea of a meritocracy?

Morrison claims he listened to women. But as former minister Karen Andrews said, it’s not clear which, if any women, he did listen to — other than his wife.

“If Scott Morrison had included more women, or any women, in his inner circle, I believe that wouldn’t affected every single decision that was made,” she said.  

Let that be a lesson for any “meritocracy” that still fails to include women.

Pictured above: Julie Bishop, former Foreign Affairs minister and Deputy Prime Minister, in 2014. She received just 11 votes during a 2018 leadership ballot triggered by current Opposition leader Peter Dutton, one of those votes being her own. Bishop announced her resignation from politics in 2019. She did not appear in any part of the Nemesis docuseries.


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