Shared from the 7/15/2023 The Age eEdition

The political swamp will not be cleansed by the eventual departure of Morrison

There is a danger in the ongoing humiliation of Scott Morrison that he becomes a fall guy for a wider system failure. Morrison’s conduct in office, and his subsequent refusal to accept the conclusions of a library shelf of damning reports into his misuse of power, is an extreme example of a political culture that created and enabled him. He reflects the worst instincts of an entitled generation of politicians, Liberal and Labor, who believe that an election victory affirms their right to rule. It confers no such right. It gives them the privilege to represent the Australian people, and the responsibility to protect our democratic institutions.

Morrison’s one-man government was the culmination of a generation of bad practice that began with John Howard’s final term between 2004 and 2007, when the government ran on a model of continuous campaigning, with a handout machine churning out funds at the local level for the purpose of re-election.

Every prime minister from Howard inherited a system that centralised power and ran the country from the prime minister’s office, with the temporary exception of Malcolm Turnbull, who attempted but failed to restore the old-fashioned concept of cabinet government.

Morrison’s responses to the royal commission into robo-debt, the inquiry into his secret ministries, and the audits of infrastructure programs such as the outrageous commuter car park fund have in common a Catch-22 logic designed to absolve him of any blame. As the one with power, only he knew what it meant to wield it. So any questioning of his conduct – whether at a press conference at the time, or after the fact in the witness box of a royal commission

– could be dismissed with the claim that his interrogator didn’t understand politics.

‘‘The findings which are adverse to me are based upon a fundamental misunderstanding of how government operates,’’ Morrison said in reply to robo-debt royal commissioner Catherine Holmes last week.

This retort was on the mild side compared with the backhander he gave former High Court justice Virginia Bell on the release of her secret ministries inquiry last November: ‘‘As prime minister my awareness of issues regarding national security and the national interest was broader than that known to individual ministers and certainly to the inquiry. This limits the ability for third parties to draw definitive conclusions on such matters.’’

If it were just Morrison saying these things as a defeated PM, the system could begin to move on.

But note how familiar this shameless line of rebuttal is. Daniel Andrews, the most electorally successful leader, federal or state, of this generation, has mastered the dark art of deflection, using a few chilling words where Morrison deployed a stream of selfserving consciousness.

Recall the premier’s curt dismissal of the Independent Broad-based Anticorruption Commission report in April, which found the Andrews government improperly awarded a Labor-affiliated union a $1.2 million contract. Andrews said the report was ‘‘educational’’.

Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass, whose office originally referred the matter to IBAC, corrected him. ‘‘I think it says a lot about the premier’s views on corruption and integrity,’’ she told 3AW. The IBAC report was not educational – ‘‘it was a damning report about misconduct of ministerial advisers and ministerial responsibility for those advisers’’.

Nothing in the IBAC report comes close to the findings against Morrison in the robo-debt scandal. As the minister responsible for the scheme’s introduction in 2015, Morrison ‘‘allowed cabinet to be misled’’ and ‘‘failed to meet his ministerial responsibility to ensure that cabinet was properly informed about what the proposal actually entailed and to ensure that it was lawful’’, Holmes wrote in her report.

The one who didn’t understand how government is meant to operate was, in fact, Morrison. Holmes found that Morrison gave misleading evidence to the inquiry. ‘‘The Commission rejects as untrue Mr Morrison’s evidence that he was told that income averaging as contemplated in the Executive Minute was an established practice and a ‘foundational way’ in which DHS (the Department of Human Services) worked.’’ He provided no written record of such advice.

Yet politicians on all sides, public servants and even the press gallery would be making a grievous mistake if they expect that the system will be cleansed by the disgracing of Morrison, and his eventual departure from parliament.

The office of prime minister was damaged long before Morrison occupied it. He inherited a system that had so politicised the idea of government that any criticism, advice or even simple community feedback was seen as a political attack.

When Morrison told Holmes and Bell that they didn’t understand government, he was saying, in effect, that no one can judge an elected government between campaigns, or even after a government has been defeated. Only the people can hire and fire, but their sovereignty is limited to the election itself.

The challenge for Anthony Albanese and his government in the wake of the robo-debt findings goes beyond the reempowering of the public service, and better cabinet processes. The biggest question now is whether Labor can restore the traditions of representation to politics.

The test for Albanese will come when the polls eventually tighten. Will he succumb to the dual temptations of blame-shifting and pork-barrelling, and repeat the sorry history of Liberal and Labor predecessors? Or will he confess his mistakes in real time, and reduce the demand for future royal commissions?

George Megalogenis is a journalist, political commentator and author.

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