Politics Opinion

How we prevented a Morrison dictatorship

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(Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons)

Had Scott Morrison been re-elected this year, not much would have stopped him from amassing total power, writes Paul Begley.

FORMER PRIME MINISTER Scott Morrison was able to appoint himself to multiple ministries because at least three democratic institutions failed: the Australian Public Service, the Prime Minister’s Office and the mainstream media.

The Hon Virginia Bell AC made some incisive observations about the performance of the APS and the PMO in her astute report to the Parliament.

The terms of reference no doubt meant she could make no findings on the performance of Australia’s Fourth Estate, which is a pity because its acquiescence to Morrison’s will played a critical role in the bizarre behaviour that Bell investigated.

The Australian public would still know nothing about Morrison appointing himself to multiple ministries were it not reported after the May Election in a book released by two senior News Corp journalists, Geoff Chambers and Simon Benson. The book, Plagued, included information about the appointments as unremarkable eventualities. The implications of the journalists holding on to that information prior to the Election are as bleak as its casual post-Election revelation. Bell noted that Benson and Chambers both declined an invitation to meet with her.

When Mr Morrison assumed office in 2018, he replaced many of the functions of the APS with private consultants on lucrative contracts. The consultancies largely operated on the basis of complying with whatever the Government wanted with an eye to winning their next contract, as might be expected.

Among other things, a properly functioning APS performs the role of caretaker of the instruments of government with regard to sound governance, which entails observing checks and balances on the exercise of power. From time to time, the APS must be able to say without fear or favour, “No, minister”.

Over the four years of the Morrison Government from 2018-22, the capacity of the APS to offer independent expert advice was greatly diminished.

There were three parts to that transition. The first was to shut down David Thodey’s APS review and shred the expertise of the service so that it was less capable of offering advice.

The second was to take more seriously the advice offered by PMO staffers and the private sector consultants contracted by the Prime Minister and other ministers.

The third was to instal as head of the APS a political operative whose first and only loyalty appeared to be to the person of Mr Morrison himself rather than to the nation or the national interest. The appointment of Mr Philip Gaetjens from partisan political staffer to Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (PMC) ensured a tame public service and a private sector dominance of government activity. The default impulse of advisers on all substantive matters was to provide the dutiful answer “Yes, minister” and to act accordingly.

Although the culture of APS independence was not entirely snuffed out, it had become largely ineffective. An example was the advice offered to the Treasurer by his department in 2021 about $25 billion of pandemic labour subsidy funds given to firms that had not suffered revenue losses during the pandemic, but in many cases had increased their revenue and profitability.

The then Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, was able to swiftly refuse to respond to that departmental advice by rejecting the idea of a review which might have resulted in pressure to initiate messy clawback efforts from firms unjustly enriched by incompetent administration of taxpayer funds, under a program that included no effective clawback provisions. There was no pushback to that decision from within the APS under the titular leadership of Mr Gaetjens.

If there was any doubt about where the loyalty of the PMC Secretary resided, his resignation the day after the 21 May Election appeared to be a silent acknowledgement that he saw himself as having no role other than to serve the personal whims of former Prime Minister Morrison.

The erosion of the APS, including making critical appointments that were a mixture of imprudent and disgraceful during the period of the Morrison administration, may not have become so entrenched had there been a robust mainstream media. Instead, Australia during the Morrison years experienced a Fourth Estate that did little other than report most questionable activities of government without comment as a stenographer might report them, or to remain silent on stories that could upset the prevailing government narrative.

Mr Morrison told the authors of Plagued about his multiple appointments as simple matters of fact and they received the information in that spirit, so much so that they didn’t appear to consider it sufficiently newsworthy to write about it before the Election. Alternatively, their News Corp editors saw it as newsworthy but self-censored the information because of the likelihood it would not reflect well on Morrison’s preferred narrative at the time.

Either way, the fact of it not appearing prior to the Election meant that voters went to the polls in May ignorant of what Solicitor General Stephen Donaghue KC subsequently described as a series of activities ‘not consistent with the principle of responsible government’. Dr Donaghue concluded that while Morrison had not acted illegally, the combined possession of the full powers of a minister and the secrecy that prevailed around them meant he was not accountable for any decisions he made as a result of exercising those powers.

It could be said, in addition, that he was tacitly supported in maintaining secrecy about the appointments by the Governor-General failing to record any of the five occasions on which he conferred them in his otherwise meticulously maintained diary. 

Recent history reveals that autocrats typically use a crisis to amass dictatorial power. A classic case in modern history was the 1933 Reichstag fire that led the German war hero President Paul von Hindenburg to naïvely appoint the Nazi leader Adolf Hitler as Chancellor with powers to make and enforce laws without recourse to the German Parliament. Hindenburg believed he could control the Chancellor’s excesses, but by August 1934 the old soldier was dead and there was nothing to stop the Chancellor from assuming total control. Getting to that point had not required him to engage in illegal conduct.

Morrison used the pandemic crisis in 2020 to assume ministerial powers in the Health and Finance portfolios but did not mention the pandemic in assuming the other three ministerial powers during 2021. In hindsight, he may have been testing how far he could push the Governor-General to accede to his requests without resistance.

Were he of a mind to amass more powers, there would have been little to prevent him from doing so had he won the 2022 May Election. By then, the Governor-General had demonstrated his readiness to be agreeable, the tamed APS was not able to offer any effective advice contrary to Morrison’s wishes and the mainstream media had shown a reluctance to contest anything he did.

Setting aside ethical, moral or prudential standards, if the answer to the question of legality was positive, the mainstream media largely gave a green light to the Morrison Government. The shameful Robodebt scandal showed that ministers could behave abominably but with impunity up to the point of the Federal Court deciding that what it was doing was actually illegal.

As indicated, the multiple appointments of himself, by himself, were not the only questionable appointments made by Morrison in his one term as elected Prime Minister. Others include multiple audacious appointments at the eleventh hour to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal and the Fair Work Commission, as well as a 2018 captain’s pick appointment of former Daily Telegraph editor Ita Buttrose as ABC chair.

They were flashing red alert signs that Morrison may have been using to test how far he could go in bypassing protocols, conventions and norms in his pursuit of expanding the scope of his powers through a combination of secrecy, stealth and audacity. But they were signs largely lost on a mainstream media that appeared to have abandoned the core professional skill sets of objectivity and scepticism.

Paul Begley has worked for many years in public affairs roles, until recently as General Manager of Government and Media Relations with the Australian HR Institute. You can follow Paul on Twitter @yelgeb.

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