Former PM Scott Morrison's incompetence mirrored that of his political idol, Donald Trump, writes Paul Begley.
AUSTRALIAN BACKBENCH politician and former Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, fronted a press conference on Wednesday to insist that there were no substantive issues with his assumption of multiple ministerial portfolios during 2020 and 2021 because, with one exception, he didn’t actually exercise the powers vested in him by the appointments.
He didn’t explain why he had been secretive about being sworn into the positions but he adopted his customary innocent victim pose and insisted his motives were as pure as the driven snow and he shouldn’t be called upon to account for himself to a bunch of hindsight heroes in what had become a feral press pack.
His usual allies in the Murdoch and mainstream media appeared a little puzzled, but seemed content to accept the revelations in the same routine way that The Australian writers, Simon Benson and Geoff Chambers, had done in their book, Plagued. They had known about the secret appointments for long enough to include them in a book that hadn’t been written last week or last month, but saw them as sufficiently unremarkable to keep mum about them until they launched their book.
Others in Morrison’s Liberal-National Party and in wider legal and political circles saw the appointments as “bizarre” and “weird”, and a number were happy to go on the record expressing those views. Former Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews was white hot with anger over the revelation that Morrison had been secretly sworn in to her portfolio and called for him to leave the Parliament.
She no doubt recalled the predicament with which she was faced when Morrison insisted on her making public the information that an asylum boat had obligingly arrived in Australian waters on the day of the Election.
Twitter was alight about what had been revealed, many suggesting we had missed a bullet on 21 May, a curious observation when Morrison had been firing bullets as Prime Minister for nearly four years. One post observed his behaviour was not so much about ‘jobs for the boys’, but ‘jobs for the boy’.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese instructed the Solicitor-General to report to him on the matter by early next week and constitutional law professors Anne Twomey and George Williams, along with other academic lawyers, expressed bewilderment over the matter without claiming what he did was necessarily in violation of the law.
The University of NSW convened an expert panel to discuss the matter, at which Professor Williams acknowledged:
“We were and still face a pandemic that threatens a great loss of life, but we have a system of government that frankly did not require the concentration of power of this kind for the Prime Minister.”
Writing in The Conversation, Professor Twomey was perplexed about how reports about Morrison swearing himself in could be true when her understanding was that a minister could only be sworn in by the Governor-General.
On the prime minister’s power to act unilaterally, she said:
‘The Cabinet could reach a collective decision about a policy issue, including how a minister’s power should be exercised in relation to it, and the minister would be bound by collective ministerial responsibility to act consistently with that decision. But the prime minister alone has no legal power to instruct a minister how to exercise powers conferred by statute on that minister.’
Morrison had explained that he needed the extra powers because some ministers could take unilateral decisions without consulting Cabinet, so he said he needed the power to intervene in such a case. Another way of putting that is to say that he wanted the power as a minister so that he alone could act unilaterally.
Setting aside any legal pros and cons on the matter, one way to look at Morrison’s curious behaviour is to look at who influenced him as head of state. Central among them was his U.S. counterpart, former President Donald Trump. Morrison was a known Trump admirer. Like Trump, Morrison was cavalier with the truth, tended to flout conventions and norms and at one stage, was intent on aping Trump’s election fraud agenda by legislating ID voting laws until being warned off by his party strategists that such a move would be counterproductive.
In answer to a question at his Wednesday press conference, he made this revealing declaration in the context of singularly battling a “tempest” during the pandemic:
“As Prime Minister, only I could really understand the weight of responsibility that was on my shoulders and on no one else, and as a result, I took the decisions that I thought I needed to take.”
The echo of Donald Trump was loud and clear in that statement.
Before being elected in 2016, Trump was perfectly clear on where he stood on consultative government when he declared in his nomination acceptance speech:
“Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.”
Once installed as President, he appointed many department secretaries but also fired plenty of them if they took it upon themselves to think for a moment that any advice they might offer would be taken if it differed from his set of fixed ideas. So we saw a passing parade of high-level dismissals that included Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defence Secretary James Mattis, Justice Secretary Jeff Sessions and FBI Director James Comey.
The system being very different in Australia, Morrison had to select department ministers from his own party which proved itself wafer thin on talent. They were able to be assisted by public service department secretaries who, in Morrison’s administration, played an increasingly secondary role to external consultants, with the exception of his choice for Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet Secretary, Phil Gaetjens.
Gaetjens behaved more like a personal fixer for the Prime Minister than a public servant acting in the national interest and quite properly resigned on 22 May — a move that would not usually be required of a genuine public service chief.
Gaetjens had plenty of fixing to do as it turned out, with ministerial incompetence and questionable conduct on display constantly over the three years from 2019-22. Notable problems included Robodebt, aged care failures, drought and water management disasters, visa and immigration problems, and parliamentary rape allegations.
Ministers implicated included Stuart Robert, Richard Colbeck, Alan Tudge, Angus Taylor, Linda Reynolds, Alex Hawke, Peter Dutton and the only minister who suffered a consequence, Bridget McKenzie. It’s not surprising that Morrison had no trust or confidence in his Cabinet.
Morrison had won the 2019 “miracle” Election as an unknown with himself at the helm and he seemed to believe his own propaganda about his 2022 prospects. God was on his side because he led the side: “I alone can fix it.”
By the end of 2021, leading into the election year, Morrison was no longer an unknown and what was known wasn’t good, with many of his senior colleagues calling him nasty names in the public arena. During the six-week election campaign, he gambled with policies on religious discrimination and trans athletes that probably contributed to Liberal heartland losses in Wentworth, Goldstein, Curtin and Kooyong that saw off his Treasurer, among others.
He claimed during his press conference that he’d had a “wonderful” telephone conversation with Josh Frydenberg that very day. He could well have opted for Trump’s word of choice when he was telling a whopper by calling it a “perfect” conversation.
Morrison’s constant preference as PM was to construct reality according to his prevailing wish of the moment and journalists tended to suspend their disbelief and go along with his stories. A consummate conman, he was doing it again as a powerless backbencher but this time, few journalists were buying his fantasy. The Frydenberg story was the last straw: Josh is not his friend and only a deluded fool would think he was.
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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