If Scott Morrison and the Coalition win government, the state of our democracy will be imperilled, writes Peter Henning.
WE ALL know who Humpty Dumpty is, right? He’s a nursery rhyme character who looks like an egg and can’t be put back together when broken.
There’s always been a twist in the nursery rhyme. It has its origins in English history and signifies an important change in the political landscape involving failure at the highest level.
Humpty has evolved through time in the English imagination, but like the ancient Greek notion of hubris resulting in nemesis, he reached his most noteworthy identity back in the 1870s, courtesy of a conversation – or interview – with Alice, recorded and published, word-perfect, by Lewis Carroll in Through The Looking Glass.
The key to Humpty’s view of his power is this short interchange with Alice:
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean–neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean different things–that’s all.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all”.
The point is that Humpty Dumpty-esque politicians, perceive themselves as extraordinary, which basically means that the usual norms, conventions, checks and balances pertaining to the political system are obstacles for them to remove or use for their own purposes.
The self-centred narcissism of Humpty in the 21st Century has been epitomised by former U.S. President Donald Trump, a man so completely in need of continuous affirmation (to preserve his sense of self and not fall apart), that it is impossible for him to admit the reality of his defeat in 2020.
Humpty Trump has been the main model of choice followed by Prime Minister Scott Morrison during the increasingly destructive and divisive years of his “leadership” since 2018. Trump and Morrison were political soulmates, and Morrison loved the Trump script and the way it was delivered.
Probably the most important influence of Trump on Morrison was Trump’s consistently successful abuse of his “national emergency” powers as President of the U.S. to use public funds as he wanted, bypassing congressional scrutiny and opposition, and allowing him to reallocate funds to other purposes than those legislated by Congress.
Since 2019, the Morrison Government has imitated the Trump model by devising ways and means to avoid parliamentary control over large amounts of public funds.
This issue, in terms of its real potential to wreck the remaining fragile foundations of Australian democracy, has been examined in depth and accuracy by former judge Stephen Charles and Catherine Williams, research director of the Centre for Public Integrity, in their recently published book, Keeping Them Honest.
They present a litany of matters in recent years 'that would have justified examination by a national integrity commission' while describing the Morrison Government’s attitude to a proper commission as 'useless and contemptible'.
The matters range from 'allegations of systemic fraud in the Defence Department', the submarine fiasco, sports rorts and car park rorts, the Western Sydney airport land deal, closed-tender contracts for the Manus Island and Nauru centres, to the $1 billion Helloworld contract of 2017, the Robodebt scheme and much more.
In summary, Charles notes that the current Government:
'... had developed a series of programs and grant schemes under which vast sums of public money are spent, in an attempt to avoid the requirement of obtaining statutory authority.'
The sports rorts program, for example, has been described as corruption by constitutional lawyers, as not being authorised by statute, as unlawful and having breached the rule of law.
The car park rorts involved $660 million, but was a component of a much larger fund of $4.8 billion.
In recent times another glaring reminder of the influence of Trump on the Morrison Administration has been the disproportionate allocation of emergency funds to Coalition electorates compared with Labor electorates during the disastrous floods in eastern Australia (although the Coalition went back on this due to political and public pressure).
This mirrors Trump’s tardiness, for example, in allocating emergency federal funds to Democrat states, such as to fight wildfires in Democrat California in 2020.
It can be anticipated that if the Morrison Government is returned to power on 21 May, Morrison himself will take it as an endorsement of the practice of avoiding statutory authority for the distribution and disbursement of public funds.
More effort will be employed to weaken the role of the Parliament, undermine its relevance and tarnish its reputation, while keeping it afloat as a kind of “representative circus” when legislation cannot be avoided or is needed to authorise a right-wing agenda.
It can also be anticipated that Morrison will interpret another election victory in more hubristic terms than he did in 2019, seeing himself as the recipient of another “miracle”, as a political master.
Morrison's continued leadership would result in failing to address the threats of climate change, growing socio-economic inequality, inhumanity towards the vulnerable and environmental vandalism. It will also fundamentally tear apart the fragile democratic fabric of “representative government”.
The rigid glue of any Humpty is unerring righteousness without basis in principle, morality, ethics or policy. It is simply power. It is essential to walk away from accountability when things go awry, to deny responsibility for anything that might damage self-esteem and to blame others instead.
Any Humpty puts grandiose announcements abroad, once said making them real for the moment. Enquiries are launched with the flick of a lip and thus become solutions to problems best ignored or just disliked. Just ask aged care workers.
Humpty despises critics with passionate intensity for they intrude unforgivably on the esteem bubble of the PM.
Charles I of England is my favourite Humpty, for he is such a great model. Believing in his divine right he dissolved Parliament in 1629 in umbrage at its impertinence to question his demands, refusing to convene it again for 11 years.
He proceeded to rule without seeking parliamentary approval for raising funds, producing calamitous political divisions and sparking the Civil War of the 1640s.
Unfortunately, there are parallels between Charles I’s evasion of statutory authorisations and those increasingly being normalised by the Coalition in Australia.
Morrison’s claim to authenticity, of having a commitment to “liberal democracy” cannot be taken seriously given his record as Prime Minister in the ways that public funds have been used, described by Charles and Williams as 'blatant political corruption'.
Peter Henning is a Tasmanian historian and author.
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