Companies do due diligence on key appointments. Why not nations?
Voters who pay attention in the Australian electorate are in the curious position in 2021 of realising that the present occupant of the office of Prime Minister Scott Morrison has been subject to minimal due diligence. Morrison assumed the role of Prime Minister in a backroom party spill just before the 2019 Election. Because he wasn’t expected to win that election, little attention was paid to where he came from or what he had done before his surprise ascension into the top job.
We do have his Wikipedia entry. A cursory look at that reveals that Morrison had worked as a senior Liberal Party staffer in the NSW branch around the turn of the century and then worked as a senior government bureaucrat in tourism posts in Australia and New Zealand. The entry shows he was fired summarily from his role as managing director of Tourism Australia in 2006 by the relevant minister Fran Bailey, but we don’t know why.
A 2008 Auditor-General report found that information had been kept from the board to which Morrison reported, procurement guidelines had been breached and an advertising company with which Morrison had previously worked received favourable treatment in the tendering process, but we don’t know any details related to those issues.
During an interview on the ABC program Kitchen Cabinet, the host Annabel Crabb asked Morrison about the Tourism episode but he point-blank declined to discuss it, saying simply it was in the past and he didn’t want to revisit it.
We know also from Wikipedia and other sources that Morrison sought Liberal Party pre-selection to the seat of Cook in 2007 and that he lost resoundingly to a local candidate of Lebanese extraction, Michael Towke, 82 votes to eight. Immediately following the vote, Towke was subsequently the victim of scandalous allegations in the Daily Telegraph and was disendorsed. When the allegations were shown to be without foundation, Towke won a defamation lawsuit against the newspaper, but by then Morrison had won pre-selection in a second ballot. Had there been any due diligence done after that, Morrison might have been asked to explain what role, if any, he played in the defaming and disendorsement of Towke.
In the world of finance, investment, mergers and acquisitions, the enacting of “due diligence” assists investors to make informed judgements about the value of an organisation in terms of bottom-line numbers. That’s sometimes called “hard” due diligence. “Soft” due diligence assesses leadership and management capability as well as the organisation’s customer base with a view to forming an assessment of sustainability and risk mitigation related to key appointments.
Soft due diligence is a critical area as most organisations fail because of human shortcomings. The numbers are what they are, but good people know how to count them and know how to grow them within the bounds of prevailing legal and ethical standards. And they don’t lie to their customers. Incompetent or corrupt leaders play fast and loose with the numbers and mislead their customers if they see a way to boost short-term profits. If there is an effective system of disclosure, corrupt and incompetent leaders are discovered. If that happens in time, it may prevent the loss of hard-won customer loyalty and revenue. If not, the deck of cards falls and the organisation collapses, swallowed up by a mountain of debt and acrimony.
In a notional democracy such as Australia, systematic due diligence is not employed in any real sense other than by the counting of the votes cast by eligible citizens who in turn are informed by a free press and the wider mainstream media. The media are regarded in some circles as informally responsible for disclosure of matters in the public interest; in other circles, the media are regarded as supplementary players in the public relations game of promoting those in power.
Writing in The Conversation, Dr Martin Hirst makes the point that the national interest is not always synonymous with the public interest in what the media report. The national interest may be about sound policy for the good of the people but it may also be about state secrecy to hide policy decisions and actions that enrich political donors, sectional interests and individuals who wield power. In that sense, the national interest may be about self-serving activity and keeping information about that activity secret.
A lazy or conflicted media may aid powerful interests by being complicit in securing secrecy around what they do. If the national interest in this sense is about keeping things hidden, ‘the public interest is about disclosure and the people’s right to know,’ writes Hirst. It’s the closest thing we have to exercising due diligence in the political domain. If the voting public is responsible for choosing our chief executive (the prime minister) and the nation’s leadership group (the Cabinet and the front bench) we need to know about their past behaviour and their record of service. Does their record speak to their competence? Does it reveal behaviour that instils trust?
If a company does due diligence on an aspiring chief executive, it will look at positions the executive has held in the past and source third party evidence about how the person has performed from peers, business associates and even customers. It will also look at things the person has put on the record. The process may ask searching questions that test the readiness of the applicant to be open and transparent in responses to questions along those lines as well as relevant questions that probe personal matters. A company doesn’t want to pay big money for an executive who unravels or is open to bribery because his personal affairs are a mess.
On Morrison’s personal life, we know from Wikipedia that he has a wife and two daughters. We also know that he belongs to the Horizon Church as an active parishioner. He allowed photographs of him worshipping at the church in April 2019 to appear in The Daily Telegraph prior to the 2019 Election in May of that year. The photos reveal a charismatic style of worship typical of American televangelist religious services. It involves waving of arms, talking in tongues and laying on of hands.
Although he has used his religion for election purposes, Morrison insists his beliefs are off-limits for public discussion, as is his relationship with the Australian head of Hillsong, Brian Houston, who is being investigated by the NSW police over covering up sex abuse by his father, Frank Houston. Morrison initially denied that he had invited Houston to join him when he met with Donald Trump in 2018 but sometime later he admitted on Sydney radio that he had done just that. He appears to have a predilection for secrecy as exemplified by his immediate policy setting as Immigration Minister on asylum seekers coming by boat after the election win of 2010. There would be no public discussion of “on water matters”, hence allowing him to do what he liked under cover of secrecy.
Morrison also insists the relationship with his long-time close friend Tim Stewart is off-limits. Stewart is a leading QAnon advocate whose Twitter account, BurnedSpy34, was permanently suspended for ‘engaging in coordinated harmful activity’, according to The Guardian. Stewart’s wife is also reported to be on the Prime Minister’s staff in an opaque role connected to Morrison’s wife Jenny at a cost to the taxpayer of $85,000. While it might be of interest to know the position description of that role, any discussion of Morrison’s family is also off-limits, though Jenny was widely reported to have offered him valuable advice following an allegation by an LNP staffer, Brittany Higgins, who accused a senior colleague in the Defence Minister’s office of raping her.
The summation of what little is known on the record about the background of Scott Morrison attests to a tendency to keep his background obscure and to prefer secrecy as an operational model. Of his known associates, the most problematic is his connection to the Stewarts, given the role QAnon played in the 6 January insurrection in the United States. QAnon is a prominent advocate of the lie that the 2020 Election was stolen by Joe Biden and that Donald Trump is the rightful President of the United States.
Scott Morrison is known to be an admirer of the former U.S. President and many of his policy positions. It is pertinent for Australians to have some idea of where Morrison now stands on that issue with respect to his QAnon associates before the next election because our U.S. ally is central to Australia’s foreign and trade policy and our increasingly contentious relationship with China.
While QAnon is not strictly a religion, its believers behave as religious believers often behave, with a heavy reliance on faith over empirical evidence. On Morrison’s religious beliefs, Wikipedia notes that as Australia's first Pentecostal Prime Minister, he believes he was elected to do God's work and that gives him an entitlement to practise the tradition of laying-on of hands while working. Similar claims were made about former U.S. President Trump.
Like Trump, he also has strong views about the media, advancing the notion that misuse of social media is the work of “the evil one”. The Murdoch mainstream media represented by The Daily Telegraph and its capital city cousins is largely supportive of Morrison in whatever he does and the messaging is evidently mutually aligned. By its nature, social media is not controllable and therefore by contrast represents a form of fake media when messages on it depart from the Murdoch-Morrison line.
So, when Morrison told Australians that he had placed Australia “first in line” for vaccinations, that is good and true and reported as such by the mainstream Murdoch media, but when social media critics complain in large numbers that the vaccine rollout is a stuff-up, that is fake news disseminated by the evil one.
The challenge to report the facts in the public interest is not to be underestimated and the resources focused on projecting an alternate reality that can boost Morrison’s electoral chances are significant. He told Australians last week that the virus is not to be feared. That is a line Jair Bolsonaro has used in Brazil for the past year as he presided over national pandemic inaction that has culminated in 17 million Brazilians being brought down by the virus and 473,000 dying after being infected by it.
By the time Trump was voted out of office in 2020, around 400,000 Americans had succumbed to the virus but it didn’t stop the former President insisting in October just before the Election that Americans should not be afraid of the virus and called on everyone to get back to work. Trump had moved from the lie in March that the virus would just disappear “like a miracle” to a different form of denial by October — the denial that Morrison is now peddling.
We can be sure that Morrison’s current line is not a public health message but a political one that his pollsters are telling him his outer suburban male voters will be happy to hear. He knows they oppose lockdowns in large numbers and are also vaccine-resistant — a toxic mixture. It’s clear that massive take up of vaccinations will rid us of the need for lockdowns, but instead of leading them to a better place, Morrison confirms their sense of resentment and unreality. Victoria must end its lockdown, he tells them, and people should get vaccinated when it suits them: “It’s not a race”. Despite the risks of an uncontrollable outbreak caused by the Delta variant, Morrison leads not as a leader, but by parroting what he thinks his followers want to hear.
While the Morrison game may be reckless, it’s also clever and he is relentless in pursuing it, creating an image of himself as leading the National Cabinet on managing the pandemic response in the process. This is done while hiding the narrative with the help of a conflicted media that all the heavy lifting on the pandemic has been done by the state premiers, who the PM undermines whenever it suits him.
Aided by countless photo ops and choreographed drama settings in trucks and aeroplanes one moment and sober signing of a condolence card to the Queen at another, Morrison is a confected nice guy. He is not the Prime Minister who was reported by Dr Norman Swan as having insulted Pfizer people so badly last year in meetings negotiating the purchase of 50 million vaccine doses that they refused to talk further with him and would agree to only 10 million.
We see the shouty Scott Morrison in press conferences from time to time when a journalist dares to ask a hard question and the distinguished jurist Professor Gillian Triggs was on the receiving end of his shouty aggression when she stood her ground as head of the Australian Human Rights Commission. Former cabinet member and Justice Minister Michael Keenan had had enough of it, resigned his portfolio and left the Parliament after the 2019 Election rather than continue working with a PM he was happy to call out on the record as “an absolute arsehole”. That character assessment appears in Niki Savva’s book Plots and Prayers, which also notes Christian Porter’s observation that Morrison is not a team player.
Savva is a rare journalist who appears to be able to report on the Coalition with a degree of freedom, but she is a relatively lone voice. At this late stage, we need to hear more and there is no better organisation to do some due diligence on the PM than the national broadcaster acting in the public interest.
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.
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