The recent scandal involving former PM Scott Morrison has shown that he is still a threat to our democracy even out of the top job, writes Paul Begley.
FORMER PRIME MINISTER Scott Morrison ostensibly made three claims during his press conference last Wednesday and in his Facebook rant that followed: he had assumed extra ministerial portfolios because the pandemic demanded it; he only exercised the extra authority on one occasion; and he will not be walking away from his seat of Cook despite telling Margaret Court’s evangelicals in Perth that they should not place any trust in government.
In reality, he pulled a routine confidence trick. He maximised confusion by creating the fantasy of himself as a misunderstood knight on a white charger in a crisis and an unappreciated victim of his carping critics who stood sullenly on the shore while he was heroically active at the helm during an unforgiving pandemic.
Autocrats typically use a crisis to amass dictatorial power. Regardless of who lit the 1933 Reichstag fire, it was the crisis that led the former soldier and war hero President Paul Von Hindenburg to events in which he naively appointed the Nazi leader Hitler as Chancellor in 1934 with powers under an Enabling Act allowing him to make and enforce laws without recourse to the German Parliament.
While Prime Minister Albanese decides what to do with advice from the Solicitor General, it’s worth reflecting on where it leaves Australian voters three months after the Election. Apart from Morrison’s audacity in seeking advice from the then Attorney-General, Christian Porter, in 2020, on a mechanism to allow him to insert himself into the Health Ministers’ portfolio area of responsibility, Morrison employed the mechanism at least four more times without the affected minister knowing and without the excuse of a pandemic to justify the manoeuvre.
Apart from Porter, the Governor-General had to be in on the scheme as the official who swears in ministers. General David Hurley has declared he was not responsible for Morrison keeping secret what they had done, yet Hurley’s diaries reveal detailed entries on ribbon cutting and dog show attendances while being silent on swearing in the PM on all occasions.
Prime Minister Albanese will need to decide what, if anything, to do about the Governor-General’s behaviour. He might decide to stand above the fray and do nothing.
One thing the PM will have to face up to is what to do about the former Prime Minister who is stubbornly declaring he has a backbench seat and is not moving from it.
Fortunately, the PM has already acted on a related area connected to what has transpired by appointing Glyn Davis as Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. A former university vice chancellor and distinguished scholar, Davis knows that the department he leads is the principal caretaker of government instruments of power. His responsibility is to serve the Prime Minister by offering him wise advice at arm’s length.
Chris Wallace made the salient point that the PM&C Secretary’s job from time to time will be to say “No, Minister!”
Morrison had appointed Davis’s predecessor, Phil Gaetjens, from among his ranks of loyal “yes men” and during that time, it’s safe to say the PM&C Secretary served the Prime Minister’s personal whims; he did not serve the nation. The fact that Gaetjens resigned his post on 22 May was an indication that he did not see himself as having any role in a government that was not led by the person of Scott Morrison.
Under Gaetjens’s public service leadership, the ship of state was adrift. His swift departure was a silent but eloquent admission of unpardonable neglect.
There are those who now say Mr Morrison should be left alone to eke out his time as a forgettable backbencher. Others are insisting he must go and former Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews is not the only one saying that. How it comes about remains to be seen but it is clearly the right course.
Labor Party loyalists who say he will just damage the Liberal Party so let him stay and do that, are not only cynical but mistaken in their judgement. Morrison may be a person of mediocre talents with few redeeming attributes, but he is also a person who has made his way in life by being perpetually underrated. He is not the “quiet Australian” he declared himself to be last week. He may have no interest in the worthy citizens of Cook but has a longstanding interest in attracting attention and turning it to his advantage among like-minded colleagues and supporters, in much the same way as Donald Trump does in the U.S.
On paper, Morrison has been a nobody for three months, yet he has occupied headline space across the nation for the past two weeks. If he remains in Parliament, he will continue to be a chaotic flashpoint for whatever will get him a headline and the collateral damage will not be confined to the Liberal Party. In the end, Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus will create an anti-corruption commission to which Morrison should be answerable, but in the interim, he must be jettisoned from public life.
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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