Politics Opinion

Scott Morrison's devolution of democracy

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Scott Morrison has managed to flaunt his power through severing ties with France over submarines and overlooking the Christian Porter scandal, writes Dr Jennifer Wilson.

PRIME MINISTER Scott Morrison had a busy weekend, struggling to control two significant narratives that threaten to escape his iron grip. At the heart of both are issues of trust and responsibility, neither of which is readily associated with Morrison and his Government. Both situations call into question the health of a social contract on which a liberal democracy depends if it is to function.

First, the French submarines. In 2016, the Australian Government signed a deal worth billions of dollars with the French for 12 submarines, which were, at Australia’s request and considerable expense, to be converted from nuclear to conventional power.

Early last Thursday morning, Mr Morrison called a press conference at which he announced that deal was dead, buried and cremated. It is to be replaced by a proposed new deal with the US and the UK for eight nuclear-powered subs, to be delivered sometime in 2040.

Morrison failed to give the French adequate warning of his change of heart (and it was, according to Morrison, his initiative to approach the U.S. on this matter) leaving them to discover the new relationship status at the eleventh hour, according to the now recalled French ambassador.

No matter how you look at it, this is a sorry saga of secrecy, deceit and manipulation by Scott Morrison and one that has become all too familiar domestically. Although, this is the first time the Prime Minister’s preferred methods of operation have been demonstrated on the world stage. It appears that the U.S. expected Morrison would advise the French in a timely manner of his change of plans. This is a reasonable expectation of a reasonable leader, but the Americans had not yet realised the duplicitous and, some would say, cowardly nature of the man they are working with.

Morrison well knows the thrilling power of secrecy. He allowed the Americans to believe he was handling things with the French when he clearly was not. He continued to cultivate the French connection, including friendly exchanges with French President Emmanuel Macron in June, in full knowledge of the imminent betrayal by then underway for some 18 months.

The second narrative Morrison is struggling to control is the scandal of current backbencher and alleged rapist Christian Porter. The revelation of a blind trust set up to assist Porter with his personal legal expenses has caused the former Attorney-General and Industry and Science Minister to resign from his position in Cabinet. The Prime Minister appears to believe this is the end of the matter.

However, Morrison has failed to explain why, under his watch, it is acceptable for a backbencher to be the beneficiary of a blind trust, estimated to have accumulated some $1 million in donations from anonymous donors. While Porter has declared the existence of the trust, he has not named the donors, nor has he revealed the amount of money gifted to him.

The precedent set by Morrison’s cavalier attitude is staggering. Any backbencher can, we must assume, be the beneficiary of an unlimited blind trust for their personal expenses, without declaring anything other than the existence of the trust. In other words, any backbench MP is for sale and no backbench MP is accountable.

That Morrison supports such a system should surprise no one. Accountability, responsibility, trust, the core tenets of a social contract such as ours, are inconvenient distractions from Morrison’s goal, which is to retain power at any cost, including the devolution of the democracy he has taken an oath to protect.

Obviously, the French were never going to be relaxed about losing the lucrative submarine contract. So why did Morrison compound the fallout by failing to inform them in a timely and courteous manner of Australia’s changing needs? 

He did it because he could. He did it because the exercise of raw power is his drug of choice. Morrison is never as energised as when he is in full authoritarian flight. He had power over the French. He had power over the Americans. He is now responsible for the acrimony between the two countries that has caused the French to recall their ambassador from the U.S., for the first time ever.

This will not dismay the Australian Prime Minister. It will delight him.

Domestically, Morrison has instigated and overseen a steady decay in institutions designed to protect democratic principles, peopling them with employees who answer not to citizens, but to government. Morrison has weaponised institutions designed to uphold and nurture democratic norms. His latest refusal to insist on the financial accountability of non-ministerial members of the Federal Parliament is another powerful blow to democracy.

This is the first time we have seen Morrison perform on the world stage as he does at home. His ability, indeed his ambition to sow disruption and chaos as a means of exercising his personal power, combined with his belief that he is chosen by God, is chilling. Be, at the very least, alert and alarmed.  

Dr Jennifer Wilson is an IA columnist, a psychotherapist and an academic. You can follow Jennifer on Twitter @NoPlaceForSheep.

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