Politics Analysis

Waleed Aly is wrong: An inquiry into Morrison's multiple ministries is needed

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Cartoon by Mark David/@markdavidcartoons

Waleed Aly has a piece in Nine Entertainment outlets in which he wonders what the point is of an inquiry into Scott Morrison having himself secretly sworn into five other ministries while he was prime minister.

Aly makes the case that he doesn’t see the point of further investigation but says he is open to being convinced that an inquiry might be necessary.

Let me try and convince him.

Aly’s first point is that, although Morrison’s actions 'were inimical to our system of responsible government' they weren’t illegal. In fact, he says, the solicitor-general, Stephen Donaghue QC, has already provided legal advice 'that it would be dead simple to stop this happening again, and explained exactly how you’d do it…. No doubt he could draft that legislation for you in an afternoon if you asked him to'.

Aly also notes:

'Albanese makes the point that the solicitor-general’s advice is based only on known facts, and that an inquiry might unearth more facts. But what facts could possibly change the solicitor-general’s advice?' 

Surely, Aly says: 

'If new facts would swing it, Donaghue would have said so and made his advice conditional.'

The third reason Aly considers that would justify an inquiry is that it might unearth information about others who were involved:

'Who knew what and when? What bits were rotten in the machinery of government that allowed this to happen?'

But he rejects this line of reasoning on the basis that 'the likely answers are clear enough. The Governor-General clearly knew, but Albanese has no desire to investigate him on the perfectly sound basis that his job didn’t require him to do anything other than act on Morrison’s advice within the law. Morrison’s own office might have known, but that office no longer exists.'

Further, if the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet knew, then this is likely the result of the fact that the 'Department had long been compromised by political appointments'. Since we already knew what Aly says, we don’t need to inquire further.

He makes further arguments, but let’s deal with these points first.

The paradox that, although what Morrison did was legal, we might now need a new law to make sure it doesn’t happen again, tells us a lot about the space we are occupying with this discussion. In many ways, the whole thing turns on norms of behaviour rather than legalities and that is often the case, and should be the case, in democratic practice. Not every malfeasance can be codified and guarded against in law. Many forms of corruption are not illegal.

Norms and conventions are vital to any society and it is incumbent on societies to enforce them through good and consistent practice, and one way we do that is by conducting investigations when violations occur.

The fact that Morrison discarded a practice so taken for granted that we now might need to codify it in law is a precise measure of the violation he perpetrated and Aly is being glib at best in arguing that everyone, even Scott Morrison, would likely vote for the legislation.

Aly says we could legislate without further inquiry, and that is technically true, but given the scale of the violation, I would like to see more investigation done before what was once convention is turned into law. That process is never as straightforward as it seems, which is precisely why we avoid codification and rely on decency as much as we can, and if the transition to law is to be made, let’s investigate how as fully as we can.

The answer to the second point Aly makes, 'what facts could possibly change the solicitor-generals advice?' is kind of obvious, isn’t it? We don’t know the answer to that question, ergo, inquiry.

This is the same problem with his third point about who knew what and when. We might find out more, but we probably won’t, and so he declares, 'the likely answers are clear enough'. But the word likely is bearing such a load here that you can’t help but think it will snap.

Again, we don’t know what facts might emerge, ergo, inquiry.

Really, these aren’t arguments against an inquiry: they aren’t really arguments at all. They are opinions about why he doesn’t think we need one. For Aly, we have all the information we need, the facts are “clear enough” and that is fine. He has made up his mind. But in saying we likely have all the information we need, he could just as well be making the opposite case. Likely have is the same as possibly don’t and that’s why you need an inquiry.

Then we get into a very strange part of the argument and Aly openly contradicts himself.

He asks rhetorically: 'Is the aim of this inquiry to identify and shame the guilty?' He allows there might be some benefit in this but concludes that now:

To make this an ersatz prosecution, or some exercise in the humiliation of one’s political enemies, would be to succumb to the kind of political brutalism that got us here in the first place.

Having raised this possibility, however, he dismisses it by saying 'I’m prepared to think better of the Albanese Government than that'.

But is he really?

A few paragraphs on he says:

'…Albanese really should explain in very precise terms what exactly we’re hoping to gain from this inquiry that isn’t mere schadenfreude…We have to know what this inquiry is  but crucially also what it isn’t. So far, we don’t, and that leaves the door open to political opportunism'.

In other words, he is not prepared to think better of the Prime Minister after all and I wish he hadn’t said that he was.

The contradiction comes off as disingenuous, which is a shame, because there is a case to be made along these lines, that governments shouldn’t pursue investigations merely for political purposes. What Aly fails to show, other than by speculation and rhetorical questioning, is whether that is what is going on here.

In one sense, it is probably unanswerable – and you would be naive to think that Labor didn’t see some political advantage in hanging Scott Morrison out to dry – but the mere possibility of this is not enough to show an investigation into what he did shouldn’t happen. In fact, Scott Morrison’s behaviour was so egregious, as Aly has acknowledged, that that alone is reason to err on the side having a full investigation rather than just “moving on”.

Speaking of which.

Aly also asks, 'For how long should it preoccupy us?' and it is such a controlling way to frame the matter, entirely typical of how the media in general tries to impose boundaries on how we are to understand any given issue. The answer is: it can preoccupy us for us long as we like and if those who want to pursue the matter with an inquiry can be accused of siding with Labor for political reasons, then those who don’t want to pursue it can be accused of siding with Morrison and the opposition for the same reason.

Either way, it is a case for an inquiry, not against one, provided you can rely on the independence of those conducting it and I don’t Aly or anyone else is suggesting we can’t.

Aly eventually alights on an idea that many rely on, including Scott Morrison himself, that inquiries like this are unnecessary because the ultimate sanction lies with the voters on election day.

'He’s a duly elected member. Absent being convicted of a crime, only the people can remove him,' Aly writes, and this is true, but it is a dangerously diminished idea of democratic accountability. In saying that, I’m not arguing Morrison should be removed from office, only that he should held accountable for as long as he remains in Parliament and an inquiry into his behaviour achieves this.

To spell it out: the very fact that he can’t be removed other by an election increases the need for some process to exist that holds him accountable while he occupies the office.

So, yes, the ultimate sanction against a politician is that his electorate votes him out, but I think Aly is missing a major aspect of the logic of this truism.

How are voters meant to weigh up their vote if they don’t have all the facts? Surely an inquiry aids this process rather than hinders it or displaces it.

It seems such a strange argument to say, oh, well, people can just vote him out if they don’t like what he did, while denying them the tools to inform themselves as fully as possible before they cast that vote.

Elections are important in a democracy, obviously, but they are part of a process, not its entirety, and politicians need to be accountable between elections as well as at them.

Inquiries like this should be a normal part of that accountability process, as should a federal ICAC, especially when politicians show themselves to be so untrustworthy as to violate long-established norms of democratic behaviour, as happened in the case.

Have an inquiry, let Morrison appear and make his case, and let his electorate, with that full knowledge, then judge whether to vote for him or not. Anything less undermines the democratic process.

This article was originally published on the Future of Everything under the title 'Answering Waleed Aly's concerns about an inquiry into Scott Morrison'.

Dr Tim Dunlop is a leading author and professional speaker specialising in media, technology and the future of work. You can read more from Tim here and follow him on Twitter @timdunlop.

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