One of the most striking aspects of the public response to the revelations about former Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s secret self-appointment to multiple ministries was that, after the initial expressions of incredulity, there was so little surprise that such an outrage could have occurred.
Acting with undisguised contempt for democratic processes, constitutional conventions, transparency or the need for accountability, Morrison had appointed himself as co-minister of health, finance, treasury, home affairs, and resources, noting – implausibly – that he “could not recall” which ministries he had taken on. It is known that he thereby acquired for himself considerable power which he actively concealed, even from closest colleagues. What is not known is what decisions he took in these secret roles, whether as a covert minister he discharged all the responsibilities imposed upon him by law, and who, apart from the Governor General (who was obliged to ratify the appointments) was aware of his actions.
With few exceptions, the public responses of Morrison’s former cabinet colleagues have been to excuse what has been widely accepted as an egregious breach of tradition and governance. Comments from Peter Dutton, Barnaby Joyce, David Littleproud, Anne Webster and others have attempted to explain away the ex-prime minister’s behaviour on the basis that he had done nothing illegal or unconstitutional, had been acting in response to the perceived pressures of the Covid-19 pandemic, was no longer in power, had expressed remorse, or that he had “apologised”. Another former Prime Minister, John Howard, no particular fan of apologies himself, leapt to his defence arguing that the matter was “not something… so reeking (sic) with principle as to require an unwanted, expensive, unnecessary by-election.”
In none of these excuses has Morrison or his supporters even pretended to provide a coherent justification for his actions. Nonetheless, the extended commentaries show that there is little doubt in the public mind about what the underlying motivations really were. It is widely taken for granted that, hyperbole aside, like other politicians, the former Prime Minister was motivated by no more or less than a desire for power, political expediency, self-interestedness, arrogance, and a cynical attempt to gain personal advantage and to serve (largely hidden) vested interests.
That John Howard remains one of Morrison’s most trenchant supporters is perhaps not insignificant. As Richard Flanagan argued in his brilliant essay immediately after the election, Howard, and Howardism, have come to epitomise the worst in Australian politics, the smallness of ideas, the intolerance of ethical causes, the cynical use of political power to serve sectional or party-political interest and the use of wedge-politics or ‘dog-whistling’ to incite public disagreement and prevent consensus and social solidarity. It was, after all, Howard who “turned back a historic tide of national progress on everything from the republic to reconciliation, refused to even use the word multiculturalism… and set the dogs of xenophobia onto Australian politics, transforming refugees into a threatening invasion force.” It was also Howard who took the country to war on the basis of an elaborate hoax and won an election through the device of a doctored photo used to foment racist fears.
As devastating as Flanagan’s critiques of Morrison and Howard are, however, his optimism that all this detritus could be swept away with a single election result is misplaced. It is true that a major theme in the election campaign was the corruption of politicians, and it is true that the Labor Party under Anthony Albanese has publicly committed to creating a Federal integrity commission. It is even true that Albanese himself has acknowledged the struggles of many Australians and made the implementation of the Uluru Statement from the Heart a major priority. But, while welcome, these steps forward are unlikely to be enough to restore political decency or rebuild public trust in democratic processes.
Putting aside the trite observation that our experiences of previous recent Labor governments has not provided much cause for optimism, a few changes in policy, and even some minor institutional reforms, will not be sufficient to cure the deeper malaise that Morrison’s actions have come so eloquently to symbolise. As welcome as it may be to many people, a change in government alone will not be enough to guarantee that, as Flanagan triumphantly proclaims, “the nightmare has suddenly ended”. This is because the pathology lies not just in the individuals but in the culture they have created and in which they remain imbedded. Sadly, this culture will not instantly dissipate with the imposition of a few more rules or slight adjustments in policies: rather, these will likely do no more than generate incentives to find new loopholes and to invent new, cleverer ways, to perpetuate the same regrettable outcomes.
What we need to address as a society is not the personal lapses of a few individuals but the normalisation of behaviours that serve narrow political interests at the expense of a wider set of values once seen as constitutive of the public sphere and central to any authentic notion of “democracy”. We need to restore the valuing of truth, honesty and integrity, respect for diverse perspectives or points of view, a sense of obligation to the health of the planet and of succeeding generations, a rejection of crude, self-serving militarism, and a commitment to transparency and accountability – values that in today’s political culture have been relegated to the status of empty relics of past ideologies. And we need to extirpate what has been installed in its place: the depleted discourse of the modern politician, for whom principles “reek” and whatever action is needed to serve one’s own interests – be they political, religious, professional or economic – is acceptable and justifiable.
Any process of ethical healing from the last, bad years of decay in the Australian public sphere will be long and difficult. The restoration of the foundational standards of truthfulness and a commitment to an open conversation in which the values and goals of all sections of society can be openly discussed – the elementary conditions of possibility of ethical discourse – would be a good place to start. The task of expunging the evil that has been installed at the heart of our political culture by decades of the pursuit of base ambitions, persecution of refugees, climate change denial, and complicity in wars of aggression will be much harder.
What politicians do matters. It sets standards for the remainder of society and provides models that citizens – young and old – emulate in their own daily lives. In recent decades, Australia has been let down by a degradation of the political culture that has habituated us to forms of conduct that should have been regarded as unconscionable. If we are to restore the moral basis of our public sphere, however, we will need to do more than merely call out miscreant former Prime Ministers. To lift ourselves out of the abyss we will need to embark on a healing process that is resolute, courageous and inclusive. Defining and acknowledging the problem is a start, but it is how we take up the challenge that will be decisive.