Bad habits must be unlearned before they bring down governments and society

Morrison has never been one for secrecy, refusal to acknowledge error or bad judgment, and willingness to use his prerogatives to avoid being pinned on detail. Perhaps his impulses on the pandemic or reviving the economy are worthy — methinks they devote too much focus on culture wars.

Good decision making and good management are just matters of being neat, or patient with a sometimes-frustrating process. Government and governance have rules designed to get better outcomes — ones that  serve the public interest more than any that are impulsive, reflex ideological, or designed to favour mates and cronies. Managing and financing an economic recovery will be difficult enough — almost certain to take longer and be more agonising than anyone initially expected. But it will be even longer if there is a public perception of a government of insiders, ignoring the rules and looking after their own. It will be even worse if ridiculous notions are allowed to overrule the rule of law. Such as empowering ministers to override the clear directions of an Act of Parliament.

The sports-rorts affair awaits senate committee reports, and ultimately, it seems, a High Court challenge to the legality of the spending. Nearly two years old in its corrupted conception, it is probably far too late now to see regret or shame, or even resignation, from those whose approach to public spending enabled the abuse of which the Auditor-General complained.  A government so determinedly looking ahead, and, of course, unwilling to be distracted from the task of defeating the pandemic and reviving the economy can pretend that it is ancient history — and anyway of far less moment than the challenges before government now.

The rorting of a number of grants schemes may indeed be small beer compared with the sums of future debt that the government is throwing around. But the attitude and the approach are not. A sense of crisis has allowed Morrison — and premiers and chief ministers  — to govern without parliament, and with the grant to themselves of the power to suspend or override legislation and standing systems and processes of administration. In some areas, though not at Commonwealth level, police commissioners have been given emergency powers over movement well beyond any power they could normally exercise as cops. The national cabinet — of the prime minister, premiers and chief ministers — may have proven a method of obtaining a certain grudging consensus with important short-term problems, but has left stored up a host of future questions about accountability, transparency and regard for process.

Even more extraordinarily, a committee of powerful business leaders, most with substantial vested interests not publicly declared, has been giving the prime minister advice he is seeking to shield behind conventions of Cabinet secrecy. Morrison has ever been one for secrecy, refusal to acknowledge error or bad judgment, and willingness to use his prerogatives to avoid being pinned on detail. Perhaps his impulses on the pandemic or reviving the economy are worthy — methinks they devote too much focus on culture wars. But even if he gets credit for the imagination he and the Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg have displayed, he should get no encouragement for acting without regard to law, or process, or transparency.

The big risk is that having won back some ground by improvisation, he will think he has a mandate to continue it. Not only is that a mandate for bad government, but it is a prescription for a handicapped recovery. The optimists among us have been imagining a golden possibility for a future style of open and responsible government as the economy picks up. There’s a real risk that the recovery will be so slow, so patchy and so hard on sectors of the population that many will settle for ad hoc second-rate administration, as though old models were a luxury and encumbrance the crisis cannot afford. If that happens, the template for future inquiries, maybe after Morrison, will be Fitzgerald, WA Inc, and Wood.

No one will be much worried about whether premiers followed Commonwealth convention and contracted out work to MSS, other premiers took out their rage on the ACT, or Queensland and WA decided to go it alone, to evident medical and political success. These won’t seem to matter much against the backdrop of current events. It’s one thing to make mistakes under when acting under great pressure; it’s another altogether another  to bind oneself to a pattern that makes mistake-making inevitable.

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John Waterford AM, better known as Jack Waterford, is an Australian journalist and commentator.

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