Not a single woman or man on the governing side of Australian politics has had the guts or integrity to criticise the practices, and apparent working standards and ethics, of the Morrison government. In public that is.
It will be 50 years or more before any sort of balanced judgment can be made about the present times. But there will be occasions to discover important facts, including ones Scott Morrison is trying very hard to conceal. Some will come from court actions, including, it is to be hoped, the findings of integrity inquiries by powerful inquisitors. But if ever there were a case for a systemic royal commission, perhaps along the lines of a Fitzgerald inquiry, or a WA Inc inquiry, it would be over events of recent years.
We need one over the management of the pandemic, at both state and Commonwealth level, including the into economic strategy and tactics of the governments involved. The terms of reference need not be loaded. It would, of course, be best if the commissioners were women and men regarded for their independence and probity, rather than their well-known biases.
We equally need an inquiry — probably a second one rather than a continuation of the other — into the weaknesses in the general style of government, economic and financial management and political stewardship of recent days. Added on to which could be a request for a review of existing systems of political accountability and public watchdogs, including questions about the desirable form of an integrity commission.
This won’t come from the Morrison government. He has a long history of resistance to any form of looking back, particularly if it involves any review of his own stewardship. The format would not suit him anyway, because he could not distract and bluster as in question time or his press conferences.
There was once a tradition — last honoured by Kevin Rudd in failing to follow his nose with the wheat-for-oil scandal — that governments did not order inquiries into their predecessors. This convention was smashed by Tony Abbott and should not be revived. But we want the inquiries so that we can learn, not for partisan point-scoring.
We want to review (with the added benefit of hindsight) what happened, who did what and when, and what we have to learn from the affair. We want to be better prepared next time, because there will be next times. No doubt there will be ample opportunities to criticise politicians, bureaucrats and medical professionals at all levels of Australian government. But it should not be a one or two-dimensional exercise, or a mere hit job on the prime minister. The judgments of other leaders — premiers and chief ministers — should also be up for consideration. Experience abroad, might come under the microscope, as might, perhaps, be the role of some groups, such as News Ltd in spreading fear, hatred and misinformation.
It is hard to see a general inquiry into good government being kind to Morrison and his ministers. But the findings of any such inquiry would carry considerably more weight if they came from an independent quarter — a Ken Hayne type, for example – than as a piece of theatre from loyal Labor luvvies. Likewise the results would be seen to be fair if the players were given scrupulous natural justice (if not the ability to hide behind phony claims of privilege, or refusals to answer or explain.)
If such an inquiry must await a Labor government, one can probably assume that Morrison will be then out of politics. If so, his coalition successors will seek to blame him, not themselves, for any mistake or impropriety. But the commission, like the Hayne banking inquiry, should not be satisfied by such tactics. It should dig down to investigate the roles of other players, political as well as bureaucratic, who enabled wrongdoing, who failed in due diligence, or in their duty. No doubt senior ministers of the present government, such as Josh Frydenberg and Simon Birmingham, will have leadership roles after Morrison. Likewise, Mathias Cormann, a former minister for finance now heading the OECD, will feel he has a reputation to protect. An honest inquiry will tell future voters, as much as present ones, things about their fitness for office, and the manner of their stewardship of public money and the public interest.
The failures and derelictions of ministers, officials, and the weakening of the institutions of good government owe something to trends in modern economic liberalism, and a declining moral compass and debased sense of public interest and good stewardship inside almost all of those institutions, including religious organisations, financial institutions, the law and the political parties.. But one might equally relate some of these developments, or their accentuation at a critical moment, to the character and the personality of particular leaders, the judgments they made at critical moments, and to the mental and moral way in which they saw their duty when they were at any crossroads.
When silence compromises colleagues and makes them legally complicit
If Morrison is to be believed, for example, he simply sees nothing wrong with the misappropriation of public money to the partisan political use of the governing party, particularly at election time. The law, and centuries of Australian and British convention are dead against him on the impropriety of misconduct — probably corrupt and criminal misconduct — that has reached, at the least, the prime minister’s own office and any number of his ministers.
The prime minister conceals his own involvement in the workings of his private office, on a deniability model established by John Howard 25 years ago. But it is obvious, even to the ordinary voter, that his prevarications, dissembling and denials are calculated to hide the truth, rather than expose it. It is equally obvious that Morrison rejects tenets of transparent and accountable constitutional government that were there even before FOI legislation.
Not a single woman or man on the governing side of Australian politics has had the guts or integrity to criticise the practices, and apparent working standards and ethics, of the Morrison government. In public that is. The personal decency index of Liberal politicians is probably not greatly different from Labor ones. But that so many are silent, putting loyalty before honour or duty to the public, says much about the character and controlling personality of political leaders, and their capacity to influence pre-selections, crush ambitions, punish and reward. Backbench silence has made them essential functionaries in a lawless regime. The silence is, of course, the more shameful in that it is clear that senior ministers mean to stand by just the same sort of improper diversion of public funds at the next election.
Morrison has reached that stage of his tenure that even his colleagues wonder if he can win the next election. Most did not expect him to win the last one. He has won leeway because of the “miracle” of that campaign. This involved very dark arts, amazing self-confidence and a capacity to exploit peculiar Labor leadership weaknesses. Next time about, the opportunities won’t be the same. I do think that Labor must give voters a reason to vote for it. But the underlying question for voters should be whether Australians want more of the same leadership as they have been getting.