It’s time for Morrison to consider his legacy as electoral wilderness looms

Dec 7, 2021
Prime Minister Scott Morrison
(Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

The prime minister may not be able to save his electoral skin, but he can help the Coalition to become a competent opposition, writes Jack Waterford.

It was not one of Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s better weeks, months or even years, but watching the final parliamentary session for the year with very little sympathy for the man, I could not help thinking that he should be using better strategies to position his party for the year and the decade ahead.

It was a week of floor crossings by Coalition members, the announcement by a number of colleagues that they were not planning to re-contest their seats, the standing down of a minister pending an inquiry into his affair with a former staffer, and a further period of bruising attacks on his personality and his general tendency towards bullshit, bluster and blame. It was hardly a note on which the Coalition, the ministry or he himself could depart for holidays with a new spring in their step.

Most of all it was for want of having much in the way of a legislative agenda, let alone a platform from which voters can see where Morrison and his team would like to take the nation in the year ahead. One can be fairly certain that creating a right of religious discrimination, even assuming he could get it through either house of Parliament, is not by itself going to do the trick.

One should never write off the chances of any person in a two-horse race, particularly when he has shown himself to have no ethical qualms about abusing all of the powers of incumbency, including the conversion of public money into party funds. Particularly too given Labor’s capacity to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory — an outcome that might even give some of Anthony Albanese’s party detractors more pleasure than a Labor victory.

Nonetheless it must now be said that a Labor win at the election, whenever it is held, is more likely than not, and that nothing Morrison, or his team, has yet shown to voters gives the impression that he can turn it around. Relentless attacks on Labor personalities, or on the intrinsic tendencies of any Labor government can be expected, but their impact will be diluted by the disarray within the Coalition, and probably, the accumulation of its weaknesses.

It’s rather too late to have an agenda for government. It is not to late to have an agenda for opposition, one that is concentrated first on minimising Coalition losses so that it has some ability to re-establish itself as soon as possible for a return to government. Just as importantly, an agenda of hamstringing Labor in government, and by fair means rather than foul. It is time for a conservative government, however hypocritically, to again pretend to be a champion of decent, limited and honest government, constrained by law and by convention in the way that it spends public money and pursues policies of change. Indeed — this ought to be particularly attractive to Morrison — a party which restores the system to much the same as it once was. Perhaps too, as he claims, unconvincingly, to have always been his predisposition a party more focused on freedom, flexibility and trust in people than on centralisation, regulation and command economies.

Take for example the question of a federal independent commission against corruption (ICAC). It is too late now to have such a commission holding hearings before the next election, but it is not too late to adopt and legislate the model being championed by the Independents and (if with less enthusiasm) the Labor Party. One could even appoint the commissioners, ones with the appearance of being independent and neutral, but thought to have a predisposition against executive aggrandisement of power. Not, in short, Labor luvvies, or the sort of unhelpful ex-judges who have been undermining the Coalition’s argument for a secret commission with no power and no teeth.

He could be laying booby traps for the next government. It probably won’t be led by him.

Most of the Coalition’s opposition to a Commonwealth ICAC — even after it committed itself to one — was based on the fear that it would be a scourge on the Coalition in power, not least to the rorting mentality of so many members of the National Party. No doubt the ICAC we ultimately get, probably on a Labor model somewhat weaker than the independents want, will be able to investigate past corruption — which is to say the copious corruption of mind in the Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison governments.

But as politicians in the states, particularly in NSW have discovered, most ICAC-like bodies are forward looking, rather than focused on the past, and the major victims of any ICAC set-up will be ministers in the government of the day. Probably Labor ministers in short. And, given the predilection of many Labor folk, particularly factional chieftains, to see the achievement of power as the opportunity to redistribute the loot, and organise the patronage, to their own advantage rather than for the public interest, one can expect rich pickings, at least until the big players realise that the nature of the political game has changed.

It is true that no Coalition minister, from Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison down, can sleep safely at night given the glee and the zeal with which Tony Abbott destroyed the old convention that new governments do not perform inquests into the actions of previous governments. Thus, for example, Kevin Rudd did not initiate a proper inquiry into the involvement of politicians in the Iraqi wheat-for-oil scandal, and did not even think of an inquiry into the bugging of the East Timor cabinet, though he knew about it and must have known its capacity to destroy some reputations.

But Labor should have no appetite to return to the old convention. If I were a Labor prime minister, I would be actively thinking about organising formal inquiries, outside the ICAC process, into the Robodebt scheme, into how money designed for improving sporting facilities, park-and-ride schemes, and regional infrastructure were consciously rorted by politicians as election war-chests, or to reward mates and cronies, and to punish and disadvantage enemies and critics of the government.

I would be interested to see an inquiry into how Treasurer Josh Frydenberg established a scheme by which businesses were allowed to rort $40 billion in public money to which they were not entitled, without any obligation to repay money — the more obscene because the government was attempting to re-establish schemes to chisel money back from pensioners and welfare beneficiaries who might not have been entitled. I would also have a practical inquiry into the politicisation of senior ranks of the public service, one that included the activities, and the acts and omissions of those who had taken the money and run by the time of a change of government.

There’s scope too for inquiries into lessons from the management of the pandemic and of the economy once the pandemic began, into bushfire recovery, into climate change policy and administration over the past decade and ones into the prudent management of public resources by the departments of Home Affairs and the attorney-general, and into the deliberate running down of the tertiary education sector. Another might be into the way that some agencies of the bureaucracy, led by Prime Minister and Cabinet and the Department of Home Affairs, came to disregard the law on FOI in a presumed effort to win favour from ministers.

Any of these, and no doubt others would be justified either as searches for lessons for dealing with future similar problems, or, in many cases, into matters of systemic  poor government, and poor governance. They could be seen as essential building blocks  for rebuilding institutions of government, and for squaring the books on a prolonged period of government by discretion, including discretionary controls over the spending of public money.

The fact that such inquiries might — almost certainly would — damage the reputations of former Coalition ministers and some of their flunkies would be (or could be pretended to be) only an incidental consequence of an attempt to restore good government. The long-term outcome might not be radical change of the law.

The general principles of sound financial management — including the obligation that public money be spent on the merits of the case rather than for partisan purpose — have been in place for 30 years; they have simply been ignored by the government and, alas, the Department of Finance. And while political and managerial transparency and accountability could always be improved, its fundamentals have long been part of the governance framework. It has been poor leadership — including outright denial — rather than a vacuum that has made the principles dead letters, particularly under Morrison.

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