JACK WATERFORD. Morrison needs new roadmap and more humility

One miracle is all he can hope for: now he needs something new to sell to a public that sees through him.The nation needs a leader it can respect

Boris Johnson, British prime minister, was suitably solemn as he unveiled the latest version of his ministerial code six months ago. His government, he said wanted to make the United Kingdom the greatest place on earth. Ho Hum. No town or community will ever again be left behind or forgotten.

“To fulfil this mission, and to win back the trust of the British people, we must uphold the very highest standards of propriety – and this code sets out how we must do so.

“There must be no bullying and no harassment; no leaking; no breach of collective responsibility. No misuse of taxpayer money and no actual or perceived conflict of interest. The precious principles of public life enshrined in this document – integrity, objectivity, accountability, transparency, honesty and leadership in the public interest – must be honoured at all times. As must the political impartiality of our much-admired public service.”

Politicians say these sorts of fine words. Australia itself has an extensive ministerial code, with much the same noble sentiments, if with somewhat lower standards on issues such as ex-ministers immediately on retirement taking jobs which sell for private profit access to and knowledge of their colleagues and the way the government thinks.

Right now, however, even Morrison, unable to ruefully admit embarrassment – unable even to take a backwards step — would have to be too ashamed to publicly espouse such fundamental principles. It would be like saying he would kick a door down, or call for the law to be enforced, when one of his friends and mentors has put the interests of the Hillsong Church ahead of affirmation of the right of children to be protected from sexual abuse by its pastors.

Scott Morrison and his ultra-loyal secretary, Phil Gaetjens might note that Britain has a somewhat more detached, and less compromised, system of inquiry after a complaint that ministerial standards have been breached.  British inquiries, like Australian ones, are far from completely independent. But they begin with officials of the Cabinet Office being asked to establish the facts, a process under the scrutiny of the Independent Adviser on Minister’s Interests, currently Sir Alex Allan.

Any findings, and advice based on them from Sir Alex, go to the prime minister, who, like Scott Morrison then forms his own political judgment about what the political environment can weather, and if the government should brazen things out rather than give any ground to opposition or media criticism. The prime minister, like Morrison controls the timing of any decision, as well as first go on asserting the relevant facts. The report itself may not immediately emerge. But Britain has recently been noticeably more transparent on such matters than the Morrison government is. And Britain, in any event, has a more robust, and fairly bipartisan committee system, where the facts, if they are embarrassing, will almost certainly emerge.

Which is probably just as well, at least from the British public’s point of view. The Johnson government, now eight months old, has been re-elected and is past its first idealist flourishes,  as well as being preoccupied with a Brexit that has proven quite cumbersome and without all of the bells and whistles that those who voted to leave the European Community were given to expect, not least by Johnson. Government is starting to get fairly testy with its civil service because things are not happening as quickly, or as smoothly as it had expected. A good many Tory backbenchers, and not a few ministers, regard the civil service as being unenthusiastic and obstructive, without the zeal for runs on the board that the government wants. The problem is, of course, compounded by the disorganisation and lack of focus of the prime minister, and the practical anarchism of many of his advisers, equally frustrating to civil servants trying to achieve what ministers say they want.

Last weekend, Sir Philip Rutnam, head of the 35,000 strong Home Office, abruptly resigned his post, saying that he had been the target of a vicious and orchestrated briefing campaign by his senior minister, the Home Secretary Priti Patel. Noting that Ms Patel had categorically denied such a campaign in mediation discussion with the Cabinet Secretary, at the request of Johnson,  Sir Philip said, ”I regret I do not believe her. She has not made the efforts I would expect to disassociate herself from [anonymous] briefers”.

Sir Philip alleged that the campaign against him involved allegations of incompetence, as well as of his own secret leaking campaign against Patel. He had tried to engage with her to resolve any issues that existed, but Patel had made no effort to engage with him.

While he said that his experience of the Patel style of management was extreme, there was evidence that it was part of a wider pattern of bullying behaviour by the minister. Civil servants had made allegations to him of an atmosphere of fear in the Home Office, including shouting and swearing, belittling people, and making unreasonable and repeated demands. It was behaviour that had created fear, and that needed some bravery to call out.

Sir Philip was offered money to go away quietly, but has decided instead to sue the government for “constructive dismissal” – in effect making his job impossible. There’s every prospect that the tribunal which hears his complaints, including his suggestion of its being part of a wider pattern in the service, will be taking chapter and verse evidence in public.

“I am aware that there will continue to be briefing against me … but I am hopeful that it may now not be directed against my colleagues and the department… I hope my stand may help in maintaining the quality of government in our country  — which includes hundreds of thousands of civil servants, loyally dedicated to delivering  this government’s agenda.”

His statement led to further briefing against him from allies of Patel, who said that Sir Philip was “a classic old school establishment mandarin” who was blocking progress.
“He’s very good at blocking things without saying it’’, a source told the Financial Times. It is never a flat out “no”. Just lots of “ooh minister, that’s very courageous”.

Ms Patel has some form in relation to her style. There have been allegations of bullying and abrasiveness at each of the three posts in which she has served. One led to a payout of about $50,000 to a former official who had attempted suicide. What is being dedicated and determined, and what is bullying and abuse is in dispute.  Even her most loyal supporters agree that she is forceful and forthright, and very focused and impatient about progress in the government’s platform of tougher law and order, and tighter immigration control.  She has repeatedly expressed exasperation with officials.

She is a strong warrior for the government and bears some resemblances in personality and outlook to Liberal right-wingers such as Michaelia Cash, Sophie Mirabella and Bronwyn Bishop here in Australia. Sir Philip’s press conference has produced a “tsunami” of fresh allegations about her management style, coming from all three of the ministries in which she has worked.

Announcing the inquiry into her conduct, Johnson affirmed his complete faith in her. Patel was doing an “outstanding job”. Yet he, and the Michael Gove, who has day-to-day carriage of the matter, have felt the need to stress that bullying is not on. And it is clear that the inquiry has been designed to look at her conduct in all of the ministries in which she has served. There is not a carefully constructed Morrison or Howard-style set of terms of reference, confining a tame report from a senior official and giving Johnson maximum room to manoeuvre. Patel is popular with backbenchers and may well be retained, but if so, she will be very bruised.

Here in Australia, Morrison may be getting some relief from constant attention to his own role in government misconduct over matters such as sports rorts, or his continuing, but ultimately unavailing attempts to obfuscate and deflect questioning of matters such as his relations with the evangelical Brian Houston. Coronavirus, or COVID-19 is taking up almost all of the public space, and, so far, the government is trying hard to stay ahead of the curve. Some public panic about the spread of infection may suit the government’s political interests by serving as a distraction from government shenanigans with sports rorts and grant schemes.  In Britain, by contrast, Coronavirus is distracting ministers, and Johnson from Brexit achievement, with each inefficiency fuelling the other.

The effect of COVID-19 on the economy may also become a useful alibi for policy failure, including failure to actually bring the June 30, 2020 result into surplus, as promised last year. From Morrison’s point of view, however, it’s probably too late to hope that voters forget his recent failures. They went from events on a stage to becoming a backdrop to the stage itself. The curtains may fade, and the lighting may put them in the shade. He may redeem himself with some performances. But reconstruction after the bushfires, acknowledgement and real action on climate change, and the legacy of corruption denialism with rorted grants schemes won’t go away. They are sores and scars that will ache and nag, perhaps ultimately framing the Morrison legacy.

The biggest handicap in selling the Morrison government as a party deserving re-election two years hence comes from the way it has dropped the ball on integrity in government, and on smooth, sure and fair stewardship of public money.  Morrison won the last election narrowly by what he himself described as a miracle.  He would be testing the fates if he expects that the opposition will expose its flank to him again. He needs an agenda and a real sense of purpose. He needs a new style and personality of leadership – one rather more humble with the electorate and more willing to go beyond slogans, instincts and the very short term. He needs a reason to be in the paddock, other than watching the traffic going by, saying inane things like about how good he, it, or that is. The nation needs a leader it can respect.

Jack Waterford is a former Editor of The Canberra Times

[email protected]

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

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