Our leader’s many flaws make even more urgent the need for an integrity watchdog, which would shoot down his blustering evasions.
The last week saw a good deal of the character, the strengths and the weaknesses of our prime minister on display, and it was not, generally, a cheering or an encouraging sight. The brawl with France, and Australia’s inept and inadequate contribution to climate change action were unattractive issues in their own right, and both will be hard to spin to silent Australians as a reflection of an Australian way of never compromising our sovereignty to foreigners, or as a necessary incident of making tough but essential decisions in the national security interest.
We were all demeaned, including by his affectation that the attack on his honesty by the French president was a criticism of Australia itself. What sort of mugs does he take us to be?
The curious thing was the demonstration that Scott Morrison’s international political skills were seemingly on a par with the way in which he has managed an array of domestic crises since he took power. There was little strategy, long-term thinking or progress fitting neatly into a unified vision of where the nation should be going. He was not anticipating events, let alone making provision for accidents, failures or even the weather. Rather, as so often over the past three years, he seemed ever behind the ball, responding with fixes rather than solutions, marketing slogans rather than insights, and an increasingly belligerent or aggrieved view towards anyone who contradicts or criticises him.
Coupled with chronic secretiveness and refusal to explain or account, he now seems to live in a perpetual present, in which statements made previously can be blandly denied or redefined, and those who harp or dwell on his faults can be accused of being focused on the past rather than the glorious, but entirely undefined future, towards which he is leading us. He has exhibited no talent for planning, for management or for selecting or motivating good managers, nor for leadership of the population at large.
Rueful retrospect, acknowledgment of mistakes, or any expression of sorrow or regret has seemed to become impossible. So self-assured is Morrison indeed, that he can convince himself, at least for the moment, that black is white, that his actions and motivations are pure, and that, in any event, harping on alleged matters of the past is “playing politics”. He, of course would never do that.
Like Charles de Gaulle, he has succumbed to the vanity that he is the personification of his nation. Yet he has always struggled with imagination, or with words that can inspire or lead.
Like Donald Trump, he seems to believe himself to be very popular among international statesmen, even if the visuals reinforced his isolation and the reluctance of many of our friends to associate with us. His empathy gap is not merely a political weakness, but increasingly a national embarrassment.
One of the most delicious reasons for yearning for a wide-ranging and public federal integrity commission to deal with the obvious corruption of spirit within the Morrison government is to imagine Morrison being publicly cross-examined by a lawyer in somewhat the same manner as Gladys Berejiklian in NSW recently. Like Morrison, Berejiklian is adept at not at answering the question asked but the question he would like to have been asked. Like Morrison, Berejiklian is adept at vague answers followed by false statements such as “I have answered” the question, or distractions such as “I do not agree with the premise of the question”. Both ignore questions they do not want to answer. Both have been adroit at declaring that it is time to “move on”.
Counsel in formal inquiries are not so lightly dismissed or dissed as mere journalists or members of the opposition in Question Time. Free-ranging attacks on the questioner, or on other parties are not allowed. Counsel demand answers — often yes or no answers — to questions. Wordy formulations, full of meaningless jargon, are not enough, and when given are readily seen to be, as they usually are from the mouth of Morrison, distractions, attempts to avoid the answer, and a reflection of a person who seems to be able to make up, and then passionately, if just for the moment, believe anything at all.
Lawyers are able to pin a person to an answer, or to show that the modern interpretation of what was said is at great variance with the original meaning — sometimes, despite the denial, the exact opposite of what was initially said. On occasion, people find themselves confronted with tapes of what they once said. Bluster won’t do it. And the answers given will not be mediated through spin doctors and rendered meaningless again, but can be compared with what has been said before.
In 20 years of involvement in politics and public administration, Morrison has been able to avoid such an inquisition. Thanks to a precedent set by Tony Abbott — when Abbott was junking the conventions in an effort to pin Kevin Rudd with the blame for industrial manslaughter — Morrison, still in, or even retired from politics, will not ever be immune from the risk of such questioning — whether as to his own conduct, or the dubious conduct of colleagues. Unless, of course, he is able to be re-elected forever.
Nor would Morrison be able to get away with the pretence this week that he was driven to heavy-duty retaliation on Emmanuel Macron because Macron had slurred the sacred nation of Australia, rather than, as Macron was at pains to make clear, the character and integrity of Morrison himself. Any person who heard what Macron said understood that he distinguished his affection for Australia and its people from his indignation at Morrison personally, for what he unequivocally called lies.
Morrison’s pretence that he was responding to a sledge of the whole nation was among the least of the self-deceptions of the week, but one of the most telling. So was his decision, not for the first time, to throw out convention and sometimes to put national security material into the public domain if he senses he is under personal attack. The material leaked on his behalf this week, ostensibly to prove that it was Macron himself who was lying about having no warning of cancellation of the subs contract, in fact proved the opposite.
Much of what our prime minister did over the past fortnight he had done before in the domestic sphere. But it blended into a sense that he is not really in charge of events, that he is increasingly accident-prone, that his statements are entirely unreliable and that performance on announcements he has made, promises given or timetables presented will be very patchy. He can blame only himself for the debacles with ordering vaccines, and in delivering them to the population; though now Australia has among the best vaccination rates in the world, it seems almost in spite of him, rather than because of his leadership or his planning. A host of awful impressions and surly disclaimers punctuate his period in office, and seriously undermine an impression he once worked assiduously to create — that he was just an ordinary guy, a bit of a dag, if anything, an everyman but quintessentially a traditional Australian. He has pushed governors-general out of their unifying role of representing the nation back to itself, but has consistently proven unable to play the role himself because of his continual political combativeness.
Of course the prospect of facing ICAC-style questions might be enough to make him redouble his efforts — by fair means or foul, including a resumption of the rorting of grant schemes — to deny Labor government. What is not so clear is whether he, or the government, could again get away with such blatant rorting, or again do so with the cowed acquiescence of the public service.