The Morrison ship of state might be better scuttled

Aug 10, 2021

A significant number of Australians of essentially conservative disposition are getting to the point of thinking that the most urgent and important political priority of the next 10 months — even above completing the war against Coronavirus — should be the disposal of the Morrison government. It is urgent, they think, because the Australian model of government of law, by law and under the law might be destroyed if it is allowed to go on much longer.

There is no special desire for a Labor government, or an Albanese government, though a good many are not particularly afraid of that prospect, particularly given the sacrifices Albanese is prepared to make to get elected. It is getting Morrison that matters. But the aim would not be achieved by yet another party coup or leadership transition, because almost everyone in the coalition government has become infected with the culture of lawlessness and government by discretion that the Morrison model has involved.

Look, for example, at the willingness of Morrison ministers, and the prime minister’s office, to pork-barrel and misappropriate public money to Liberal Party purposes at the last election. More significantly, look at the utter lack of shame or contrition demonstrated by any of the Morrison ministers as the rorting has been uncovered by the Auditor-General and others. Look also at the complicity of some of the younger ministers, from the Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg down,  reckoned by some as having the honesty, decency and integrity to be future worthy leadership prospects.

As things stand, does anyone honestly expect that Scott Morrison, or any of his ministers or advisers, will be any less predisposed to rort the system by trying to divert taxpayer money to Liberal Party purposes so as to win the next election? If Morrison were to fall under a bus before the next election,  does anyone honestly think that any of his possible successors would shrink from the blatant abuses of 2019?

It is quite true that it is difficult to fool the Australian electorate for very long, particularly when one is as blatant and shameless as the Morrison government. Yet the sums of public money such figures have been prepared to divert to partisan purposes — and without a bleat from the formal deeply compromised public administration — raise the prospect of whether an election can be bought — and with the electorate’s own money.

It is not a new situation in Australia, although mostly it has arisen at the state level, where, however, there are some checks and balances against a complete culture of abuse. Any student of NSW politics would have noticed, for example, that it only takes two or three terms of being in power for a party, Labor or Liberal to become complacent and corrupted, contemptuous of the electorate and the public interest, and, generally operated by vested interests and unaccountable lobbies through the political machine of the party in power. At that point, it is best to throw the party in power out and to put the other party in power.

The new party will not usually have been much reformed by its time in the wilderness — or even by the odd former minister having been jailed for their personal role in the more egregious corruptions of the past. But they will have become somewhat more careful and circumspect, not least because, in NSW at least, the theme of the turnover election will have been the blatant and obvious corruptions of the lot now needing to be tossed out. By the time the new government has become unafraid of public opinion,  unconcerned about the public interest, and inclined to think that public goods, money, discretions and jobs are disposable by tender to party machine figures, party donors and cronies of the players, it is time to throw them out again.

Provided there is a fairly regular turnover, the quality of government is far from perfect and far less corrupt than, say, American government at any level, or Westminster government. This is not because modern Australian politicians are better women or men, or less corruptible to venal purposes than their counterparts in the British or American political class. But our smaller scale makes discovery more likely. For all of the absence of some desirable checks and balances, we have some better-established traditions, not least in restraining complete capture by the lobbies, while in politics. And, at least until recently, some of our checks and balances, including our legal and administrative judiciary,  have been more effective than in those jurisdictions.

The Australian way is to throw the rascals out after a few terms when they have become complacent and corrupted by incumbency

The development of anti-corruption and integrity bodies in many states, if not at the Commonwealth level, has played a role in exposing some of the more blatant rorting. Moreover, the Australian temper is cynical and suspicious of politicians of either side, and that often counteracts the worst excesses of tribalism. Witness, for example, the pleasure NSW voters took in throwing out most of a very shopsoiled Labor administration in 2011. It was business as well as personal, and some of those who deserved to go to jail was actually sent there. But the Berejiklian government is now more affected by its own corruption scandals, and it is not the past but the present which is the biggest obstacle to a Labor return to power.

One can go around almost all of the states to find similar cycles of power gained and power lost, as often as not because politicians became complacent, corrupted by incumbency and the undemocratic mechanisms of party government, including factions, cronyism, branch-stacking, and the abuse of patronage. Or, as someone once put, the tendency to think that one holds one’s position freehold, rather than leasehold.

In both sides of politics, relatively faceless machine people — including at the federal level over the years, people such as Scott Morrison and Anthony Albanese — have considerable power to control pre-selections and advance or cut short careers. Parties are increasingly in the hands of “professional” marketing people, rather than of the grassroots, and the path to power for “suits” of either sex involves working in partisan lobbies, or as ministerial advisers. That may make them more ruthless, less consultative and a lot less in it for an idealistic purpose — “to make a difference” — rather than to accumulate and exercise power.

There’s more focus on image than on ideals, on slogans rather than policy analysis, on the light in the Captain’s Club rather than on the Hill.

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