Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
The secret life of Scott Morrison

Scott Morrison loves to keep a secret. It has become a trademark of his government and famously manifested itself long before he snatched the keys to The Lodge. It is serving him and the workings of our democracy poorly.

As Immigration minister it was “on-water matters” that covered Morrison’s refusal to disclose just how Australia was turning back refugee boats while still remaining within international law. To this day we don’t know the answer to that question.

At the weekend, the secrecy continued. As New South Wales and the ACT both battled through lockdown, the prime minister snuck out of Canberra on his private jet to be with his daughters on Father’s Day.

If it weren’t for plane-spotting enthusiasts using one of the flight-tracking apps, we would never have known the RAAF Dassault Falcon 7x regularly used by the prime minister made the Sydney–Canberra return trip. The cost according to Defence Department manifests was about $6000. All belatedly confirmed by the Prime Minister’s Office rather than initially denied, as happened with Morrison’s controversial Hawaii holiday in 2019.

The prime minister says there was no attempt at cover-up. His flight to Sydney was within the rules for federal politicians, but his return to Canberra on Monday needed a special exemption. On Sky News he pleaded important work commitments back in the capital and hinted at the need to be personally present in a secure room for briefings. This seems a little tricky, given ministers use secure video meetings all the time.

Morrison accused Labor’s Bill Shorten of a “cheap shot” for accusing him of “poor judgement”. Shorten said “when people are doing it tough, you’ve got to do it tough, too”. The Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, was not so quick to criticise Morrison for wanting to be with his children, but if vox pops running on the TV news bulletins are any guide, plenty of people were less forgiving. It didn’t help that Morrison’s unannounced trip coincided with scenes of families along the NSW–Queensland border, reaching across barricades to touch their loved ones.

There is a hint that Morrison was aware his family reunion may appear to place him above the rules. The picture he posted on social media to mark Father’s Day had a caption noting it was taken earlier and gave the impression he couldn’t be with his family. It wasn’t hard to figure out the shot of Morrison and his daughters releasing a dove was taken at a memorial in January for the Abdallah children, tragically killed by a reckless driver – a strange image to repurpose.

Morrison’s Father’s Day secret would not have even been necessary had he followed the example of every other prime minister bar one and lived and worked in Canberra in the residence supplied by the taxpayers. John Howard began the indulgence of living in the government guesthouse at Kirribilli for the convenience of his family. It was an example not followed by Brisbane-based Kevin Rudd, whose teenage son was enrolled in a Canberra school to continue his education while he lived with his parents at The Lodge.

Whatever “secure” meetings brought the prime minister back to Canberra on Monday there was one other event he was very keen to be seen being involved in. Morrison’s return meant he was able to give the opening address at what was billed as the Australian women’s safety summit.

Keenly aware that his standing with women voters is in urgent need of repair, his speech was well crafted and his sentiments sympathetic to the cause of women’s equality and personal security. He said it was “on all of us” to end the culture that “excuses and justifies, ignores or condones gender inequality”. He even conceded that abuse had happened in Parliament House – that “in this place, even this place where I speak to you from today, you are not always safe”. He said, “There is no excuse and sorry doesn’t cut it.”

Morrison was clearly referencing the courageous outspokenness of former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins, who alleges she was raped in a minister’s office. Higgins was not invited by the federal government to participate in the summit, with the ACT government then taking it upon itself to make her one of its delegates.

Higgins tweeted a stinging assessment of the prime minister’s efforts. She respected his “ambitious spirit” but said she couldn’t “match this government’s actions with the platitudes and warm sentiments they are all extending today”.

Labor’s Tanya Plibersek thought the speech was “fine” – however, she wondered “do we really match the prime minister’s words today with real action in the future”. Plibersek said it was alarming that Australia’s ranking on economic opportunities for women has fallen nearly 60 places in the world, according to the World Economic Forum. The country’s ranking on women’s health and safety has fallen by 30 places.

Australian of the Year Grace Tame was no less critical of the prime minister’s failure to match words with action. She criticised the government for implementing in legislation only six of the 55 recommendations in the Respect  @  Work report. Through Minister for Women’s Economic Security Jane Hume, the government pleads the issue is complex and that it needs more time despite having received the report a year ago. Urgency, unlike secrecy, is not an imperative for the Morrison administration, something demonstrated yet again in emails tracing its complacency dealing with Pfizer for vaccine supply.

Tame believes the government “doesn’t get it” when it comes to a contemporary understanding of women’s issues. She shudders at Attorney-General Michaelia Cash’s appointment of former Liberal candidate Lorraine Finlay to the crucial position of Australian Human Rights Commissioner.

Tame told RN Breakfast the nomination was “a backward step”. She said Finlay has publicly supported Bettina Arndt, a men’s rights activist who gave a platform to “the twice-convicted paedophile who abused me”. The commissioner designate has also said she is against proposed affirmative consent laws that require a person to explicitly seek and receive permission before having sexual relations. So much for the government’s deep commitment to women’s safety.

The Finlay appointment has been further clouded by the surreptitious way in which Cash went about it. The position was not advertised and the appointment went out by press release on a Sunday afternoon. Cash herself passed up an opportunity to defend it on the ABC.

Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus says Cash has appointed someone to the job who on several issues has expressed views contrary to human rights ideals. Finlay has argued section 18C of the Human Rights Act, which outlaws hate speech, should be repealed. She is against an Indigenous Voice to Parliament, which she describes as “political segregation”.

Dreyfus is not alone in his concerns about the secrecy of the appointment process. The executive director of the Human Rights Law Centre, Hugh de Kretser, says the process does not meet international standards that require a clear, transparent and participatory appointment process. He says Australia argues on the international stage for strong national human rights institutions but has undermined that here. “The Morrison government,” de Kretser says, “needs to live up to these standards at home.”

Accountability and transparency keep governments honest. They help to measure their actions against their words and lead to optimal outcomes for the nation. Independent senator Rex Patrick has given up on any of it being achieved in a meaningful way by this government. He is frustrated by the way the Liberals have fought against demands from him, Labor, the Greens and Senator Jacqui Lambie to name and shame the 157,000 businesses that have received $13 billion in JobKeeper payments they did not need.

At the weekend Patrick said he “was done with” the government. He accused the prime minister of “gifting hard-earned taxpayers’ money to his business mates and donors” and said it makes Morrison the “most shameless and unethical PM ever”.

The South Australian senator says there’s a huge task ahead to clean up Australian politics and government – and getting a federal independent commission against corruption was a start.

Midweek, Mark Dreyfus marked 1000 days since Scott Morrison promised an integrity commission would be enacted in this term. Polling in four electorates around the nation, conducted for The Australia Institute, found overwhelming public support for a commission with strong powers and real independence.

But of all the prime minister’s secrets, one is very poorly kept: an integrity commission like that is the last thing Scott Morrison wants.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 11, 2021 as "The secret life of Scott Morrison".

A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.

Paul Bongiorno is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a 30-year veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery.