Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Scott Morrison’s credibility deficit

Credibility is everything for a political leader. Lose it and the game is over. There are real fears within his parliamentary ranks that Scott Morrison has done just that – or is close to it.

One Liberal backbencher called this week and quoted the dire warning of British wartime prime minister Winston Churchill down the phone, as a means of framing the situation the party finds itself in: “There is no worse mistake in public leadership than to hold out false hope soon to be swept away. The British people can face peril or misfortune with fortitude and buoyancy, but they bitterly resent being deceived …”

The Australian people are certainly facing peril and many a misfortune they did not bring on themselves. The prolonged lockdowns through which we are struggling were triggered by incompetence more than bad luck – and then made more desperate by the withdrawal of the financial support offered last year, as if the worst of the pandemic was over.

The false hope is now being peddled by a road map to reopening that presumes levels of infection containment that frankly are a pipedream. The national plan touted by the prime minister and New South Wales premier Gladys Berejiklian assumes there would be just 30 daily cases when restrictions are lifted at 70 and then 80 per cent of vaccinations of those aged 16 and older in the population.

These targets still only account for 56 to 65 per cent of the whole population and leave plenty of room for the virus to spread without a range of restrictions being kept in place. They also risk the testing and tracing systems being overrun, as they are at present.

Epidemiologist Professor Raina MacIntyre, writing in The Conversation, says work done by her team at UNSW Sydney estimates the 70 per cent target may be reached in the state by October 18, but the case numbers will still be in their thousands. MacIntyre agrees with the politicians that their current strategy of mass vaccination is vital to our exit plan, but she says vaccination alone cannot control the epidemic.

The Delta wave of the pandemic spreads days faster than the time taken to benefit from vaccine immunity, which takes two weeks after the second shot for optimal protection. It is also becoming apparent around the world that the current vaccines are not as effective against Delta, because of waning immunity and the fact they are not exactly matched to the strain. In Britain and the United States their governments are talking of booster shots and ordering millions of doses; we can only hope that the Australian government has learnt the bitter lesson of its earlier complacency in this regard.

MacIntyre is not alone among epidemiologists warning that opening up too early could see a larger Covid-19 peak in NSW in December or January, and that is bad news for the entire nation. It would shoot to pieces Morrison’s promise that families could be reunited across state and city borders by Christmas.

The co-ordinator of the national Covid-19 vaccine taskforce, Lieutenant General John Frewen, says he’s confident Australia can get to the 70 per cent target in October. He says it “depends on the public stepping forward”. On RN Breakfast he said it was possible to get to 80 per cent by the end of the year, but overseas experience shows “getting to 80 per cent is hard work”.

The experience of Denmark in this regard is instructive. Last week it ended all domestic restrictions but still left in place strict border curbs. The Danes’ “Freedom Day” came after the country reached 86 per cent of the population aged over 12 fully vaccinated and 96 per cent of everyone over 50 similarly covered.

Drawing on his work with the HOPE project, a Danish study into Covid-19 management and behaviour during the pandemic, political scientist Michael Bang Petersen said the credibility of leaders is crucial. The project carried out 400,000 interviews in Denmark and seven other democracies, including the US, Britain and four other European nations.

Petersen said, “The best predictor in Denmark and elsewhere of vaccine acceptance is trust in the authorities’ management of the pandemic.” The key to upholding this trust, he said, was transparency of communication “even if the message is unpleasant”.

Public and private polling suggests the prime minister and his government have lost that trust. One national pollster with “myriad corporate clients” – cited by Dennis Atkins in a piece for InQueensland – found that Australians “no longer give Morrison the benefit of the doubt and think he is on the make all the time”. For an increasing number of Australians, “he’s worn out his welcome”. Contributing to this dim view was the prime minister’s ability “to spin a new position on vaccines every week – sometimes two in seven days”.

Atkins summed up the findings by saying the general sentiment was Morrison should have acted more quickly on getting vaccines, and everything he has done since “has been a mix of ducking responsibility and blaming someone else”.

Midweek, Morrison appeared to be ducking responsibility to ensure the highest standards of transparency and accountability from one of his senior ministers. The prime minister had no ready answers for the extraordinary revelation that his Industry minister and former attorney-general, Christian Porter, had received an undisclosed amount of money from donors whose identities he claimed he did not know.

The donations were to help defray legal expenses in his now withdrawn defamation suit against the ABC, launched after the broadcaster reported allegations that at the age of 17 Porter had raped a debating teammate who had since taken her own life. Porter strongly denied the allegation and hired some of the nation’s most expensive barristers and solicitors to represent him. His legal fees are estimated to be in the vicinity of $1 million.

Morrison was simply unable to ignore the uproar being generated not only by his predecessor, Malcolm Turnbull, but also from the Labor opposition. On Wednesday afternoon the prime minister spoke to Porter about the obvious breach of ministerial standards and, according to one well-placed source, put an ultimatum to him: either name the person or persons who gave him the money or go to the backbench.

After the confrontation, the prime minister put out a statement saying he had asked the head of his department to examine if the ministerial guidelines had been breached. This was surely a time-buying exercise, designed to give Porter space to rethink his refusal to comply.

Malcolm Turnbull, who appointed Porter to be the first law officer in the land, is outraged at the effrontery. He said, “It’s like saying my legal fees were paid by a guy in a mask who dropped off a chaff bag full of cash.”

Turnbull says Porter’s position “flies in the face of every principle of transparency and accountability in public life”. Anonymous donations to political parties are against the law and the parliamentary register is similarly designed to safeguard against the peddling of influence.

Turnbull said if Porter didn’t know where the money came from, he should not have accepted it because it opens the way for “debts” to be repaid in the donor’s interest down the track. He said he was staggered that Porter thought he could get away with it and he will be even more staggered if the prime minister allows this to stand. “It is a shocking affront to transparency,” Turnbull said.

Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus says the potential for corruption is obvious. Labor leader Anthony Albanese was dumbfounded Morrison needed the head of his department to carry out an inquiry into guidelines the prime minister himself wrote. He said you can’t take money as a cabinet minister from persons unknown and not declare it.

Former senior counsel to the Independent Commission Against Corruption, Geoffrey Watson, SC, says it’s an open-and-shut case.

When he was Industrial Relations minister, Porter himself defended laws requiring unions to disclose benefits they received because, he told parliament, “it will help bring to light any conflicts of interest that might arise”.

Albanese said if there were a national anti-corruption commission, “it’d be up this like a rat up a drainpipe to find out exactly where this money came from”. It is precisely the sort of issue that undermines confidence in our political system.

Morrison’s scarcity of numbers in the parliament could be a factor in his handling of Porter up until now. When the defamation case fell over the prime minister, who previously said it would establish Porter’s fitness for office, blithely appointed him to another senior portfolio, ignoring calls for an independent inquiry.

Porter had already become a drag on the government; this latest egregious misjudgement was the last straw. Morrison sounded the minister’s death knell on Thursday when he said he had taken difficult decisions in the past to ensure the ministerial guidelines are adhered to and he would follow the same process on these issues. This was a clear reference to the sacking of Bridget McKenzie during the sports rorts saga.

Morrison’s hard line left a hapless Josh Frydenberg out to dry. The treasurer initially came to Porter’s defence, saying he did not use taxpayers’ money to mount the court action, which entirely misses the point. When the treasurer was asked if he would take money without knowing where it came from, he had no answer, saying he was being asked to deal in hypotheticals. When questions of principle and transparency are dismissed as hypothetical, you know we have a problem. A very big problem. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 18, 2021 as "All one’s Christmases come at 80 per cent".

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