Rick Morton
A fraction too much fiction

The truth, in Scott Morrison’s world, is like light. With the right forces, it can be fractured or bent out of shape. Sometimes it changes of its own accord, as the sun charts a course across the sky.

As a reporter, I have followed Morrison’s political career closely. In 2013, when he became Immigration minister, I went to almost every Operation Sovereign Borders briefing. In a room overlooking Sydney’s central business district, in the Commonwealth Parliament Offices, he invented the notion of “on-water matters” – which would not be commented on – and changed forever how politicians share information.

When that stint ended, he became the Social Services minister – and I reported on social policy. When he became treasurer, I was there, too, in every seven-hour budget lock-up. Finally, when he became prime minister, I was based at Parliament House – and there he suffered my questions, some of them good, some of them sloppy.

I say suffered because it is clear Morrison does not like being questioned. He does not like doubt and rarely expresses it. He is not comfortable being asked to explain. Most politicians dislike press conferences. Pushed at one, Kevin Rudd mocked a female journalist for the clothes she was wearing. Julia Gillard once told me I was “on the wrong tram”. Tony Abbott’s tactic was to grin, and nod, sometimes at the same time, sometimes through a long and painful silence.

But Morrison’s dislike is more intense, more seething. It is a barely controlled contempt.

Of course, at first, he found it easy. As Immigration minister, he was accompanied at those asylum-seeker briefings by a three-star general and almost every question that didn’t serve his purposes became one of the aforementioned “on-water matters”. Even matters that no longer bore a relation to water were subject to the clause.

As he lost the protection of the general, Morrison adapted “on-water” to a more all-purpose defence: it was a Canberra bubble question, a distraction or, a favourite of his, a question Labor was asking.

Just weeks after becoming prime minister, Morrison launched a royal commission into the aged-care sector. The announcement was on a Sunday and the press conference was to be held in the prime minister’s courtyard.

By chance, I was rostered on that day and asked Morrison why he cut $1.2 billion from the aged-care budget, if he was so aggrieved by conditions in the sector. I expected him to make the argument I had already heard – that the government was worried about irregularities in over-claiming from aged-care providers and was cracking down on the system. I had another question ready, to follow up: So why did you punish every provider and not target those apparently doing the wrong thing?

But Morrison didn’t talk about irregularities or a crackdown. He did something more curious. He denied the cut entirely.

“No,” he said. “That’s what the Labor Party says.”

“No, no, you did,” I replied. “I reported on it.”

“No, I don’t accept that,” the prime minister said. “If people want to put questions, they’re not allowed to put lies.”

But there was no lie in the question. It was right there in the budget papers. Morrison knew it, and I knew it, but that didn’t change his relationship to the truth.

What the prime minister was trying to do was imply that my questioning was from the opposition, that I was a stooge for the other side of politics. But I hadn’t spoken to Labor about that issue, ever. I had been in the budget lock-up years earlier when the cuts had become policy, and I had filed stories on them since. The thing about politics is that if you can avoid telling the truth, at all costs, you can often get away with it.

Morrison used precisely the same tactic this week, after he finally admitted that he put Brian Houston’s name on a guest list for a state dinner at the White House. At the time, he all but silenced the issue. More than once, he dismissed it as “gossip”. He said, unblinkingly, “I don’t comment on gossip.”

He may have seen it as gossip, but these are not definitions on which Morrison gets to rule. That is an essential point of a free press. The prime minister did put Houston on the guest list and, by not answering the question, he was failing to tell the truth.

Morrison is close to Houston. He thanked him in his first speech to parliament and prayed with him on stage after becoming prime minister. Houston founded the Hillsong Church, but has faced questions over the handling of his father’s abuse of children. The White House had knocked back his name, and Morrison was fighting to stay away from the issue.

Then this week, out of nowhere, the prime minister told 2GB’s Ben Fordham he had done it. “People have chased this round and round for months…” he said. “At the end of the day what’s important is the relationship we have with the United States, and it’s never been better.”

In an interview on the ABC’s 7.30, Leigh Sales asked Morrison why he was confirming this now. He told her: “You are making accusations like the Labor Party does.”

He went on to explain: “People haven’t asked me about it for months and months and months. A journalist asked me about it today and I just answered it, straight up.”

Except that isn’t true, either.

I asked Morrison’s office about Brian Houston and the invitation list as part of a piece for this newspaper on December 11. One of those questions, specifically, was this:

“Is the prime minister aware that Mr Houston declined to be interviewed by NSW Police with regard to the open investigation into the above abuse and its handling by [Australian Christian Churches] whose then national president was Pr. Brian Houston?”

The next day, I followed up to remind the three advisers copied in to the email that my deadline was fast approaching. Neither the prime minister nor any of his staff responded. A similar freedom of information request from SBS was also knocked back.

Morrison may argue that was “months and months and months” ago, as he told Leigh Sales, but that’s not really the point. Why did he obfuscate first, then ignore questions and knock back an official request for information? And why come clean now?

There is a trend here. The prime minister’s office lied about the fact he was in Hawaii as an already violent and unprecedented bushfire season kicked into a brutal higher gear this summer. PMO staff didn’t simply demur, they said it wasn’t true.

Morrison denied he had ever used the phrase “Shanghai Sam” when he sought to smear questions about Gladys Liu’s potential links to China’s central government as racist. He used the phrase 17 times, as it happened. The prime minister claims he misheard the question.

He says his office had nothing to do with the sports rorts saga, but 136 emails say it did. Confronted about it this week, he said it was misinformation. “It is, mate,” he told Fordham on 2GB. “We’ve seen the bubble in operation on regular occasions.”

All politicians spin. Some of them may not even be aware they are doing it, such is the cognitive dissonance forced on MPs by the party system. Morrison’s gambit is more cunning than that. He turns language into something that can be seen – just – but not grasped. His apparent strategic success relies on the public forgetting. Sometimes, they are never aware of the follow-up questions. He knows journalism is more fractured and poorly resourced, and it is easier to get away with half-truths and fudges.

Morrison does all this with great authority. Truth is his to dispense. His power is absolute. Except those last two points are a fiction – and people are beginning to realise, as they should.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 7, 2020 as "A fraction too much fiction".

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Rick Morton is The Saturday Paper’s senior reporter.

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