Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Scott Morrison’s misleading hedges

It is getting harder by the week to believe a word uttered by the prime minister of Australia. And no one has done more to undermine Scott Morrison’s credibility than the man himself. This harsh judgement is shared not only by his political opponents in the Labor Party but also by all but one of the six crossbenchers in the house of representatives.

Had Morrison not “miraculously” managed to secure a bare majority of one on the floor of the house, he would have – to quote Labor leader Anthony Albanese’s attempted censure of him – “[been found to have] repeatedly and deliberately misled the parliament and the Australian people about the corrupt sports rorts scheme”.

Queensland maverick Bob Katter, as is often the case, wasn’t in the chamber for the vote. But the three centre-right crossbenchers, Zali Steggall, Helen Haines and Rebekha Sharkie, who all hold traditionally non-Labor seats, voted with the opposition. They found the prime minister’s obfuscation and his refusal to answer questions unconvincing. And Morrison’s dig at Labor, where he claimed his government “is going to focus on the issues that seriously matter to the Australian people”, also failed to impress the triumvirate. Morrison nominated the coronavirus, the bushfire crisis and the drought as evidence of his commitment to serious issues. But even here he has failed to recognise that his claimed focus has attracted wide criticism for being inadequate.

Morrison told parliament that Albanese can “only throw mud because he sits in a puddle of mud”. Morrison accused the opposition leader of relying on “smears” and “assertions” to which Albanese fired back, “Not assertions but evidence.” He was relying on evidence under oath to the senate inquiry into the Community Sport Infrastructure Grant Program. The auditor-general had already found the $100 million scheme had been distorted to benefit the Liberals in key marginal seats. There was new evidence of 136 emails between the office of then Sport minister Bridget McKenzie and the prime minister’s office. Morrison claimed only the minister for Sport had the legal authority to approve the grants and not him – but this defence looks very thin indeed. The Australian National Audit Office reported that McKenzie’s office was emailing the PMO and waiting for them to green-light her grant approvals.

This process continued right up until parliament was prorogued and after the government was in caretaker mode. The decisions were made based on colour-coded charts showing the political leanings of the seats and whether they were marginal. “It’s colour-coded corruption and it goes right to the prime minister’s office,” Labor’s Tony Burke managed to get out before the government moved that he “no longer be heard”. The leader of the house, Christian Porter, shut down the debate. It also meant that neither Porter nor the prime minister mounted a sustained, coherent defence – almost certainly because there isn’t one.

Morrison has now established a reputation for being upfront with the Australian people only when it suits him. On the ABC, Leigh Sales summed it up succinctly with a killer question on Tuesday night’s 7.30. She cited three instances of secrecy about issues she said “on the surface would seem to be not that big a deal”. Many would quibble with that description of Morrison’s refusal to release the Gaetjens report into the sports rorts, or the attempts to conceal his Hawaiian holiday at a time when parts of Australia were in the grip of catastrophic bushfires. However, Morrison did not dispute it. He also agreed that he “could have answered the question differently” when he denied seeking to put Hillsong’s Pastor Brian Houston on the White House guest list.

On his United States visit last September, Morrison dismissed as “gossip” a leaked report claiming the White House had vetoed the church leader from attending a presidential dinner. Far from being gossip, the report was true. Why the prime minister finally fessed up when he was asked about it by 2GB’s Ben Fordham this week is curious. One theory around the corridors of Parliament House was that someone “has a piece of paper” and the PM wanted to pre-empt further embarrassment.

Fordham pointed out that Houston was, and is, under investigation by the New South Wales Police Force in relation to his handling of allegations of sexual abuse against his late father. Morrison, somewhat incredulously, replied, “These are not things I follow closely.” But the prime minister did note that Brian Houston turned up at the White House a few months later “at the invitation directly of the White House”. He explained that invitation in the context of the Hillsong Church having “a big network of churches all across the United States”.

The episode invites the sort of observation Sales made in defending her line of questioning. “When you want to talk about those big issues, people’s trust in you and your credibility are your most important assets,” she said. Indeed. Similarly, Morrison’s dismissal of Labor’s pursuit of the abuse of taxpayers’ money is brazen gaslighting.

Just how honest the government wants to be kept remains a very open question after the attorney-general revealed his planned Commonwealth Integrity Commission (CIC) would not be dealing with a broad understanding of the word but only with criminal matters. Porter said it would not investigate something like the sports rorts scandal. He told RN Breakfast, “Neither the police nor integrity commissions investigate things that aren’t offences.” He said there hasn’t been any suggestion whatsoever that there’s been a criminal offence committed in regard to the grants.

Is it any wonder that legal experts such as Stephen Charles, QC, says the form of the CIC proposed by Porter “would produce a feeble and ineffective anti-corruption body”. He was supported in this view by former counsel assisting the Independent Commission Against Corruption in NSW, Geoffrey Watson, SC, who says it’s essential that a national integrity commission be independent of politicians. That’s something Porter is not planning, if his past statements still hold.

Unbelievably, Porter, a former attorney-general of Western Australia, got it wrong when he said the states, including his own, do not have their anti-corruption commissions investigate non-criminal matters. His own public servants contradicted him in estimates. The Parliamentary Library says all states and territories do, which is hardly surprising if you want a real anti-corruption agency and not a sham.

The shadow attorney-general, Mark Dreyfus, QC, says Porter’s comments reveal that the government’s model for a CIC “is so weak and so secretive it wouldn’t be able to investigate reeking Morrison government scandals such as sports rorts”. The fact is Porter is dragging the chain. His own public servants told senate estimates the attorney-general has been provided with multiple drafts and has already had to apologise for missing his February deadline.

Porter has been working on this project for two years. In the meantime the government was in the minority in the senate last year when it voted against a crossbench integrity commission bill. It is now allowing that bill to languish on the notice paper in the lower house. No wonder the crossbench – or most of it – supported Labor’s censure of the prime minister this week. Their antennae are much more finely tuned to community expectations than Morrison appears to be.

Any hope of our politicians restoring trust in our democracy will be dashed if the Morrison government, already running a serious trust deficit, comes up with an integrity commission that lacks integrity. And the sad thing for our democracy is that trusted political leadership is essential for a country faced with the sort of crises buffeting Australia right now.

Morrison has gone into overdrive, being seen at the helm of the response to the coronavirus health emergency. But can he be believed when he tells us how “world-leading” the government has been, only to have doctors warn that our emergency departments are already stretched, and GPs say they are being left in the dark and under-resourced?

One of the government’s election-winning boasts was that it could better manage the economy and taxpayers’ money. Surely the sports rorts saga has thrown a huge pall over this claim when millions of dollars have been allocated to benefit the Liberals ahead of the national interest. And breaking the trust of hundreds of volunteers at sports clubs around the nation, who have discovered their meritorious applications ran a poor second to political interest, is surely a killer?

We wait now for Morrison and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg to deliver their part of the stimulus bargain apparently made with the Reserve Bank. Morrison has made a virtue of telling us it won’t be the reckless extravagance of the Rudd–Swan global financial crisis stimulus. It sounds as if he is laying the groundwork to fall short of what is needed. Whatever the dollars and cents involved, this emperor is already without clothes as a salesman.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 7, 2020 as "That’s incredible".

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

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