Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Our hands-off prime minister

Scott Morrison could have picked up the phone to two members of his much-vaunted national cabinet this week, to sort out what was truly a bizarre situation. But he didn’t, and his decision not to says a lot about his approach to the pandemic.

Morrison’s reluctance to get involved in the six-day border standoff between New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory betrays a style of governance that oscillates between the passive and the reactive, always with an eye to quarantining himself from culpability.

This shrinking of the prime ministership is in line with the excuse he gave after his holidaying absence from the bushfire catastrophe last summer. This time it’s not “I don’t hold a hose, mate” but rather “they are not my borders”.

The line was particularly unconvincing, because in a unique sense the borders of the ACT are his. In fact he boasted that for the next sitting of parliament he played a key role in paving the way for Victorian federal MPs to defy NSW’s restrictions and drive to the ACT.

At his Monday courtyard news conference, four days into the Berejiklian government’s refusal to allow about 100 Canberrans to return home from Victoria, despite having permits to do so, Morrison again played innocent bystander.

He said when it “has come to my responsibilities” in regard to MPs coming to Canberra for parliament, he was able “to get a favourable outcome on those issues”. In this case, though, it was “important for the ACT administration to be engaging with NSW to try and resolve those issues”.

Chief Minister Andrew Barr was able to get the NSW premier on the phone, which is more than he could manage with Morrison, but Gladys Berejiklian took some convincing to get the ACT residents home. The chief minister offered a police escort, nonstop from Albury to the ACT, and supervised self-isolation for 14 days.

The premier was concerned they would need a comfort stop, so the chief minister nominated one just north of where the dog sits on the tucker box at Gundagai. Barr even promised to pay for a deep clean once the travellers resumed their journey. For five days, NSW insisted the Canberrans drive to Melbourne and fly to the national capital, something most of them rejected as impractical and unsafe.

While Morrison had been burnt badly by his three-month campaign to have state borders reopened, Berejiklian herself was pivoting hard after being the only premier to keep her borders unlocked. Her wariness now is understandable. She says the state is on “high alert” and every day there are new hotspots and “mystery cases”. The Essential poll this week found 90 per cent of Australians are very concerned or quite concerned by the pandemic, with 62 per cent rating stopping community transmission very important.

On Tuesday, Berejiklian borrowed from Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk’s playbook. She said, “Our first and foremost priority is to stop the spread of the virus in NSW, and I don’t think anyone would begrudge us for being cautious when people from a highly infectious state are trying to make their way through NSW.”

Midweek NSW came to its senses, though, as a relieved Andrew Barr noted when he welcomed the green light for stranded travellers. The absurdity of the standoff was highlighted by the experience of Victorian MP Tim Wilson. He, too, was caught by the sudden change in health directive, but hurried phone calls persuaded border police that Morrison’s special deal exempted Wilson from the sudden new restrictions.

Apparently it hadn’t occurred to the prime minister that this double standard was not a good look, and that it could have been avoided had he wanted to quickly resolve the issue.

While Morrison ignored those at the border, he worked quickly to override advice from the committee established to set guidelines for the sitting of parliament in a fortnight’s time. The committee had resolved to recommend a parliamentary bubble similar to the ones imposed by the NRL and AFL. Politicians would be restricted to travelling directly between Parliament House and their accommodation. Attending outside events and gatherings would be banned.

This was based on concerns of the acting chief medical officer, Paul Kelly, who advised against parliament sitting at the beginning of this month. Kelly’s view was that even with mitigation measures there was an elevated risk of spreading Covid-19, as not only politicians but also their staffers and lobbyists descended on Canberra from around the country.

Members of the committee are highly suspicious that the PM’s decision to override it may have been coloured by the fact one of Morrison’s closest allies, West Australian Ben Morton, who is assistant minister to the prime minister and cabinet, was associated with three fundraising events scheduled for during the sitting. Morton distanced himself from the events, telling Guardian Australia they were not organised by him but by the “Tangney Campaign”. Tangney is Morton’s seat and the campaign is dedicated to his and the government’s re-election. The $2500-a-head fundraisers, featuring cabinet ministers, will go ahead but with ACT social distancing rules in place.

Questions are also being asked about the minister for Immigration, David Coleman, who is not expected to be there for the sitting week. He has been absent since the prime minister approved his leave application for personal reasons on December 13. Neither Morrison’s office nor the minister’s would give any explanation for his prolonged absence. Liberal backbenchers are mystified by the arrangement, with one pointing out Arthur Sinodinos quit his cabinet post to fight cancer and the then prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, appointed someone to replace him. One view from within government is that Morrison is avoiding a byelection at all costs.

On Monday, Morrison’s judgement was further questioned as the NSW special inquiry into the Ruby Princess cruise ship debacle was winding up. Morrison was asked why he had not delivered the full co-operation he had promised. Not one federal official was allowed to answer the summons to give personal evidence about their role in allowing passengers off the ship. The decision ultimately led to 1000 infections and 30 deaths.

Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton said he didn’t want his officers “besmirched” by the inquiry. Morrison played word games: “I said we would co-operate with the inquiry as we have with other inquiries, and that’s exactly what we’ve done.”

Attorney-General Christian Porter explained what the PM meant in a reply to Labor’s Mark Dreyfus – essentially, written submissions were made. But what the Morrison government had avoided is TV pictures of federal agents in the witness box explaining their bungling. It would undermine a “blame the states” strategy. What the commissioner leading the inquiry, Bret Walker, SC, makes of it all – he was unimpressed with the Commonwealth’s quibbling over jurisdiction – will be revealed when the Berejiklian government releases the findings handed to it yesterday.

It’s not so easy for Morrison to hide from the explosive evidence coming from the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety. Counsel assisting, Peter Rozen, QC, said the “evidence will reveal neither the Commonwealth Department of Health nor the aged-care regulator developed a Covid-19 plan specifically for the aged-care sector”. Separately, it was revealed the same regulator had not passed on time-critical information about the outbreak at St Basil’s Homes for the Aged in Melbourne.

When Morrison was asked about the royal commission’s finding – that as of Monday 68 per cent of coronavirus deaths, or 213 people, came from aged-care facilities – he claimed this was now being addressed. In a tactic reminiscent of former prime minister Paul Keating, Morrison threw the media pack a chunk of red meat to chase in the opposite direction.

He said he had read in some of “the outlets that you represent” that “somehow our elderly should in some way have been offered up in relation to this virus”. For Morrison, this was a terrible thought: “An absolute amoral, hideous thought, one that I have had no countenance with from the very first time it was suggested.”

Next day News Corp columnist Andrew Bolt outed himself as the target. He accused Morrison of “stupidly and deceitfully” misrepresenting him. Bolt then threw the chunk of meat back at the prime minister. He said, “In fact what is ‘amoral’ and ‘hideous’ are the policies he supports that turned aged-care homes into killing fields and denied the sick a drug that could save them.”

Bolt’s support for hydroxychloroquine is Trumpesque and easily dispatched by acting chief medical officer Paul Kelly. Not so easily dispatched is the tale of woe unfolding in the royal commission’s hearings this week. But the hapless minister charged with defending the government – no easy task, given that it is now in its seventh year – told ABC Radio “we do have a plan”. Richard Colbeck said “that plan has continued to evolve and develop” and it was based on “learnings”.

One of the “learnings” surely must be that a government’s actions, or more precisely inactions, speak louder than words.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 15, 2020 as "The incredible shrinking prime ministership".

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