Opinion

Morrison ministers MIA

Key ministers in the political line of fire over the past two weeks will be missing in action when parliament resumes on Monday. The Morrison government, currently being held together by gum and string, is in full strategic retreat in the hope it can brazen out the crisis.

But you can’t sideline an attorney-general and a defence minister on indefinite leave and it not become an obvious admission of wilful impotence and avoidance of parliamentary scrutiny.

It’s a crushing reminder that when there’s trouble, Scott Morrison’s default position is to do nothing, in the hope it will all go away. This is a prime minister who for more than a year had an acting Immigration minister while the actual minister, David Coleman, was on leave without explanation.

In Coleman’s case, the prime minister piled the Immigration portfolio responsibilities onto another cabinet minister, leading to complaints of long delays in handling visa issues. Applications piled up and thousands of students, workers, refugees and families were left in limbo.

The most plausible reason for this stubbornness – then as now – is the survival of the government at all costs and the avoidance of a byelection. While Coleman had improved his hold on his seat of Banks at the 2019 election, it’s far from blue ribbon. The potential of a byelection plunging the Coalition into a deeper minority is greater now after the departure of Craig Kelly to the crossbench. Christian Porter holds his seat of Pearce with a margin of about 4 per cent. Even though it is in the federal Liberal stronghold of Western Australia – at the state level, today’s election is sure to prove otherwise – a vacancy caused by a rape allegation in the current climate would be courting disaster.

Morrison has been keeping in close contact with Porter, who has told the prime minister he needs more than the originally flagged two weeks to recover and decide on his future. One thing is clear: Porter’s purpose in coming to Canberra has suffered a severe blow. As recounted in Malcolm Turnbull’s book, A Bigger Picture, Porter’s lifetime ambition was to be prime minister. Turnbull says at the height of the 2018 leadership showdown, Porter started to “tear up” at the prospect of the Liberals losing the election and his destiny being thwarted.

Ominously for Morrison at the end of Porter’s recent teary news conference, the attorney-general seemed to be struggling again with this realisation. Porter said he didn’t expect what had happened to him “in a million years”. “I’m sure it will change my views on a whole range of things,” the embattled MP said.

This week, Morrison has doubled down in his support of Porter in the face of some heavyweight calls for an independent inquiry, which would consider the strength of the allegations against the attorney-general, despite the death of the accuser.

Morrison was indignant midweek when asked if he would consider moving Porter to another portfolio as a circuit-breaker. He said he was a fine attorney-general and a fine minister for Industrial Relations. “He is an innocent man under our law,” the prime minister said. “To suggest there should be some different treatment applied to him, based on what have been allegations that the police have closed the matter on – I think it would be grossly inappropriate.”

Begging to differ was former solicitor-general Justin Gleeson. In an ABC interview, the eminent lawyer urged the prime minister to seek the advice of the second law officer in the land, his successor as solicitor-general, Stephen Donaghue, to help determine whether Porter is a fit and proper person to continue in his role.

Gleeson says the matter should have been immediately referred to Donaghue for his independent advice on a couple of key legal issues. The first would be to determine if the available evidence – a 30-page dossier and the complainant’s prepared but unsworn statement – was sufficiently credible to justify “an executive inquiry being instituted”. The second issue would be to ask if such an inquiry could occur “consistent with our constitution and rule of law”.

Gleeson is of the view the advice could be supplied within 48 hours and if it came down negatively on both proposals, Gleeson said he “for one and ... many in the community” would accept what the independent senior law officer had concluded. But Morrison would not have a bar of it. Labor’s in-house senior counsel, Mark Dreyfus, believes it is because the prime minister knows his insistence that an independent inquiry would undermine the “rule of law” is legally “absurd”.

But it seems trading in absurdity is the name of the game. Morrison, in rejecting the Gleeson view, said his department had not advised him to seek the solicitor-general’s advice. Indeed, why would a department headed by Phil Gaetjens, Morrison’s former chief of staff and political fix-it operator, seek advice that might run contrary to the prime minister’s political prescriptions? Morrison derided Gleeson’s intervention for coming from someone who has not “been a particularly big fan of our government”.

But Julie Bishop, a former senior member of the government, is similarly unimpressed. The one-time corporate lawyer told Leigh Sales on 7.30 that she wonders why neither the PM nor Porter had read the material containing the allegations. “In order to deny allegations you would need to know the substance of the allegations or at least the detail of the allegation,” Bishop said. She supports the calls for an inquiry.

Bishop lent weight to the persistent image of the parliamentary Liberal Party as a boys’ club. It was put to her by Sales that a group of her male colleagues calling themselves the “swinging dicks” had blocked her bid for the leadership. Ice-cool Bishop corrected the host, saying she believed “it was the ‘big swinging dicks’. So, there was obviously an overexcited imagination on the part of some, I would suggest.”

Bishop was also critical of Defence Minister Linda Reynolds’ handling of her staffer Brittany Higgins’ rape claim against a fellow colleague. Bishop said in her experience it would have been immediately brought to the attention of the prime minister and handled by his department. She stopped short of calling for Reynolds’ sacking, but not so forgiving was Anthony Albanese. The Labor leader said the claimed delay of two years before taking the allegation to the prime minister, and the fact Reynolds referred to Higgins as a “lying cow”, was cause enough for her sacking.

It is clear the friends of the Porter accuser who were interviewed on this week’s Four Corners do not believe she resiled from her accusations before she died last year. Although she withdrew her formal complaint to the police 24 hours before taking her own life, they view it as tidying up her affairs before ending the insufferable pain of her depression. There was no final note withdrawing her claims. Rather, the friends see her death as testimony to her despair that she would never find justice, and this motivated their actions.

Morrison is oblivious to the implications of standing by an attorney-general who he exonerates on the basis of untested vigorous denials and a police investigation apparently thwarted by the death of the complainant. The PM was asked at his Wednesday news conference if it were tenable for Porter to continue as the country’s top law officer, given he is responsible for the Respect @ Work report, published last year by the sex discrimination commissioner, Kate Jenkins. A cynic might suggest there’s no problem. Even before the allegations surfaced, Porter had done little or nothing to implement the report. Labor’s Women’s Affairs shadow minister Tanya Plibersek said Jenkins’ work had been sitting on the desk of “the attorney-general for the last year”.

Jenkins on Sunday blamed Covid-19 for the implementation delay, a wise move to stay onside with a government that deals harshly with its critics. Jenkins has now been charged with holding an inquiry into the macho culture at Parliament House. While she believes her statutory independence is guaranteed, her budget at the Human Rights Commission certainly isn’t quarantined from a particularly thin-skinned government. Just ask the auditor-general, Grant Hehir, whose pleas for more funding have not only been ignored but met with a cut. Few have doubts it’s his reward for uncovering the abuse of taxpayers’ funds in the sports rorts scandal.

On Tuesday, Morrison shrugged off concerns that his government would be undermanned in the next fortnight’s sitting of parliament and the senate estimates inquiries. He said he had “highly competent ministers taking over their duties”. But that does mean key decisions will be delayed and the government’s much-vaunted industrial relations reforms could founder without Porter on hand to complete crossbench negotiations.

It’s what happens when politics gazumps everything.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 13, 2021 as "Absent with official leave".

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