Paul Bongiorno
Quit or get off the tin-pot

With a day to go before he was due to return to work, Anthony Albanese was at a resort in Broome when he read a report in The Australian revealing his predecessor had secretly made himself a co-minister in two key portfolios at the beginning of the pandemic.

The prime minister could not believe his eyes. Immediately, he grasped the significance of the story: it amounted to a subversion of the underpinning conventions of our Westminster-style democracy. A secret government is “sinister”, as former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull later chimed in.

Scott Morrison had gone further than even his most trenchant critics would have imagined. Albanese immediately called several of his senior colleagues to see if they shared his outrage and backed his determination to draw attention to what had happened.

Playing on Albanese’s mind was how Morrison could set such a dangerous precedent. Other prime ministers had faced pandemics, financial collapses and world wars. None had resorted to a furtive power grab, concentrating in their own hands all the machinery of government. It is, says Albanese, “the sort of tin-pot activity” Australians would ridicule if it occurred in a non-democratic country.

On Sunday, as he was preparing to fly back to Canberra, the prime minister checked the press clippings and was surprised the story wasn’t on the front page of every newspaper in the country. The acting prime minister, Richard Marles, was on morning television, as was the minister for Climate Change and Energy, Chris Bowen. Neither was asked about it.

But the story that began as a herogram to Morrison for his decisive if unusual action to save Australians from the ravages of a pandemic began to gather momentum. Other revelations followed. Morrison had not told Mathias Cormann, the then Finance minister, he had cloned his job. Keith Pitt only found out when Morrison “shocked” the then Resources minister by revealing he had taken a decision about a gas exploration permit out of Pitt’s hands because he was now also the minister.

Morrison once described himself as a bulldozer. Pitt would no doubt agree with Albanese’s description of him as “the world’s first stealth bulldozer”. But the Pitt experience unmasks the megalomania driving Morrison’s actions. Initially the excuse was to address the pandemic once the emergency powers of the Biosecurity Act had been enacted. Morrison would be a safeguard against a minister abusing those powers, as well as enabling him to take over if Health Minister Greg Hunt fell ill or died. Hunt was reportedly gobsmacked when he saw how far reaching the powers were under the act. It was introduced and passed in 2015 when Tony Abbott was prime minster and Hunt was in the cabinet.

But Morrison obviously got a taste for the “elegant solution” his attorney-general Christian Porter had confected. No need for a pesky argument with Pitt or the Nationals, just exercise the power they thought they had exclusively received when they were sworn in. Independent senator Jacqui Lambie accuses Morrison of being a “control freak”; the bigger worry is he has shown, even within the confines of our democratic constitution, that there is little to prevent the manipulations of an autocrat.

By Monday afternoon Albanese’s department discovered Morrison had also secretly assigned himself Treasury and Home Affairs. Former treasurer Josh Frydenberg was by all accounts livid when he discovered he was left out of the loop. After all, he was supposed to be a “close mate”, as well as holding the second-most important portfolio in government. Nothing spoke more eloquently of Morrison’s breathtaking disregard for cabinet government, the cornerstone of our accountable parliamentary system, than this betrayal.

The strongest reaction to the revelations from within the old government came from Morrison’s Home Affairs minister, Karen Andrews. She says she was left in the dark and “this undermines the integrity of government”. She is “at a loss to explain Mr Morrison’s extraordinary actions”. She called on him to resign from parliament because “the Australian people have been let down, they have been betrayed”. She says his behaviour was “absolutely unacceptable”.

Her leader, Peter Dutton, did not agree with the call for Morrison to quit parliament. Morrison doesn’t agree he should go either, except to confirm he won’t contest the next election. Midweek, in a lengthy news conference attempting to defend his actions, Morrison was evasive and self-serving. No one else, he said, could understand the weight of responsibility on his shoulders. Maybe, but how does this tally with the bizarre explanation that he was given full ministerial powers but he was not a co-minister?

Morrison conceded “there were lessons to learn out of this” but had no satisfactory explanation for the secrecy – not only in terms of keeping this from the public but also from his own cabinet. This breach of trust shows an amazing lack of confidence in his hand-picked colleagues, despite his protestations to the contrary. His only defence for taking on extraordinary powers was that, in the end, he didn’t exercise them except in the case of Keith Pitt’s ministry.

Peter Dutton now says he would not have done what Morrison did, nor would he if he ever becomes prime minister. He is offering to work with Albanese “to make sure there are checks and balances in place to make sure it cannot happen again”.

John Howard, 15 years after he lost government and his seat, says Albanese should “stop acting like an opposition leader and get on with the present and the future”. But that is precisely the point: the conventions that deliver Australia its democratic freedoms are critical to the present and the future.

Scott Morrison himself paid lip-service to this in March when he started to talk about the “arc of autocracy”. He spoke about the threat to liberal democracy by those seeking to install “a transactional world, devoid of principle, accountability and transparency”. Well, precisely.

The deputy opposition leader, Sussan Ley, and Dutton himself played down any threat from Morrison’s extraordinary flouting of conventional cabinet checks and balances. They gave priority to the cost-of-living pressures people are facing. However, this is not a binary proposition. China, the biggest autocracy on earth, has lifted almost 800 million people out of poverty.

Ley needs to pay more heed to the idea that the price of our liberty is eternal vigilance. Sure this is rooted in a strategic military framing against fascist invaders, but the vigilance should also go to the trashing of democratic conventions that Albanese is highlighting.

There’s no doubt the prime minister sees the Morrison revelations as a political opportunity. He has driven the issue very hard. Its potency comes from the validity of the concerns he raises. They cannot be ignored.

Irrespective of whether the solicitor-general finds that Morrison was acting constitutionally in advising the governor-general to make him a secret clone minister, this precedent cannot be allowed to go unchecked.

At the very least there should be legislation requiring the publication of all ministerial appointments, and that goes for acting ministers. This was presumed but we have seen yet again how unscrupulous or misguided people have no quibbles in trashing conventions.

Malcolm Turnbull says he was “astonished that the governor-general was party to it”. Albanese is making no such claim. He wisely says the “responsibility for this undermining of our parliamentary democracy rests with those people in the Morrison government, including the former prime minister”.

The last thing our democracy needs is another bout of convention-smashing from a governor-general. The precedent of the duplicitous activism of Sir John Kerr in the 1975 sacking of the duly-elected prime minister Gough Whitlam has still not been addressed.

Albanese, who is committed to a republic referendum in his next term, realises the broken infrastructure at the top of our constitution means there is nothing to stop another contentious dismissal.

The pre-eminent historian of the Dismissal, Professor Jenny Hocking, agrees that the governor-general must accept the formal advice of the prime minister but says he also has a duty to “advise, counsel and warn”. We do not know if the current incumbent tested with Morrison the strength of his advice.

Others in the top office have carried out this important aspect of the role with prime ministers. But Hocking also makes the point that the convention is the prime minister should do all in their power not to bring the Crown or its representative into disrepute or controversy. This goes to upholding the reputation of the office and good governance in our system.

The people of Australia were no longer convinced they were getting good governance from the Morrison administration. Howard says Albanese won the election and should get on with it. He must realise that the new prime minister is a much-underestimated political strategist. Then again, Morrison is the gift that keeps on giving to his opponents. The damage to the Liberal Party is hard to calculate, but it can’t be repaired by minimising or excusing the former prime minister’s unprecedented behaviour.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 20, 2022 as "Quit or get off the tin-pot".

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