Morrison is a symptom, not the cause, of the decline in Australian politics
In focusing on Scott Morrison’s shocking record in government, and/or on his pathetic and self-pitying response to Commissioner Holmes’ Robodebt report, we must not lose sight of the fact that Morrison is symptomatic of a great deal of what is so terribly wrong in contemporary Australian politics. He is not the cause of what is wrong. The focus on Morrison is deflecting attention away from the increasingly worrying conduct of the Albanese government and the alarming rate at which Australia is being entrapped into American militarism in the region.
Scott Morrison’s egregious response to the Robodebt Royal Commission’s findings against him has angered many Australians, including even a few Opposition MPs and some remaining members of the Liberal Party. His stubborn refusal to leave the parliament – possibly because he has no offers of work outside it – means he will remain, for the time being at least, a small but nasty canker on the Australian body politic. It is important, however, not to over-state the abject failings of this man.
There is no doubt the Morrison government will go down in history as one of the worst – if not the worst – governments endured by this country. As a minister in the Abbott and Turnbull governments, and then as Prime Minister, Morrison behaved like a self-interested oaf and bully. He certainly can’t be viewed as a principled political leader.
Likewise with many of his ministers. For example, Josh Frydenberg’s profligate squandering of many millions of dollars on large companies under the guise of his JobKeeper policy, or his arrogant dismissal of Victoria’s Covid policies are two of the more obviously bad items, among many, on his watch as Treasurer. We must add to this the questionable actions of the likes of Barnaby Joyce, Angus Taylor, Sussan Leys, Peter Dutton, and others, whose actions in government must be thoroughly investigated, possibly by the NACC.
However, in focusing only on Morrison’s shocking record in government, and/or on his pathetic and self-pitying response to Commissioner Holmes’ report, we must not lose sight of the fact that he is symptomatic of a great deal of what is so terribly wrong in contemporary Australian politics. He is not the cause of what is wrong.
What is wrong goes back over most post-war governments in Australia, with the possible exception of the Whitlam era. While the Hawke-Keating governments achieved some impressive reforms (for example a national superannuation scheme), its obsession with the neoliberal attack on crucial public goods – remember, for example, the myopic and ideologically-driven privatisation of the Commonwealth Bank and QANTAS – systematically undermined its mostly, but by no means completely laudable policy record. Add to this its short-sighted media regulatory “reforms” that have allowed the Murdoch mob to gain an effective monopoly of Australia’s media.
Nor did Hake and Keating do enough to lift the standard of debate in the snarling bull pit that parliament has become accustomed to, and the manner in which political debates are conducted across contemporary Australia. These failings of the Hawke-Keating era laid the foundations of what was to come after it. From the time of the Howard government, Australian politics have declined precipitously. Policy debates are conducted largely in ideological terms, often (always?) dictated by the hacks at News Limited’s various outlets.
As Prime Minister, Howard appeared to be a reincarnation of the lamentable Billy Hughes. His style recalled much of the nastiness, small-mindedness, lack of political vision, racism, vindictiveness, and pro-monarchy sentimentality that had characterised Hughes’ long and divisive years in the Australian parliament. Howard set in motion the movement of the Liberal Party to become a very right wing party, abandoning the centre of the Australian political continuum. This move has been aided and abetted by extremist religious, evangelical backers who have facilitated the careers of Stuart Robert, Scott Morrison, Alex Hawke, and even less religious Liberals like Peter Dutton in the Australian parliament.
In policy terms, the Howard years cemented the Australian economy into a neoliberal future, privatising a wide range of public goods (for example, aged care) while moving Australia into a closer engagement with United States militarism across the globe. The result has had negative consequences for the Australian economy (low wages, low productivity, and rapidly growing inequality across the country). And it has entrenched Australia on a foreign and defence policy course resulting in China being perceived as a dangerous threat and America as the country’s saviour from that threat – a perceived threat and pro-US policy response that have become the hallmark of the Albanese-Marles government of today.
While Tony Abbott was without question the most ham-fisted Liberal politician in the Hughes-Howard tradition, Scott Morrison was its apotheosis. He successfully isolated moderate Liberals from the centre of his government. Their supine acceptance of that isolation gave him free rein to engage in some of the most secretive and possibly corrupt behavior of any prime minister in the country’s history. His clandestine assumption of several ministerial positions is arguably the most blatant example of political subterfuge ever seen in federal politics in Australia. There are many others which historians will no doubt ponder as they research his time as prime minister.
However, the Robodebt Royal Commission report has shone a glaring spotlight on Morrison’s conduct, first as a minister in charge of overseeing much of that woeful policy’s architecture, and secondly it highlights the kind of politician that he is. There is widespread agreement, certainly among balanced commentators on the policy (for example, the excellent Laura Tingle), that it represents one of the worst policies ever imposed on the Australia people. Moreover, it is possibly an example of governmental malfeasance – that is, neglective or wilful conduct by a public official or officials (see Mark Aaronson, “Malfeasance in Public Office,” Melbourne University Law Review, Vol. 35, no. 1, 2011: 1-49).
Nonetheless, if the debates swirling around Morrison and his cohort in government turn out to be the be-all-and-end-all of the conversation about what was wrong with, and them, we shall lose sight of a much larger problem bedevilling the conduct of Australian politics today. It is certainly the case that Morrison and others have much to answer for. The Holmes’ report and what may yet come out of NACC investigations have answered, or will answer, many if not all of those questions. And it is also certain that there must be dire consequences for anyone whose policies and political conduct are found to be malfeasant or otherwise detrimental to the health of the body politic in Australia. Nothing less than a prison term should be on the cards for any perpetrators if they are found guilty of any crimes.
But the worrying thing about all this is that the focus on Morrison is deflecting attention away from the increasingly worrying conduct of the Albanese government. The recent AUSMIN meeting in Brisbane has demonstrated the alarming rate at which Australia is being entrapped into American militarism in the region. The lack of a visionary response by Albanese, not only to the Morrison era, but to the whole Hughes-Howard tradition of morally backward politics in contemporary Australia, is deeply concerning.
This article by Dr Allan Patience was originally published in Pearls and Irritations
Dr Allan Patience is an honorary fellow in political science in the University of Melbourne.
Morrison misleads Parliament yet again — and says he’s the real victim of robodebt
The former prime minister's claim about 'unintended consequences' is an offensive lie that insults victims all over again
Scott Morrison’s mendacity is now a well-established fact of Australian public life, even in the twilight of his career as he sits, otherwise unemployable, on the opposition backbench.
His belated response to the robodebt royal commission report in Parliament yesterday maintains that record of mendacity, as he misled Parliament — something he readily did as prime minister — in maintaining his innocence of anything relating to the debacle that led to the suicides of several people and the misery of hundreds of thousands.
Indeed, Morrison believes he’s the real victim of robodebt. The tens of thousands of Australians who received entirely fictional debt notices, the tens of thousands more sent grossly inflated bills, the dead and their families, were merely “unintended consequences”, he maintains, whereas he is the victim of a “political lynching” by Labor.
The former prime minister rejects royal commissioner Catherine Holmes’ finding that he allowed cabinet to be misled, because — he says — he was the victim of public servants who failed to do their job: “I was constitutionally and legally entitled to assume the officers of the department had complied with their obligations under the Public Service Act to advise their respective ministers. As a result my obligations were fully and properly discharged.”
Any suggestion he should have questioned public servants’ assurances that no legislation was required to make robodebt legal was naive and would make the job of a minister “unworkable”.
Morrison’s defence hinges on the fact that public servants changed the new policy proposal (NPP) that Morrison took to the Expenditure Review Committee to remove reference to the unlawful practice of income averaging and the need for legislative change, thus misleading cabinet. Morrison says what was put in the NPP overrode all previous advice about the use of income averaging and the need for legislation.
But as Holmes noted, the then-cabinet handbook required that: “Ministers are expected to take full responsibility for the content, quality and accuracy of advice provided to the cabinet under their name.”
Morrison knew that income averaging formed part of the proposal, even though it stated there would be no change to how income was calculated. And he knew that legislative change was required to implement income averaging, because he had been told that previously by bureaucrats. When the requirement for legislative change conveniently vanished without explanation — after Morrison “made clear to DSS [Department of Social Services] that he wanted the DHS proposal progressed by way of NPP for the upcoming DSS portfolio budget submission without legislative change” — he stayed silent and asked no questions.
Morrison’s self-portrayal as an innocent gulled by bureaucrats falls away entirely on the charge that he misled the royal commission about his belief that income averaging was part of the way DSS had always operated. Holmes forensically details Morrison’s evidence and shows there is simply no way that Morrison could plausibly claim to have believed that when he approved the NPP in 2015.
Morrison admitted to the royal commission that he was never told in writing there was a longstanding practice of income averaging, saying “It would have come up in verbal briefings” — except he couldn’t say who told him. He began claiming he’d been told verbally only during his evidence to the commission, not in his formal statement beforehand.
His department at the time, DSS, knew there was no practice of income averaging, because it was unlawful, as it told the Human Services Department (DHS), so it wouldn’t have told him. DHS officers knew that income averaging was used only occasionally with the agreement of the recipient, so it wouldn’t have told Morrison either. In fact Morrison was specifically told that income needed to be calculated fortnightly to determine overpayments.
Later ministers were misled by DHS that income averaging was a longstanding practice, but Holmes shows in brutal detail that Morrison hasn’t got a leg to stand on in claiming he was told that in 2015. He was reduced yesterday to insisting “there was therefore a reasonable likelihood that such views would have been conveyed to me at the time”. Except there’s no such likelihood. He misled the commission.
And Morrison’s insistence that he didn’t pressure public servants over the development of robodebt again falls short of the detailed assessment of the royal commission. He had publicly committed to being a tough cop on the welfare beat and to restoring “integrity” in his new portfolio, and told public servants he didn’t want anything that required legislation, and that he “expect[ed] them to get on and deliver it”.
Public servants specifically told the commission that, despite the concept of robodebt needing further refinement (not to mention legislative change), there was pressure to “get on with it. Just get on with it … And we collectively got on with it.”
Morrison’s greatest lie, however, is his callow expression of regret for what he claimed were “unintended consequences”.
The misery inflicted on hundreds of thousands of welfare recipients was no unintended consequence of robodebt. It was the very point of it.
The scheme’s unlawful use of averaging was “essentially unfair”, the commission found. “It subverted the rationale on which income support was provided in the first place.”
Recipients were deliberately pressured to furnish proof of income going back five years when DHS told them to keep payslips for only six months, often from employers who had since gone out of business. Recipients were deliberately forced to go online rather than deal with DHS officers, in a disastrous attempt to find savings.
There appears to have been an obliviousness to, or worse a callous disregard, of the fact that many welfare recipients had neither the means nor the ability to negotiate an online system.
That is, in overall conception and in detailed design, robodebt was intended to be unfair and difficult for the most marginalised members of the community.
The only “unintended consequence” for Morrison is that, eventually, belatedly, the unfairness, the cruelty, the illegality, the abandonment of basic standards of government process, not to mention decency, were exposed in detail. And he was central to it.