Opinion

Scott Morrison’s secret ministries undermine public trust – and we should be deeply concerned

There can be little doubt that the issue of public and personal integrity permeated and ultimately overwhelmed the recent election. There was, except among the diehards, a general sigh of relief that nearly a decade of a government that did not prioritise accountability had finally come to an end. The rise of the suburban independents, infused with community concerns about climate, integrity and gender equality, swept a new and encouraging energy into our public life.

At the heart of the public integrity concerns were several truly important issues: concern over the genuineness of the Coalition’s net zero climate policy; concern over the bona fides of the suspect carbon credit scheme; the blatant political advantaging of the multimillion-dollar grants schemes, and the unavowed preference by the government for the fossil fuel industries. Above all these loomed the endless secrecy and lack of transparency, from the ceaseless evasions of politicians to the shroud of secrecy over the Bernard Collaery trial and the prosecution, conviction and imprisonment of Witness J.

In this maelstrom, the personal integrity of Scott Morrison became a centrepiece of the election debate. Morrison had attacked the NSW Independent Commission against Corruption, and had put forward an ineffective anti-corruption model as the federal government’s preferred scheme for integrity. Morrison’s department used cabinet confidentiality to deny freedom of information scheme requests that ensured truly important information never saw the light of day. Morrison’s consistent evasiveness in interviews and public meetings tormented journalists and the public. Notwithstanding these personal flaws, he put himself forward as the centrepiece for the Coalition at the election, thus gambling the party’s fortunes on one roll of the dice – himself!

Against this background, the revelation about Morrison’s self-investiture in at least five ministerial roles without full disclosure to some of the relevant ministers concerned and without notification to his colleagues and to the public has occasioned indignant clamour and a significant level of disquiet. Morrison argues that the appointments were necessary as a safeguard in the unprecedented circumstances of the pandemic and that, with one exception, he never used the ministerial powers. But it is necessary to ask, first, whether these actions constituted a crime or behaviour warranting anti-corruption investigation.

As to the first, most astute constitutional lawyers, while bemused, cannot state that these manoeuvres were contrary to law. Moreover, it is difficult to see that Morrison’s actions could amount to corrupt conduct within the definitions that surround the concept in state and territory anti-corruption legislation.

A federal anti-corruption body is still a little way off and we do not know at present the reach of its likely definition of corrupt conduct. However, it will almost certainly be concerned with serious corruption, and not merely inappropriate or questionable behaviour.

So, should we be concerned about Morrison’s actions and, if so, why?

We should be deeply concerned. Morrison’s behaviour clearly threatens integrity in public life. Key features of the concept of integrity are transparency and accountability. Without these, we have no integrity at all. Morrison argues that the failure to share his actions with other ministers was simply “an oversight”. It is difficult to accept this from a politician as shrewd and nimble as Morrison. Why, for example, was it kept from Peter Dutton? Was this simply an oversight?

It could scarcely be said to be an oversight that Morrison’s five ministerial appointments were concealed from the public and, more significantly, from Parliament itself. Morrison was not averse to spruiking his own achievements to the public during the worse times of the pandemic. Why be reticent about his plans to personally control five key ministries if it became necessary. The inference plainly is that he did not wish to share this information because it might become, indeed as it has now, politically inexpedient. There is something distastefully sly about this.

There was never the slightest suggestion that it would become necessary to undertake these five roles either at any time or simultaneously. Indeed, two of the appointments occurred in early May 2021 during a period of recovery. In any event, why was it necessary to implant these five important roles in his own persona? This is a curious question and difficult to answer. Perhaps, he thought that in an emergency, he would be the best and only person who could control the nation’s destiny. If this was the reason, it bespoke an extraordinary hubris. What if he were stricken down with illness? How could the country then possibly survive?

We have assistant and delegated ministers in our governmental system. They can provide continuity in the case of absence, illness or resignation. In this situation, Morrison’s behaviour appears simply bizarre and inexplicable. We do know that, in one instance, Morrison donned his secret resources cap to override the then resources minister Keith Pitt. This suggests a level of motivation well beyond the “emergency” justification recently put forward by the former prime minister. A more likely reason may have been his overriding need to control his ministerial team, but to keep the power secretly within his domain until its exercise became necessary.

Expert and legal commentary has rightly suggested that this sorry tale has threatened the notion of ministerial responsibility. This is a doctrine at the core of the Westminster system. Perhaps it has at the very least fired a shot across the bows of this doctrine. But, more importantly, the secrecy and evasiveness of Morrison’s conduct, consistent with many of his attributes as prime minister, has further eroded trust in the political system and cast a bleak shadow over integrity in public life.

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