Morrison’s meltdown

| November 26, 2022

Former High Court judge Virginia Bell does not describe Scott Morrison as a megalomaniac. But the picture she paints neatly fits the dictionary definition of “someone who has an unnaturally strong wish for power and control”.

Bell’s report into Morrison’s extraordinary action of installing himself into five portfolios reinforces what has already been the general condemnation of his contempt for political conventions, and his reprehensible behaviour towards colleagues.

Morrison’s failure to personally front the inquiry, instead engaging through his lawyer, does not go to his credit, given the seriousness of the issue.

In essence, Bell finds his conduct inexplicable on any reasonable measure. No foreseeable problem required or justified what he did.

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She was also deeply unimpressed by Morrison’s claim he thought the appointments would be made public by gazettal – which was at odds with what he’d said in August when trying to justify his secrecy.

Morrison made himself co-minister in health and finance in 2020; in 2021 he had himself appointed to industry, science, energy and resources; home affairs, and treasury.

Only one of the relevant ministers, Greg Hunt in health, knew they were getting a partner. Resources minister Keith Pitt found out when Morrison prepared to make the decision on a gas exploration project. That was the single occasion he exercised his direct power in any of the portfolios.

Bell discovered he’d also contemplated inserting himself into the department of agriculture, water and the environment, but didn’t proceed.

The rationale for moving into health and finance was to cover the possibility of the minister being unable to exercise his duties. But Bell points out this was “unnecessary” – if either minister were incapacitated, Morrison could have been appointed “in a matter of minutes”.

His appointments to the other three posts, including treasury, were “in a different category”. They “had little if any connection to the pandemic,” Bell writes.

“Rather, Mr Morrison was appointed to administer these departments to give himself the capacity to exercise particular statutory powers.”

In relation to treasury and home affairs, “Mr Morrison, through his legal representative, informed me that he ‘considered it necessary, in the national interest, to lawfully ensure that there would be no gap in the exercise of [powers related to ongoing matters of national security] if required, so as to guarantee the continuity and effective operation of Government’”.

Bell found “this concern is not easy to understand”, noting there were other ministers who were appointed to administer those departments, and Morrison himself could always become acting minister if necessary. There would be no “gap” problem.

Bell concluded that the 2021 appointments were so Morrison could exercise the statutory power should the relevant minister propose to act in a way he disagreed with, or fail to make a decision he wanted made.

Many who served in the Morrison ministry have previously expressed their shock and anger at their former boss’s behaviour. The Bell report will refuel that.

Former treasurer Josh Frydenberg is particularly outraged. He was ultra-loyal; he rebuffed colleagues who urged him to challenge Morrison in the government’s latter days.

Frydenberg told journalist Niki Savva for her book Bulldozed, out next week, “I don’t think there was any reason for Scott to take on the additional Treasury portfolio. The fact he did take it, and it was not made transparent to me and others, was wrong and profoundly disappointing. It was extreme overreach.”

One flaw in Morrison’s character, so damaging before the election, is his slipperiness with the truth. Bell pings him on this.

She writes: “It is difficult to reconcile Mr Morrison’s choice not to inform his ministers of the appointments out of his wish not to be thought to be second guessing them, with his belief that the appointments had been notified in the Commonwealth Gazette.

“While few members of the public may read the Gazette, any idea that the gazettal of the Prime Minister’s appointment to administer the Treasury (or any of the other appointments) would not be picked up and quickly circulated within the public service and the Parliament strikes me as improbable in the extreme.

“One might have expected Mr Morrison to inform the affected ministers of the appointments had it been his belief at the time that they were being notified in the Gazette.

“Mr Morrison was repeatedly pressed at his press conference on 17 August 2022 about his failure not only to inform his ministers but also to inform the public of the appointments. The omission to state that he had acted at all times on the assumption that each appointment had been notified to the public in the Gazette is striking.”

Governor-General David Hurley, who has been under fire for not pushing back on the PM’s odd behaviour and secrecy, escapes censure, with Bell saying the criticism of him is “unwarranted”.

She finds it “troubling” that by the time of the 2021 appointments Phil Gaetjens, head of Morrison’s department and a close confidant, did not take up the matter of secrecy with his boss and argue for disclosure. However, she says, “the responsibility for that secrecy must reside with Mr Morrison”.

Bell agrees with the solicitor-general’s conclusion that Morrison’s actions fundamentally undermined the principles of responsible government. She says the affair corroded trust in government. But, given Morrison only made one decision, the practical implications were limited.

The government will legislate, in line with Bell’s recommendations, to guarantee transparency of ministerial arrangements. Anthony Albanese on Friday wouldn’t say whether Morrison would face a parliamentary censure motion.

The Bell report and the Savva book restock the government’s political ammunition store, and it is worse for the opposition while Morrison remains in parliament.

Morrison’s descent from the 2019 political miracle man to the leader who undermined “public confidence in government” is one of the most remarkable stories in modern federal political history. To borrow a description Morrison tried to pin on Albanese, our former PM was indeed a “loose unit” – a good deal looser than we realised at the time.

This article was published by The Conversation.