OPINION

Is there a grand strategy behind Morrison's policies?

This was a week in which the Morrison government seemed to reverse itself on an anti-corruption commission and committed to legislation upholding religious freedom without much idea of what it would actually do. It also gave more money for hospitals and health care to ungrateful premiers who promptly claimed for themselves (and Labor) the moral advantage by saying that it was not enough, indeed not a fraction of what had been taken away. Was Morrison barnacle clearing, or was he laying down markers for the May election?

Is some Machiavellian masterstroke in progress, likely to catch Labor unawares, or to wedge it in a way that slows its seemingly inevitable march to government? If so, its success would surprise, if only because Morrison and his advisers have so far shown no great ear for public opinion, art in political strategy, or capacity to turn the generally uncritical support of the Murdoch media, or their anxiety to please its commentators, into any sort of political plus.

Attorney-General Christian Porter and Prime Minister Scott Morrison announce anti-discrimination laws on Thursday. Photo: AAP

Attorney-General Christian Porter and Prime Minister Scott Morrison announce anti-discrimination laws on Thursday. Photo: AAP

If, on the other hand, Morrison was merely disposing of unfinished business to neutralise criticism of his lack of political achievement, it is again not clear why these issues would figure prominently in his thinking. It seems impossible that he could convert his very limited plan for an integrity commission into any sort of winner for the government, even if he could steer it through either house of parliament, which is doubtful.

On the face of it, Labor and the cross-benchers want to be associated with something with more teeth, and more transparency. The resistance to the very idea of power or accountability cements the government’s reputation for being weak and timorous, rather than of seizing the initiative in response to public opinion.

Likewise, it is far more likely that movement, in almost any direction, on the entrenchment of some sort of freedom of religion will cause more argument and open disunity in the Liberal Party than it will split the opposition or crossbenchers in either house of parliament. The perennially disunited Liberal broad church could hardly have a better issue upon which to divide.

Similarly, it seems doubtful that the Coalition has many votes to win in the fields of health, welfare of education - generally battlegrounds on which Labor is more successful. Perhaps some vociferous critics – for example Catholic archbishops over school funding – can be bought off. If Morrison is to win the election, he would be better off directing funds into areas where the Coalition usually does better, for example in economic management.

A part of Morrison’s problem with a religious freedom law is, I suspect, that he has grounded it upon his own claimed uneasiness about religion being under siege. So far, he has not said exactly what it is that he wants.  Presumably it is to let religious organisations discriminate, in employment, against people whose personal beliefs or lifestyles seem at odds with their proclaimed teachings. A more skilful politician would be making the churches put a lot more skin in the game, and wear the opprobrium, in at least some quarters, of demanding this as a necessary “incident” of respect for a right to practise a religion.

About 70 per cent of Australians notionally adhere to one religion or another. But most seem to have little truck with discrimination in employment, or, as the same-sex marriage debate showed, with formal religious teachings on civil, as opposed to sacramental, marriage being restricted to people of opposite sex. Likewise, they might strongly believe in the right of any person to adhere to any religion she likes, or none. But, in a somewhat John Stuart Mills fashion, think that the freedom of action this permits begins to be limited once it impinges on the rights of other people.

The moral credit of many of the religious organisations, or their senior spokespeople is not high at the moment. As Irish bishops discovered in public debates about same-sex marriage and abortion, their authority, even on doctrinal matters, has not been enhanced by interventions in debates in which their beliefs have been engaged but where they have suffered profound defeats.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his wife, Jenny, and daughters, Abigail and Lily.  Photo: Dominic Lorrimer

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his wife, Jenny, and daughters, Abigail and Lily. Photo: Dominic Lorrimer

The argument might not be confined to matters of morality. It could go, for example, into issues affecting  Morrison’s own children. In normal political debate, the children of a politician are strictly off limits. But Morrison has on several occasions used his children in debates about religion. He has discussed his sending them to an independent Baptist school, and said this is at least in part because of a fear that they might be exposed to teaching about gender that makes his toes crawl. He recently reproved school children, and their parents, over protest action about the government’s inertia on climate change, saying that "what we want is more learning in schools and less activism in schools.”

This invites the question of whether children at the school the Prime Minister’s children attend are being taught evolution, or are instead being taught some version of creationism, a matter of pure religious dogma among a limited number of Christians and not a matter of science at all.

Most costs of such schools are borne by the taxpayer. It has been the Liberal Party that has taken a lead in trying to set national standards in education, with national curriculums in subjects, including science. The Liberals in government sustain, at public expense, conservative ideologues who complain that schools are deviating from their proper function towards the teaching of tendentious and politically correct theories, imposed on vulnerable young minds.

Put aside, for a moment whether a Sydney Anglican school should be able to insist that all its teachers be publicly practising and adherent Anglicans and be able to sack those in same-sex marriages. Has a Christian fundamental school the right to insist that its science teachers believe in creationism? Or to sack one who did not think that evolution and creationism were alternative scientific theories, on an intellectual par with each other?

It would be very interesting to know where the Prime Minister himself stands on such issues. He went to Sydney Boys High, a fine selective NSW government school, where science has always been taught to a high standard. It does not, never did, teach creationism as some sort of credible alternative explanation for facts of biology and geology. Is he wishing upon his children an education inferior to his own? I asked the Prime Minister’s media office in writing 10 days ago whether his children would be taught creationism at their school (virtually impossible to avoid at any Baptist school.) I also asked about Morrison’s own views on evolution, and whether he believed that Christian fundamentalist schools have the "right" to teach what they believe on evolution, instead of accepted science. Despite a reminder, I have received no reply.

The tactics of making an announcement on a very limited Commonwealth Integrity Commission are also quite puzzling. Public opinion strongly favours a commission, but there is no reason to think that what the government proposes would satisfy. It falls well short of what most supporters have seen as minimal requirements, not least in relation to open hearings, broad definitions of corruption, and the power of any such commission to set its own inquiries, rather than to rely on referrals from a narrow range of officials most of whom have resisted the idea of any commission at all.

Perhaps there is a constituency to be found among those who do not really want a commission but who, if there is to be one, want an impotent one. This number appears to include former senator Steve Conroy, now (in the manner of many former ALP apparatchiks) prostituting his inside access to the ALP in the service of the
gambling industry.

Senator Conroy, like Morrison and Attorney-General Christian Porter, appears to believe that ICAC-style bodies have unfairly ruined countless reputations, with baseless allegations, dubious findings, and excesses of jurisdiction. Those who run this argument are generally slow on examples – I would be very interested to see which West Australian inquiries have made findings that have seemed unjust to Christian Porter, or which NSW ICAC inquiries have attracted the ire of Morrison. Was it the wholesale corruption of the Obeid and McDonald era when Labor was in power in NSW? Or perhaps the influence mongering, and evasions of laws about developer donations, by figures well connected to the Liberal Party in the early days of the Liberal government that replaced it? They also ignore the fact that state public inquiries have always followed careful sifting of complaints, and extensive (private) investigations before open hearings.

Porter’s working paper was generally silent about whether the commission would have any jurisdiction over contacts with politicians or the bureaucracy by lobbyists or representatives of industry interests. Nor do we know if it is to have jurisdiction over the movement of ministers, politicians, senior military officers and public servants straight from their official careers into the service of people seeking favours from government. These are two areas where the potential for corruption is obvious; and where the record of action by the present government has been abysmal. The record of the previous Labor government was hardly wonderful either,
but it at least set up registers of lobbyists, and codes of conduct, if not for full-time urgers for powerful vested interests, (not classed by the registration system as lobbyists because they have only one employer.)

Porter has a two-prong commission. One, to deal with law enforcement agencies and (now) bodies such as ASIC and APRA involved in regulatory functions. This presupposes that the existing Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity, and its unaccountable, non-transparent and secretive operations have been a resounding success. That has not been obvious to any outsiders. Given that the government has (unwisely) given ASIO executive and
coercive functions, it is not clear why its exercise of at least those functions is not to be subject to scrutiny by an integrity body. The Inspector General of Security is too limited, in both resources and functions, to properly cover this field. The Ombudsman’s functions in this area have been severely compromised by having been made a partner in national security matters, rather than an independent investigator of misconduct, corruption or abuse of power.

Restricting definitions of corruption to actual criminality when it comes to politicians, minders, officials and government contractors is a neat trick designed to remove a good deal of corrupt behaviour from any form of review at all. Influence mongering, games with party donations and revolving door matters are often not breaches of the criminal law, but are wrong and often amount to corrupt conduct.

Dodgy contracting practices, crony government, and many forms of nepotism are often not breaches of the criminal law, given the law’s failure to have much of a category of or focus on consciously poor stewardship of public resources. National MPs, particularly Barnaby Joyce, have expressed concern whether a commission would have any jurisdiction over the partial distribution of public funds, the use of public resources to reward friends and punish enemies, and the making of government grants without process, and in some cases, application. But while such rorts are quite improper, and occasionally attract the adverse attention of the Auditor-General, they do not usually involve criminality, and thus are probably safe from a commission set up to be as inert as this one.

One of the masterstrokes is the decision that there would be no public reports, only referrals to the Director of Public Prosecutions. Students of the AFP will have noted that it is quite capable of preferring criminal charges of its own initiative, if there is positive publicity to be had, and no one in official circles is likely to be offended. When the AFP doesn’t want to offend government, it refers a brief to the DPP’s office. There often to languish, as with the brief about the leaking, from Senator Michaelia Cash’s office, of the fact of an imminent raid on a trade union office. Or, sometimes, after a long delay, when the political heat has gone off an issue, it is announced without fanfare or explanation that the DPP does not propose to prefer charges.

The DPP has, of course, wide (and virtually unaccountable) discretions over whether to prosecute. There have been only rare cases of prosecutions of politicians or senior officials - the DPP would say that is because few have brought along a brief. It’s not an investigative agency. Some Commonwealth agencies complain it will seldom act unless there is virtual certainty of conviction. It’s track record in complicated prosecutions is poor, as ASIC can attest.

Assuming such legislation got up, the combination of a virtually impotent commission of limited jurisdiction and powers, working in partnership with a rather passive prosecution service, operating only prospectively and only after a narrow, and mostly controllable group of officials provide a reference, suggests that no one has much to worry about. Given that any commission – even of wider powers and functions – would act primarily to inhibit the likely Labor government, it is odd that Morrison and Porter are so unadventurous.

Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times.

This story Is there a grand strategy behind Morrison's policies? first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.