Scott Morrison has developed a distinct way of dealing with crises, honed from his time as minister for immigration and border protection and then as treasurer. He and members of his government have used the "4D" approach - deny, deflect, denigrate and delay - to ensure there is an illusion of progress on key policy fronts without any major policy changes actually being made. The Prime Minister has refined his approach in dealing with climate change and energy policy, bushfires and the fallout from the "sports rorts" affair.
As treasurer, Morrison resisted a full inquiry into the banking and finance industries, denying that there was a problem on 27 occasions before finally capitulating to demands for a royal commission ("nothing to see here, folks"). Though advised that a serious bushfire season was approaching, Morrison refused meetings with fire chiefs and with COAG and rejected the need for a Commonwealth-funded air fleet to fight fires. Instead, he went on holiday, an action for which he has been roundly criticised.
In the face of local and international criticisms that Australia was not doing its share of the heavy lifting in climate change mitigation, Morrison's denials have minimised the problem. Australia would "meet and beat" its obligations "in a canter" he says, a claim inconsistent with the data from his own departments. He continues to deny specific links between climate change and the bushfire emergency.
To most commentators, the management of sports grants indicated a clear breach of Morrison's own ministerial standards guidelines. Given the Auditor-General's report, it is difficult to understand how Morrison can deny serious wrongdoing on the part of Bridget McKenzie. He says the breach was the gun club conflict of interest, not pork-barrelling or an absence of accountability and transparency.
Deflection is the creative phase of Morrison's crisis management: find an alternative issue and focus on it as a way of deflecting attention from the main game. Bushfires are not about climate change, they are about arson and failure to manage fuel loads. Morrison could not action the army more quickly because firefighting is the responsibility of the states, so the issue becomes one of intergovernmental rights and powers. Morrison claims no laws or rules were broken by Bridget McKenzie, so the issue was reframed as one of legality rather than of ministerial integrity, where a small mea culpa is preferred to a full-scale admission of corrupt ministerial behaviour. "Now is the not the time to discuss bushfires and climate change" morphs the climate change debate into an argument about the timing of that discussion.
He has, thus far, been able to give the impression of action without actually moving crisis issues forward.
Morrison and his ministers have denigrated those who raise important policy issues, deflecting the issue away to the motivations and behaviours of complainants. For example, the Prime Minister claims that climate change action advocates such as Greta Thunberg are subjecting Australian children to needless anxiety. Deputy Prime Minister McCormack lashed the "disgraceful, disgusting" behaviour of "raving inner-city lunatics" for linking climate change to the bushfires. According to many in government, "greenies" are supposed to have prevented local governments from managing fuel loads; and state governments have not done enough to manage their own bushfire responsibilities. Barnaby Joyce showed little compassion for the plight of some bushfire victims by commentating that those who died in the fires had most likely voted for the Greens.
In relation to calls for an increase to the Newstart allowance, Social Services Minister Anne Ruston argued that there would be little to gain from an increase because any extra would give more money to drug dealers and pubs. Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton argued that climate change activists should be given mandatory sentences and have their welfare payments revoked. These "blame the victim" comments infer that welfare recipients do not deserve the support they receive.
The final strategy of delay is best seen in the calling of an inquiry or royal commission and then doing little to implement its recommendations. Morrison was dragged into setting up the banking royal commission, which subsequently revealed significant cultural problems in the finance industries. The first anniversary of the banking and finance inquiry has recently come and gone, yet the great majority of its recommendations are still to be implemented.
One of the first responses of the Morrison government to the recent bushfires has been to call a royal commission, despite the fact that since 1939 there have been at least 18 major bushfire inquiries, including state and federal parliamentary committee inquiries, COAG reports, coronial inquiries and royal commissions.
NSW has already indicated it will also conduct a bushfire inquiry this year, and in the unlikely event that the final national report is completed in time for the next fire season, we cannot be confident matters will soon change.
Rather than accept the report of the independent Auditor-General, Morrison asked the head of his department (hardly an independent referee) to conduct a review of Bridget McKenzie's actions in relation to ministerial standards. This delayed the matter further and resulted in very tepid advice which neatly sidestepped the main thrust of the Auditor-General's report - that the minister had managed her responsibilities with little concern for merit, transparency and fairness.
What does this mean?
Scott Morrison is a clever politician, who understands governments need to be seen to be addressing key policy matters. He has, thus far, been able to give the impression of action without actually moving crisis issues forward, though he is becoming known as a great prevaricator.
The last election exposed the paucity of Coalition policies in a number of critical areas such as climate change, economic management and welfare for the most vulnerable Australians.
The risk for Morrison is that, like the fires, the fronts may merge - and his 4D strategy to defer crisis issues may not be sufficient to save his government.
- Dr Chris Aulich is an Adjunct Professor at the University of Canberra.