It is the fate of the modern political leader that they die by their own hand. At least according to the obituarists and the historians.
I do not mean that they literally commit suicide. What I mean is that their political success, and their political failure, will be attributed to personal characteristics, and their fate as almost inevitable. Initially their strengths will help them rise high; more likely than that they will ultimately bring them down. Similarly their flaws of character may help brake or delay their ascent; later they may accelerate the fall. That is not mere hubris or pride.
I do not know whether Prime Minister Scott Morrison will be run over by a bus, be deposed by his colleagues, fail at the next election or survive, for the short term at least, by another miracle. But the smell of political death is about him, and it is not because of bad luck, circumstance or treachery. What will destroy him, I expect, are things already done, character traits already on display, idiosyncrasies that might once have seemed almost attractive but which now repel. The values he once proclaimed - not least of active Christian temperament - are ones he appears to have repudiated.
When he goes, no one will be surprised or taken aback. Except, perhaps in a manner like the speed of the fall of Kabul, by how quick the end was. (Kabul, like Saigon, was always going to fall to the Taliban. But we, like the Americans and the British, did not expect that the Afghan regime would collapse immediately after the props were taken away). Some will lament the wasted time and the missed opportunities, but almost all will agree that he was the architect of his own ruin.
Morrison has compromised most of his potential rivals and senior associates. There are few cleanskins of officer class in his government, even in the political generation below him. Perhaps it is the fear of the abyss that makes for loyalty beyond personal or party long-term interest.
No person reaches the highest executive office without great skills and abilities, great ego and genuine desire to make some sort of difference and to leave some sort of legacy. Morrison has been there long enough to have left a mark, and to be remembered in the history books. But for what lasting achievements? He steered Australia with skill through the beginning of the pandemic and the economic crisis it produced.
But he squandered most of the goodwill that should have created. He seemed to want only to restore the economy to "what it was" rather than "what it could be". As with the bushfires, climate change and responses to violence against women, he has had a cack ear for the public mood. He has always seemed to be responding to things he has caused to go wrong.
As things have gone wrong he has refused to accept responsibility, has tried to blame everyone else. His fixes are for the short-term only. Except for reluctance to do anything about climate change - that signature hurdle he always props at - he has never shown himself held back by ideology or any need for consistency. But his "flexibility" is increasingly too late, too ineffective and too unconvincing. Even his own constituencies joke about his meaningless announcements, his distractions and his deceits.
Potential obituary writers - including those who still support him - know all they need to know to create a narrative of a leader who couldn't lead, a man who could not mobilise the community around ideas or ideals, or unite Australians about a future they would want to be part of. They have left open, for later, a few paragraphs on the final humiliations - for the country as much as the man. They have yet to pen the objective, but bitter devastating judgment about the place he deserves in history. There will be no statues in the manner of Curtin, or Chifley or Menzies, or soon, no doubt, of Hawke and Keating and Howard. He will be remembered for no speech, no act of generosity or empathy. Held up no virtues or values, exciting very little in the way of personal or professional affection. All the more pitiable, perhaps, because he has affected to be comfortable within his own skin, an everyman, a loving husband and father, and a devout adherent to what some describe as an American religious cult.
Almost all politicians are doomed to ultimate failure. Ultimately they lose power - by losing the confidence of their colleagues, the Parliament, or the electorate. A very few step down voluntarily. Most of those with the will to power will not surrender it lightly, and ultimately outlive their welcome. By then, as likely as not, the wriggling and manoeuvring to stay in power, and to avoid their fate, has made them a quite different person from the woman or man who originally took office.
It's almost of Biblical hue. The gnostic Gospel of St Thomas - written within a century of the crucifixion - says that "if you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you don't bring it forth, what you do not bring forth will destroy you". (I often think of these words when I contemplate the political fate or Malcolm Turnbull, and the likely fate of Anthony Albanese: men who were chosen to be themselves, who decided to be anything but in their desperate attempts to hold favour.)
History is much much more than the history of great women and men. It involves the clash of national, social and economic forces, events from all over the world, matters of relative chance such as the weather and earthquakes. It involves luck. Some of the better Australian leaders may have the conceit that they have made a material difference to the lives, the culture and the mood of Australia. But 2021 has shown a plodder and a pedestrian. In 2020 he seemed remarkable, even when his decisions and actions were much the same as his international counterparts. In 2021, he has seemed to fail in strategy against COVID-19, in organising vaccines and vaccinations, and in providing effective national leadership, especially on lockdown strategy. His responses to other events, including climate change, regime change in Afghanistan, and China showed that his limitations were not confined to health or federal-state relations.
Scott Morrison and Josh Frydenberg may think, for example, that their agile response to the financial collapse "saved" the Australian economy, and that voters owe them everlasting gratitude. Yet virtually every western polity and economy - even that led by Donald Trump - responded in much the same way. It would be very hard to prove that the distinctly "Australian" form of the branding of relief measures were what made the difference here. That Australia emerged more quickly from the depression, and that our mortality and morbidity were strikingly different from most other countries owes rather more to our geography than to peculiar insights or decisions made by the government.
History, or a royal commission, will not be kind to Morrison
It will be 50 years or more before any sort of balanced judgment can be made about the present times. But there will be occasions to discover important facts. Some will come from court actions, including, it is to be hoped, the findings of integrity inquiries by powerful inquisitors. But if ever there were a case for a systemic royal commission it would be over events of recent years.
We need one over the management of the pandemic, at both state and Commonwealth level, including the into economic strategy and tactics of the governments involved. The terms of reference need not be loaded. It would, of course, be best if the commissioners were women and men regarded for their independence and probity, rather than their well-known biases.
We equally need an inquiry - probably a second one rather than a continuation of the other - into the weaknesses in the general style of government, economic and financial management and political stewardship of recent days. Added on to which could be a request for a review of existing systems of political accountability and public watchdogs, including questions about the desirable form of an integrity commission.
There was once a tradition - last honoured by Kevin Rudd in failing to follow his nose with the wheat-for-oil scandal - that governments did not order inquiries into their predecessors. This convention was smashed by Tony Abbott and should not be revived. But we want the inquiries so that we can learn, not for partisan point-scoring.
We want to review (with the added benefit of hindsight) what happened, who did what and when, and what we have to learn from the affair. We want to be better prepared next time, because there will be next times. No doubt there will be ample opportunities to criticise politicians, bureaucrats and medical professionals at all levels of Australian government. But it should not be a one- or two-dimensional exercise, or a mere hit job on the prime minister. The judgments of other leaders - premiers and chief ministers - should also be up for consideration. Experience abroad might come under the microscope, as might, perhaps, be the role of some groups, such as News Corporation in spreading fear, hatred and misinformation.
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It is hard to see a general inquiry into good government being kind to Morrison and his ministers. But the findings of any such inquiry would carry considerably more weight if they came from an independent quarter - a Ken Hayne type, for example - than as a piece of theatre from loyal Labor luvvies. Likewise the results would be seen to be fair if the players were given scrupulous natural justice (if not the ability to hide behind phony claims of privilege, or refusals to answer or explain.)
If such an inquiry must await a Labor government, one can probably assume that Morrison will be then out of politics. If so, his Coalition successors will seek to blame him, not themselves, for any mistake or impropriety. But the commission, like the Hayne banking inquiry, should not be satisfied by such tactics. It should dig down to investigate the roles of other players, political as well as bureaucratic, who enabled any wrongdoing, who failed in due diligence, or in their duty. An honest inquiry will tell future voters, as much as present ones, things about their fitness for office, and the manner of their stewardship of public money and the public interest.
The failures and derelictions of ministers, officials, and the weakening of the institutions of good government owe something to trends in modern economic liberalism, and a declining moral compass and debased sense of public interest and good stewardship inside almost all of those institutions, including religious organisations, financial institutions, the law and the political parties. But one might equally relate some of these developments, or their accentuation at a critical moment, to the character and the personality of particular leaders, the judgments they made at critical moments, and to the mental and moral way in which they saw their duty when they were at any crossroads.
When silence compromises colleagues and makes them legally complicit
The Prime Minister conceals his own involvement in the workings of his private office, on a deniability model established by John Howard 25 years ago. But it is obvious, even to the ordinary voter, that his prevarications, dissembling and denials are calculated to hide the truth, rather than expose it. It is equally obvious that Morrison rejects tenets of transparent and accountable constitutional government that were there even before FOI legislation.
Not a single woman or man on the governing side of Australian politics has had the guts or integrity to criticise the practices, and apparent working standards and ethics, of the Morrison government. In public that is. The personal decency index of Liberal politicians is probably not greatly different from Labor ones. But that so many are silent, putting loyalty before honour or duty to the public, says much about the character and controlling personality of political leaders, and their capacity to influence pre-selections, crush ambitions, punish and reward. The silence is, of course, the more shameful in that it is clear that senior ministers mean to stand by just the same sort of improper diversion of public funds at the next election.
Morrison has reached that stage of his tenure that even his colleagues wonder if he can win the next election. Most did not expect him to win the last one. He has won leeway because of the "miracle" of that campaign. This involved very dark arts, amazing self-confidence and a capacity to exploit peculiar Labor leadership weaknesses. Next time about, the opportunities won't be the same. I do think that Labor must give voters a reason to vote for it. But the underlying question for voters should be whether Australians want more of the same leadership as they have been getting.
- Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times and a regular columnist. email@example.com