It was not one of Prime Minister Scott Morrison's better weeks, months or even years, but watching the final parliamentary session for the year with very little sympathy for the man, I could not help thinking that he should be using better strategies to position his party for the year and the decade ahead.
It was a week of floor-crossings by Coalition members, the announcement by a number of colleagues that they were not planning to recontest their seats, the standing down of a minister pending an inquiry into his affair with a former staffer, and a further period of bruising attacks on his personality and his general tendency towards bullshit, bluster and blame. It was hardly a note on which the Coalition, the ministry or he himself could depart for holidays with a new spring in their step. Most of all it was for want of having much in the way of a legislative agenda, let alone a platform from which voters can see where Morrison and his team would like to take the nation in the year ahead. One can be fairly certain that creating a right of religious discrimination, even assuming he could get it through either house of parliament, is not by itself going to do the trick.
One should never write off the chances of any person in a two-horse race, particularly when he has shown himself to have no ethical qualms about abusing all of the powers of incumbency, including the conversion of public money into party funds. Particularly too given Labor's capacity to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory - an outcome that might even give some of Anthony Albanese's party detractors more pleasure than a Labor victory. Nonetheless it must now be said that a Labor win at the election, whenever it is held, is more likely than not, and that nothing Morrison, or his team, has yet shown to voters gives the impression that he can turn it around. Relentless attacks on Labor personalities, or on the intrinsic tendencies of any Labor government can be expected, but their impact will be diluted by the disarray within the Coalition, and probably, the accumulation of its weaknesses.
It's rather too late to have an agenda for government. It is not too late to have an agenda for opposition, one that is concentrated first on minimising Coalition losses so that it has some ability to re-establish itself as soon as possible for a return to government. Just as importantly, an agenda of hamstringing Labor in government, and by fair means rather than foul. It is time for a conservative government, however hypocritically, to again pretend to be a champion of decent, limited and honest government, constrained by law and by convention in the way that it spends public money and pursues policies of change. Indeed - this ought to be particularly attractive to Morrison - a party which restores the system to much the same as it once was. Perhaps too, as he claims, unconvincingly, to have always been his predisposition a party more focused on freedom, flexibility and trust in people than on centralisation, regulation and command economies.
Take for example the question of an Independent Commission Against Corruption. It is too late now to have such a commission holding hearings before the next election, but it is not too late to adopt and legislate the model being championed by the independents and (if with less enthusiasm) the Labor Party. One could even appoint the commissioners, ones with the appearance of being independent and neutral, but thought to have a predisposition against executive aggrandisement of power. Not, in short, Labor luvvies, or the sort of unhelpful ex-judges who have been undermining the Coalition's argument for a secret commission with no power and no teeth.
Most of the Coalition's opposition to a Commonwealth ICAC - even after it committed itself to one - was based on the fear that it would be a scourge on the Coalition in power, not least to the rorting mentality of so many members of the National Party. No doubt the ICAC we ultimately get, probably on a Labor model somewhat weaker than the independents want, will be able to investigate past corruption - which is to say the copious corruption of mind in the Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison governments. But as politicians in the states, particularly in NSW have discovered, most ICAC-like bodies are forward looking, rather than focused on the past, and the major victims of any ICAC set up will be ministers in the government of the day. Probably Labor ministers in short. And, given the predilection of many Labor folk, particularly factional chieftains, to see the achievement of power as the opportunity to redistribute the loot, and organise the patronage, to their own advantage rather than for the public interest, one can expect rich pickings, at least until the big players realise that the nature of the political game has changed.
It is true that no Coalition minister, from Tony Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison down can sleep safely at night given the glee and the zeal with which Abbott destroyed the old convention that new governments do not perform inquests into the actions of previous governments. Thus, for example, Kevin Rudd did not initiate a proper inquiry into the involvement of politicians in the Iraqi wheat-for-oil scandal, and did not even think of an inquiry into the bugging of the Timor Leste cabinet, though he knew about it and must have known its capacity to destroy some reputations.
But Labor should have no appetite to return to the old convention. If I were a Labor prime minister, I would be actively thinking about organising formal inquiries, outside the ICAC process, into the Robodebt scheme, into how money designed for improving sporting facilities, park and ride schemes, and regional infrastructure were consciously rorted by politicians as election war-chests, or to reward mates and cronies, and to punish and disadvantage enemies and critics of the government. I would be interested to see an inquiry into how Treasurer Josh Frydenberg established a scheme by which businesses were allowed to rort $40 billion in public money to which they were not entitled, without any obligation to repay money - the more obscene because government was attempting to re-establish schemes to chisel money back from pensioners and welfare beneficiaries who might not have been entitled. I would also have a practical inquiry into the politicisation of senior ranks of the public service, one that included the activities, and the acts and omissions of those who had taken the money and run by the time of a change of government.
There's scope, too, for inquiries into lessons from the management of the pandemic - and of the economy once the pandemic began. And there's scope for inquiries into bushfire recovery, into climate change policy and administration over the past decade, into the prudent management of public resources by the Home Affairs and the Attorney-General's Department, and into the deliberate running down of the tertiary education sector.
Another might be into the way that some agencies of the bureaucracy, led by Prime Minister and Cabinet and the Department of Home Affairs, came to disregard the law on FOI, in a presumed effort to win favour from ministers.
Any of these, and no doubt others would be justified either as searches for lessons for dealing with future similar problems, or, in many cases, into matters of systemic poor government, and poor governance. They could be seen as essential building blocks for rebuilding institutions of government, and for squaring the books on a prolonged period of government by discretion, including discretionary controls over the spending of public money.
The fact that such inquiries might - almost certainly would - damage the reputations of former Coalition ministers and some of their flunkies would be (or could be pretended to be) only an incidental consequence of an attempt to restore good government. The long-term outcome might not be radical change of the law. The general principles of sound financial management - including the obligation that public money be spent on the merits of the case rather than for partisan purpose - have been in place for 30 years; they have simply been ignored by the government and, alas, the Department of Finance. And while political and managerial transparency and accountability could always be improved, its fundamentals have long been part of the governance framework. It has been poor leadership - including outright denial - rather than a vacuum that has made the principles dead letters, particularly under Morrison.
I very much doubt that Morrison could turn what he has done to good and honest government from a strong negative into a plus before the election. But he might be able to do a thing or two to establish and put into legislation some new principles of government that could act as a handicap on over-powerful government in the future.
The pandemic, for example, has aggravated a long-term tendency of ministers - at federal or state level - to govern by regulation and by media release, rather than by legislation debated at length in the parliament. More and more Acts of Parliament do not contain the general policy by which the will of the parliament will be carried out, but leave it to bureaucrats to fill out the details in ways that significantly alter human rights and duties without ever having been discussed by legislators. In other cases, those responsible for delegated legislation have further sub-delegated it, making the law - because it is all law - ever less accountable to public opinion.
It may well be that a crisis, like the pandemic, or an imagined crisis, like Islamic terrorism or the much anticipated but little-prepared-for war with China justify a certain flexibility and capacity to act quickly in the national or the public interest. But as such crises recede, it is time to review and re-evaluate the need for such anti-democratic measures. It is time that the powers of the legislature were used to bring some of the ever-increasing powers of executive government to heel.
Victoria has just adopted new national emergency laws, after an extensive review of shortcomings in the way it shifted and changed, and adopted new peremptory powers during the COVID crisis. Its government's attempt to systematise, and make more regular and accountable, existing legislation was used to confect a panic among some people in Victoria that the legislation was some sort of power-grab, rather than a relaxation of controls. There were gatherings of extreme right-wingers, anti-vaxxers, and people who thought that any coercive controls - such as the requirement to wear masks - were inspired by Satan and Marx in the interests of one-world government and the removal of their much-treasured American Bill of Rights freedoms.
Some Liberals, believing they were accurately sniffing the wind, declared themselves in favour of freedoms rather than controls, persuasion rather than coercion, and opponents of the intrinsic tendency of Labor governments to be bossy. But the opinion polls suggest that Daniel Andrews is more popular than ever, and that he would romp home with an increased majority were an election held tomorrow. But it is possible, if unlikely, that Morrison, and even his Coalition rival Peter Dutton, could shed their own public reputations for being strongly authoritarian and keen on punishment models, and become the architects of a more relaxed, less despotic, autocratic and imperious style of government. That might involve some quick re-branding of some of their more draconian laws - particularly in the national security domain - and the passage of some exemplary legislation focused on showing a commitment to the rule of law, openness, accountability, and due process. Perhaps hard to do, given their personalities, but intended to give some substance to the pretence that they are the true liberals.
There are, of course, many audiences for such transformations, including the electorate at large. Most voters have already made up their minds about the direction they will take. But there is a particular group of voters that ought to be constantly in Morrison's mind if he is to have the slightest chance. This involves the new breed of independents, some already elected and some standing in vulnerable Liberal seats. They are mostly women. Slurs by the government notwithstanding, they are mostly conservative by disposition on economic matters, but liberal on social matters. In a different world they might be moderate Liberals, but many have despaired of the way that moderate liberals in the Morrison government have accepted lowest-common-denominator politics, ready for example to have their views on climate change subordinated to the views and vetoes of Barnaby Joyce. For most of these Independents the big focus is on the restoration of proper government, including the creation of an ICAC.
Thirty years ago, Malcolm Fraser, who, were he alive would be voting for one of these liberal independents, said that his most important achievement in government had been the implementation of FOI legislation. One of Morrison's achievements, with the help of PM&C has been to render FOI virtually null and void.
MORE JACK WATERFORD:
Scott Morrison will always have as his monument, for good and for ill, his being at the helm during the pandemic and the ensuing recession. For some things he deserves praise, but his achievement is so mixed with mismanagement, meanness of spirit, lying and marketing bullshit that many of the good bits will forever be discounted. Likewise what could be - if he wants it - reform of substance to the way parliament operates as a workplace, and deals with harassment and sexual assault - will be lasting memorials only if he is whole-hearted about it. He must, in short, suppress that constant instinct to do nothing that could possibly give any comfort to his critics or his enemies, or to those on the other side of the culture wars.
Morrison has few votes to garner on the extreme right of politics, or even among conservative Christian constituencies. But he has a lot of ground to make up in the centre of politics, not least in responding to the loud discontent of women, much of which has become focused on him.
In setting out to make big action on this as one of his things, he could be generous of spirit - even if it is against his instinct. He would be mostly setting onerous standards for others, rather than checks or handicaps on his own powers or discretions.
Over the next few months, it would be perfectly possible for Morrison and the government to become even more unpopular with women, or (if as he and many in the Coalition think) women of a certain type over issues of their safety, and their rights in the political workplace. But if he was of generous spirit, even in addressing some of the matters he has dealt with inadequately, he would not be creating much in the ways of fresh crosses for, or limitations on his style of government. No doubt he continues to hope for another miracle and re-election. But he is also a cold hard realist, and must calculate that another transformation - into the decent Australian horrified by abuse of women and determined to stop it - could only do his image good. Whether with his place in history. Or his reputation, now and in the future, among men as much as women. Or even as a leader fighting the election.
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