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Was this man (a) crazy; (b) a delusional megalomaniac or (c) just a very ‘loose unit’?

Scott Morrison’s ministry collecting ways highlights what a loose unit he was as prime minister, says Dennis Atkins. It also reinforces why we need to review the whole of the pandemic response.

Aug 16, 2022, updated Aug 16, 2022
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaks during a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra, Monday, January 10, 2022. (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaks during a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra, Monday, January 10, 2022. (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

Depending on who you ask, Scott Morrison was either a delusional megalomaniac or involved in the darkest episode of secret shonky business at the highest level in our nation’s public administration. At the very least, he must surely be the real loose unit of Australian politics.

On one level there’s a simple, fundamental question in Australian politics: how crazy was Scott Morrison? Coincidentally, how dangerous was his delusional sense of power, secrecy and megalomania?

We now know all about the cloning of ministerial responsibility but we need to ask if something more sinister – to use a phrase adopted by former prime minister and Morrison colleague Malcolm Turnbull on Monday night – was at play.

First, what we know about the ministerial clone experiment.

According to reports with clear primary sources (Morrison himself) or based on court documents, Morrison failed to mention he had in early 2020 had himself appointed as health minister and finance minister despite the fact he already had Greg Hunt and Matthias Cormann serving in those roles with commissions from Governor-General David Hurley.

The book Plagued – based on direct evidence from Morrison (on the record, off the record and behind the hand) – by Simon Benson and Geoff Chambers, journalists at The Australian, had the bit about Morrison giving himself the dual track gigs as health and finance ministers while Hunt and Cormann were just fine and doing their jobs.

It was apparently done because Morrison – alarmed by reports from China and television footage from northern Italy – thought all sorts of people might drop dead, including his senior ministers.

The confused and confusing state of affairs is one thing. Giving Morrison the benefit of brain fog doubt, the real weirdness is that he did it in total secrecy and thought it was needed.

He didn’t tell the Parliament or the public it happened and no-one can find a record of any of it in the Government Gazette – which might suggest it was never legal. Governor General David Hurley says it’s all tickety-boo and there’s nothing to see here. Not quite, but everyone seems to have been at least confused.

On top of this, former Queensland Nationals Resources Minister Keith Pitt was usurped by Morrison who cloned the minister’s powers in a gambit like something from The Matrix. According to Federal Court documents, this was done so Morrison could announce government opposition to a proposed gas exploration off the New South Wales coast.

It was trumpeted in a media release by Morrison and Sydney MPs Lucy Wicks, Jason Falinski, Trent Zimmerman and Dave Sharma. The four lost their seats at the May 21 election anyway, the first to Labor and the others to the teals.

While Hunt apparently knew he was being cloned as health minister, Cormann and Pitt weren’t informed. Pitt and his Nationals colleagues are beyond furious and want assurances this kind of thing would never happen in any future Coalition government.

Let’s go back to those couple of questions: how crazy was Morrison to think this was necessary and why did he think he needed to conduct this barking madness in secrecy?

None of what he did achieved anything. The Coalition government’s behaviour managing the pandemic wasn’t improved by having two health ministers and the economic fallout wasn’t handled with any greater skill by adding a clone finance minister.

The Pitt offshore gas mess is just making some lawyers rich as the Federal Court kicks the fallout down the road.

Whether Morrison cloned himself as any other ministers is not known but with secrecy as rule one and leave no fingerprints as rule two, we may not know for a while.

You would hope the inquiry Albanese has asked his departmental chief, Glyn Davis, to undertake will find some file notes or scraps of vice-regal note paper recording these breathtakingly bizarre happenings.

Previous prime ministers – Labor or Liberal or in between – never felt they needed to have a set of ministerial “in case of sickness break glass” commissions. After the September 11 attacks in the United States, John Howard flew back from Washington on Air Force Two (the Vice President’s plane) and invoked the ANZUS Treaty for the first time. He felt no need to clone himself as defence or foreign minister.

He acted like a grown up, kept calm and carried on.

Morrison seemed determined to get as full a set as possible of ministerial commission documents for his pool room.

The other point to note is that he managed to have these seriously odd ministerial manoeuvres in the dark signed off by Hurley.

This isn’t the first time Hurley has found himself drawn into controversy surrounding the Morrison Government. In 2020  Hurley lobbied on behalf of a charity, The Australian Future Leaders Foundation, operated by Chris Hartley and Julie and Andrew Overton. This lobbying has been fleshed out in media reporting and evidence at Senate estimates committees.

The foundation was granted $18million in this year’s budget (the Coalition’s last) but, according to evidence before the committee, it didn’t have a website or a proper plan.

Some level of due diligence was underway (despite the $18m already being in the metaphorical mail), the Senate heard. This is what passed for due process under the great multi-tasker Morrison.

Apparently the idea was first floated in July 2020 and then promoted by Hurley. Less than two years later they hit the jackpot with a five year $18 million grant from 2021-22 – as well as further money in the pipeline.

All of this and now the coincidental involvement by Hurley could be a matter of interest.

More generally, in the last few years people have called for a “root and branch” review of the handling of the Covid pandemic – from the reaction to news of virus spreading, to the shuttering of our economy and the shape shifting reaction on every front from national bureaucratic structures to regulation busting cooperation between jurisdictions.

This bit of Morrison madness underscores why such an inquiry is not just needed but is unavoidably vital, probably with a royal commission.

Beyond the “what happened when, by whom and, why”, basics, a good place to start is whether the national cabinet has any lasting value. Morrison’s madness adds weight to the argument that it was at best a time-limited emergency response.

There should also be a broader look at industry policy, why it failed us, and what can be done to break the supply chain knots revealed by the pandemic. In the United States and parts of Europe industry policy is the new black. We need to get with the change of style.

Third, some open-minded thinking about how we respond in a fiscal and economic sense to the kind of shutdown shock we saw in 2020 and felt into the following year. We got through it with a long tail with which the government (and the community) is still grappling – to be better prepared for the next shock is worth a thought.

They say you should never waste a good crisis. This is still true about the pandemic and we have time to learn lessons.

We should also not waste the madness now revealed. Put in some transparent guard rails and some clear lines of administration and performance – keep it in the open and be straight with the public.

That is, don’t do anything Morrison did.

 

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