Has Scott Morrison become Australia’s Richard Nixon?

In May 1940, Winston Churchill was not only appointed Prime Minister but Minister for Defence. In doing so, Churchill ensured that he, and not the three traditional cabinet secretaries traditionally responsible for the armed services, had ultimate responsibility for Britain’s war effort. This was an open, and very public, move which was welcomed and praised at a time Hitler was on Britain’s doorstep.

In March 2020, the then Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, found himself leading his own national battle – this time against the Covid-19 pandemic. And like Churchill, Morrison took on additional ministerial portfolios – Health, Treasury, Finance, Home Affairs and Resources, to give him greater personal control over his government’s key ministries and ministerial powers. Unlike Churchill, however, Morrison shared this job with his cabinet ministers. And, he did so without telling them or the Australian public that he was moonlighting and had taken on these positions.

The revelations that Morrison acted so unusually and secretly emerged this week in a book by two well-sourced political journalists, about how Australia responded to the pandemic. Morrison cooperated with the authors, and must have believed that Australians would see that he was acting responsibly, and in their best interests. How wrong he was.

Even the authors were stunned. They only knew of two of Morrison’s supplementary portfolios. The other three have only been revealed from the now Labor government’s trawl through the government files.

The astonishing news has not only consumed the Australian political class for days, but it has become a talking point with the public – what long-serving prime minister John Howard used to call a ‘barbeque stopper’. How could a prime minister not only appoint himself to shadow his own ministers, but not tell them he was shadowing them? How could a supposedly conservative prime minister, who had in 2019 won a supposedly unwinnable election by assuring Australians he was more trustworthy than his Labor opponent, operate in such a deceptive and underhand way?

Morrison has sought to explain himself in a long and rambling post on Facebook.

‘The risk of Ministers becoming incapacitated, sick, hospitalised, incapable of doing their work at a critical hour or even fatality was very real’, Morrison writes. ‘The Home Affairs Minister was struck down with Covid-19 early in the pandemic and the UK Prime Minister was on a ventilator and facing the very real prospect of dying of Covid-19…The Parliament was suspended from sitting for a time and Cabinet and others (sic) meetings were unable to be held face to face, as occurred with businesses and the public more generally.

I took the precaution of being given authority to administer various departments of state should the need arise due to incapacity of a Minister or in the national interest. This was done in relation to departments where Ministers were vested with specific powers under their legislation that were not subject to oversight by Cabinet, including significant financial authorities.’

Fair enough, on the face of it. Additionally, constitutional experts agree that it was lawful, even though it was kept a secret. But why did Morrison feel he not only had to shadow the health minister, but also the treasurer and finance minister (the Australian equivalent of Chancellor and Chief Secretary to the Treasury)? Why did he need to duplicate the Home Affairs minister a year later?

And if the justification was linked to Covid, why was the only action taken under any of those shadow ministries a decision, as the second resources minister, to block, late in 2021, the actual minister’s keenness to approve a politically-unpopular mining project?

That the ministers Morrison kept in the dark included his loyal deputy Josh Frydenberg, who defended his leader to the point of losing his seat; and Mathias Cormann, now the secretary-general of the OECD but then the most competent minister in the entire government, simply beggars belief.

Morrison acted with a secrecy that disgraced US president Richard Nixon would have approved of, and then seemingly expected to be praised for it afterwards. It has shown his contempt for not only open government, but for the concept of Westminster-style ministerial responsibility. It’s a point that his successor, Labor prime minister Anthony Albanese, hasn’t hesitated to make. Nor has the ‘miserable ghost’ Malcolm Turnbull – a man who has turned savagely on the Liberal party that made him prime minister – wasted any time in putting the boot in.

On Wednesday, however, it wasn’t just his political opponents and personal enemies who were calling for Morrison’s head. At least one of the deceived ministers, former Home Affairs minister Karen Andrews, demanded Morrison quit parliament immediately. The Liberals, thoroughly defeated in the May general election, and with little remaining talent and even fewer ideas, are being torn apart by Morrison’s perceived disloyalty and treachery to those who sacrificed everything to support him.

Albanese, the Labor leader who few believed would ever be Australian prime minister, simply can’t believe his luck.

Morrison is a born-again Christian. A few weeks ago, he raised eyebrows by telling a Pentecostal congregation that governments shouldn’t be trusted. He argued that governments are created by man, and anything created by man is imperfect. But after what has come to light about his own prime ministership, the one man in government who proved himself unworthy of a nation’s trust is Morrison himself.

What Scott Morrison did was astonishing and appalling. Forgiveness from his colleagues, already languishing in the wilderness of opposition largely because of his leadership, will not come easily.

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