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The Failings of Westminster: Scott Morrison’s Shadow Government

Why the sharp intake of breath, the tingling shock? In one of the world’s most secretive liberal democracies, the revelation that the previous Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison ran a shadow government overseen by personal quasi-despotic whim spanning several ministerial positions has caused chill and consternation. That’s not the way we do things – except when we do.

Such consternation, in a country that tolerates secret trials only revealed by accident, raids upon journalists and the headquarters of the national broadcaster, full-throated prosecutions of whistleblowers, the torture-tinged indefinite detention of refugees, and brazen immunities for intelligence officers engaged in alleged criminal activity.

Such consternation, in a country that mandates data retention by telecommunication companies for up to two years and disruptive warrants in violation of privacy, a country that gives government ministers, notably immigration ministers, God-like powers (in a secular sense, revolting) to determine the fate of individuals and, most unappealingly for believers in natural justice, rejects a bill of rights or a human rights charter. With these monstrous realities, Morrison’s conduct and his shady actions indicate an almost mild consistency.

Given that Australia’s Pentecostal former PM has openly expressed his contempt for government and international institutions, almost in inverse proportion to a professed love of God, the hunky-dory afterlife and all matters divine, the assumption of extra duties, the encroachment, as it were, upon such ministerial portfolios as health and finance, was as natural as it was distasteful. It may explain, in some measure, why he did not perform his mini-dictatorial duties with any degree of competence. He could barely manage the prime ministerial portfolio, let alone any other duties.

The current volcanic fuss over Morrison is something to behold. It was outrageous, say critics, because it was secret, given that such appointments are normally published in the never read Commonwealth Gazette. For one thing, it brought in the Governor-General, David Hurley, representative of Queen Elizabeth II. Hurley confirmed that he signed the relevant documents enabling Morrison to assume control over other portfolios “consistent with section 64 of the constitution.” Hurley also confirmed that it was not an unusual process – in a fashion. “The Governor-General signs an administrative instrument on the advice of the prime minister.” Whether that decision was publicised or not was up to the relevant government of the day.

At the time, health minister Greg Hunt was one of the few who knew and agreed to the expansion as a measure to cope with possible COVID-19 incapacitation and turn the country into Fortress Australia. Few would have noticed the difference, but it was good to cover the contingency. However, the then finance minister Mathias Cormann, currently OECD Secretary-General, was not told that the Prime Minister had also appointed himself as joint holder of the role. In such measures, the spirit of Caligula groaned and rumbled upon a horse he teasingly might have made consul.

Other members of the cabinet were also kept in blissful, mushroom-fecund darkness. “I wasn’t part of that decision-making process and they’re decisions that are within the domain of the prime minister,” current opposition leader Peter Dutton stated, betraying a slight twinge of envy.

The leader of the Nationals, David Littleproud, who was also a member of the previous government, was less impressed. “That’s pretty ordinary, as far as I’m concerned.” In his view, “If you have a cabinet government, you trust your cabinet.”

Such a self-arrogation of power was also used to quash the controversial petroleum exploration permit known as PEP 11. The then resources minister, Nationals MP Keith Pitt, was bemused by the whole matter, though he claimed no knowledge of Morrison’ usurpation of the Industry, Science, Energy and Resources portfolio. “I certainly found it unusual, but as I said I worked very closely with Scott through a very difficult period through COVID.”

Labor Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, in casting an eye over the affair, was adamant that, “The people in Australia were kept in the dark as to what the ministerial arrangements were.” It was “very contrary to our Westminster system. It was cynical and it was just weird that this has occurred.”

“Weird” is a term abuzz in the commentary. The other is “bizarre”. Former Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull even called it “sinister”, wondering why the cabinet and the Governor-General went along with it. Sinister, perhaps, but why so weird or bizarre? There is no express provision preventing it, no law banning it, no figure halting it – necessarily. This is the glorious, colonial relic known as the Australian constitution, plastered over by rusted practices born in the days of the old country when beheading was not frowned upon and conquering the swarthy races was deemed a good thing.

Of interest is the legal commentary, which has been prickly, picky and sometimes missing the point. Constitutional law high priestess Anne Twomey reproaches those who err in claiming that Morrison swore himself in. He could not do so – only the Governor-General can. She also points out that the statutory landscape permits ministers to confer power on others. What was unusual here was that powers of such sort are exercised by other ministers when the figure in question is unavailable. And that it was kept secret, which was “inappropriate”. This “lack of transparency” showed a disregard for “the institutions of government and for the general public who have a right to know how power is allocated.”

Constitutional law academic Kim Rubenstein also shows a faith in the very system that produced such daring subversion on the part of Morrison. On Australia’s Radio National, she offered the view that collective government responsibility and the Westminster system has a certain admirable accountability that, say, the US system lacks. This is parochial nonsense, given that the prime minister is drawn from Parliament and not directly elected by the voters. The US system may have appointed, unelected cabinet ministers, but the Westminster system comprising parliament, not the general voter, appoints the prime minister who, in turn, appoints the ministers who are then sworn in by the monarch’s Governor-General. Hardly the paragon of accountable democracy.

The next step is to make a balanced assessment about a form of government that can so easily fall to usurpations of power by the executive. It throws up other vital matters: how war is declared; how military agreements can be made without public or parliamentary scrutiny; and how decisions affecting sovereignty are implemented at enormous cost.

The chances of having that broader debate are minimal. Albanese and his hounds smell blood, but the stains are not going to be that revealing. The Westminster model will be praised and defended; Morrison will be dismissed as pettily dictatorial. The fatuous notion of convention, the false assumption of gentlemanly conduct – for women do not feature in this – says everything about what is wrong about this rotten state of affairs. Inadvertently, Morrison acted consistently with, and enacted his belief: government cannot be trusted.


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    The title “honourable” must be removed from politicians.
    Few if any are worthy of such a title.

  2. Phil Pryor

    Our constitution, which I’ve always thought to be compressed, vague, deficient, compromised, cynically “diplomatic” to interests, and to states in its day, squattocracy, imperial requirements and glory seeking, would need regular updating, expanding, defining, regularising for contemporary input. It came from a British history, some of that dignified, some rigidly unfair, in which royalty, nobility, aristocracy, gentry and barely any yeomanry contributed, often in violent surges, As for us, the descendents of the mob, crowd, peasants, unwashed and landless, we can now whinge a little more. Scott Adolf-Josef has shown that brazen blunt bullshit can so overwhelm that the polite responses are too little, too late, he did it, got away with it (so far) and joins the infamous crooks of political history, the Attila, Pol Pot, Vlad the impaler types. At least utter bastards like William the shafting murdering thief (a k a the Conqueror) or Oliver heartless killer Cromwell had ability and energy. Hold your hoses, folks, you ain’t seen nuthin’ decent, honest, fair, productive yet.., and maybe you never will.

  3. Ill fares the land

    On the one hand, it is possible to see the merit in the arrangement. However, much like the “cabinet” with the state premiers, it seems to have been appropriated to serve Morrison’s craven desperation to be in a position of total power – noting that his desire to become the PM was no more than the ultimate expression of that lust. As we know, he never, ever had formed a wider concept of what being a PM means and he was also incapable of forming that concept once he was in the role. In the case of the national cabinet, once the state premiers made clear they would make decisions in the interests of their state, Morrison seems to have lost interest, albeit he was, as he always has been, ratty, paranoid and secretive – all abiding and clear personality failings, standing proudly alongside his legion of other personality flaws. In the case of these “secret” appointments, the merit is, to my way of thinking, overshadowed by several things. One is that Morrison trusted no-one in his cabinet and doubtless still believes he was the only person in the cabinet who really understood the electoral climate and could ever make the “right choices” (as many now know, he didn’t – he was clumsy and oafish). A second is that when he overruled Pitt, it had nothing to do with the Covid emergency – it had everything to do with Morrison’s delusion about his intellectual and political genius and the rightness of his “political instincts”. A third is that Morrison’s history shows him to be a closet bully. Interestingly, people like Turnbull, Whitlam and Hawke are well remembered for the power of their intellect – I have never read any comment, anywhere, by anyone, praising Morrison for his intellect and believing, as he does, that he is an intellectual powerhouse.

  4. leefe

    I love the contrast of slagging off both the British aristocracy and Cromwell in the same paragraph.

  5. New England Cocky

    Scummo had five (5) secret portfolios including Treasury & Home Affairs

    Would you trust Scummo with the keys to the treasury? It is time for some serious forensic auditing to determine where his generosity was directed.

    Check out the link between Scummo and GG Hurley ….. Is the Scummo contempt for Australian voters contagious?

    Scott Morrison and Governor-General David Hurley conspired for the secret multi-ministry appointments. How much money did they make?

  6. leefe

    The GG won’t be exempt from ICAC, will he? That little LNP puppet is in the shit up to his greedy, scrawny, entitled nneck.

  7. andy56

    Yes our form of government has a lot of holes in it. From my perspective the biggest one is that they pay themselves too much.
    The only reason Morrison is still in the game is because he is due for a big pension payout. He will find an excuse once he he achieves that goal. You want mutual obligation for the poorest, well you should also get it in return. you want people to have no security of employment, well golly gosh these arseholes should get the very same treatment, not a friggin dollar more.

  8. Eric

    He failed from the get-go, swearing allegiance to “Her Managerstee” back in August 2018, ABC News:

    WTF is a Managerstee?

  9. Win Jeavons

    LNP voters should seriously reassess the quality of a party that would permit this man , with his blemished record , to become the leader, and abuse and besmirch the nation’s top position. But l guess such voters would never read these posts. Ignorance is NOT bliss.

  10. Terence Mills

    Morrison may have had a grand plan to progressively appoint himself to all ministries, sack all ministers, suspend the Constitution and appoint himself führer.

    Not as far fetched as you may imagine !

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