Australians have felt like they are in the bewildering state of wandering through their torched house. As the smoke clears, we are realizing what is salvageable as we rake over the coals trying to figure out how we got here, what it has cost, and the full extent of the damage.
The house in question is Australia’s democracy, which we learned over the past week was set alight in an inside job carried out by the former prime minister, Scott Morrison. We now know that Morrison secretly had himself sworn into five powerful cabinet ministries from 2020 to mid-2021, often without the knowledge of colleagues, the heads of the relevant departments, and with none of the usual procedures of public notification. Like a Napoleon Bonaparte secretly crowning his own head, Morrison effected a power grab unlike anything Australia has experienced.
What is immediately apparent to be in ruins are the reputations of those who were in the know. The news broke thanks to two Murdoch-media journalists to whom Morrison boasted about his deeds. The journalists were gathering material for a book and sat on the information until it was used to promote their impending publication.
Since then, some ministers and colleagues have come forward to reveal what they knew and why, if they were aware, they opted to stay quiet. Former Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce revealed he became aware of Morrison’s expanded powers at the time. He remained silent because he feared that his party, the National Party that ruled in coalition with Morrison’s Liberal Party from 2013 until May 2022, would lose control of one of the ministries Morrison had assumed co-control over. There was also the consideration of the upcoming election that took place on May 24, 2022. Any public exposure of what was really happening would have been the last nail in Morrison’s political coffin. Public servants, especially Governor General David Hurley, who oversees all such appointments in his vice-regal role, continue to have very tough questions to answer.
As it happened, it was the Australian electorate that saved its democracy by punishing the coalition severely at the ballot box. Australians had experienced enough of Morrison’s numerous and epic governing failures and his character flaws that were well known for years: his harshest critics were regularly from his own political party. And that was before Australians learned about what may be one of the most harmful legacies of Morrison’s term. It is comfort for some to know that it could have been worse: Morrison could have been re-elected.
Morrison’s prime ministerial successor, the Australian Labor Party’s Anthony Albanese, strongly condemned Morrison’s acts from the moment they came to light and sought urgent advice on the legality of Morrison’s actions. The Solicitor General’s opinion publicly released on August 22 did not find illegalities. Yet, this first of no doubt many legal opinions nevertheless found Morrison had “fundamentally undermined” the “principles of responsible government.”
Albanese flagged an imminent and searching inquiry into Morrison’s self-appointments and their implications in terms of decisions taken. Also, Albanese’s government is taking swift action to reinforce Australia’s democratic foundations to ensure such antics cannot happen again. Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles said Morrison should face “severe consequences,” but what these might be are, as yet, unclear.
Pressure will continue to mount on Morrison to resign his seat as member for the Sydney electorate of Cook. While Morrison has so far rebuffed calls to resign from Parliament, this ongoing, high-profile, and damaging saga promises more political pain for the Coalition, which is still licking its wounds after the federal election. Although very few of Morrison’s colleagues have publicly called for his resignation, replacement candidates are reportedly being considered in the likely event of a by-election to terminate Morrison’s deeply divisive political career. True to form, Morrison continued to downplay his actions after the release of the critical legal opinion and has not resigned his seat.
The reckoning about Morrison’s deeds, and how he came to rise to the heights of power when it was well-known that he possessed what has been described as a “messiah complex,” is going to be deeply uncomfortable. There are many who nailed rungs in Morrison’s career ladder, cast aside doubts about his suitability for the highest office, and permitted a cultural of secrecy and self-dealing to flourish. When Morrison became prime minister in August 2018 after a leadership spill that was described at the time as a brutal “political massacre,” the Coalition dispensed with a prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, whose strong climate policies precipitated his political demise. They also dispensed with the popular and long-serving deputy leader of the party and foreign minister, Julie Bishop.
The passing over of Bishop for Morrison in 2018 because she was a woman was the moment the seeds of Australia’s present woes well and truly planted. Morrison’s leadership drove women voters out of the party with devastating results in 2022. There is a long list of voter grievances against the Morrison government. Chief among them was his ardent support of fossil fuels, which was tone deaf to the pain of climate-driven fires and floods that have devastated Australia since 2019.
Morrison’s climate policies were also tone deaf to the Pacific. In stark contrast, Bishop was perhaps the most invested Australian MP in the Pacific at the time. From the outset of his prime ministership, Morrison severely damaged Australia’s Pacific standing, particularly after his conduct at the Pacific Islands Forum meeting in Tuvalu in August 2019. Morrison’s insistence on watered down language about climate change in the PIF leaders’ communique prompted acrimony and diplomatic wounds that Albanese and his foreign minister, Penny Wong, are only now attempting to repair, where they can.
Shortly after Morrison’s heavy-handed 2019 Pacific Islands Forum performance, Solomon Islands and Kiribati abruptly switched allegiances from Taiwan to China. There were many contributing factors to these events, but their timing speaks volumes. Having Morrison at the helm as the situation with China continued to drastically deteriorate since 2020 has produced security circumstances that will bedevil Australia and its region for years, if not decades. Morrison’s secret orchestration of the AUKUS security pact with the U.S. and the U.K. in September 2021 not only infuriated France (due to the cancellation of its prior submarine deal with Australia), but it upped the stakes with China, leading to a cascading series of moves in 2022 to supplant the “traditional powers” in the Pacific.
Raking over the coals to determine what Australia has lost while Morrison was at the helm will also cost Australia dearly as an exemplar of good governance and robust institutions. This is particularly so in the Indo-Pacific where Australia has seen itself as a beacon for democratic advancement, a light now much dimmed. The Albanese government’s response, in unison with Australian voters’ rejection of Morrison, will be fundamental to the work of image restoration. But the costs will be steep as Australia goes, like the U.S., through its own reckoning to preserve its democracy, which the former prime minister has revealed to be vulnerable to those intent on “fundamentally undermining” it.