March 4, 2021

Federal politics

The moral deadening

By Martin McKenzie-Murray
Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison

Image © Darren Pateman / AAP Image

On the effects of Morrison’s shabby theatre and calculated evasions

“Scott Morrison has refused to apologise for accusing Save the Children workers of coaching self-harm among asylum seekers, claiming he never actually accused them, and only aired allegations presented to him at the time.” — Guardian Australia, May 8, 2016. Two separate inquiries exonerated the teachers, and in 2017 they were paid an undisclosed sum of compensation. 

“We can’t have a system in this country where allegations are simply presented, and I’m not suggesting this in this case, but we can’t have a situation where the mere making of an allegation and that being publicised through the media is grounds for, you know, governments to stand people down simply on the basis of that.” — Prime Minister Scott Morrison, March 1, 2021.

Our prime minister is a man who was undistinguished in his career before being parachuted into parliament in 2007. Marketing and personal networking were his game, punctuated by opaque but ignominious departures, and he never transcended his old work in his new. Instead, he refined it – and it’s a depressing irony that his gifts with branding have been more effectively applied in politics than tourism. Despite his avowed familiarity with the Good Book, he’s no more equipped to speak on moral issues of national significance than any random and grasping PR hack.  

We should now mark the fact that matters of honour, crime, trauma, transparency and responsibility have been deadened under the weight of his political impulses, the essence of which is a kind of shameless rat cunning. Self-protection is preferred to moral seriousness.

Another part of Morrison’s political impulse is the performance of the nation’s everyman, as when the repugnance of rape might only become apparent after being reminded by your wife that you have daughters. Morrison was rightly admonished for this, but the admonishments seemed to assume his sincerity, whereas I assumed his little set piece about “speaking to Jen” was just more shabby theatre – another self-exonerating projection of himself as a daggy dad, humbly grounded by domesticity, occasionally clumsy but well meaning.

It is preposterous that this contrived image of the prime minister is still functional, when the ambition, duplicity and calculated evasion that elevated and sustains Morrison so obviously contradicts it. (“Pragmatist” is liberally used by journalists to describe Morrison, but there’s only so many times you can use it before it becomes an obvious hedge for other, more damning descriptions. When the adjective “extreme” is used as an intensifier of his “pragmatism” – as it was by Guardian Australia journalist Katharine Murphy – the jig is up.)

I risk hyperbole here, but the past few weeks’ collision of profundity and callowness has disturbed me. I see this as a moral deadening, the transfiguring of grave themes into political irritations. One casualty of this moral deadening is imagination. Our sympathies are strongest with those who have suffered like we have – it requires imagination to sympathise with those of unknown traumas. But I fear that our suspicion is stronger than our sympathy when regarding some, as when the cynic finds something dubious in a victim’s long delay in reporting sexual crimes.

Yet such delays are common, and we have enough personal testimonies explaining why to fill a library. The victim may rationally fear scepticism or ostracism, or they may fear the compounding trauma of a trial with low odds of conviction. If assaulted as a child, the victim may have transformed the assault into self-disgust. (“Something bad has happened to me, and so I am bad” goes the child’s logic, a distressingly frequent quality of the many personal stories ventilated during the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, which found that, on average, those who report their childhood abuse take 24 years to do so.) Of course, the trauma itself may be so impairing that the will to pursue justice isn’t there – the experience is often radioactive. In the case of Brittany Higgins, the alleged victim may correctly anticipate extraordinary publicity and political subterfuge. This list is far from exhaustive.

None of this is an argument for denying natural justice. This is wickedly knotted. But true leadership would mean acknowledging this, and not, as Morrison has done, deferring to the federal police who have no jurisdiction in this, or pretending that it might be a matter for state police when the complainant is dead. As the late complainant’s many friends have argued – along with crossbenchers, the Opposition, former prime ministers and ex-Howard cabinet members – an independent inquiry, informed by the High Court’s own into the behaviour of former judge Dyson Heydon, should be established quickly. When you occupy high public office, you’re not merely subject to legal standards. 

The prime minister has predictably denied that he oversees, or has engendered, a culture of “don’t ask, don’t tell”. Similarly, the finance minister denied that the failures of notification in the Higgins case were the product of systemic plausible deniability. It’s nonsense – this is absolutely the culture of politics. Some staffers may hold the title of “adviser”, but typically they’re also reputational bodyguards – meaning that what they don’t say can be just as important. Their animating motive is protection – not against moral decline, or cultural toxicity or the coarsening of debate, but the protection of their boss against “enemies” and criticism. The manufacturing of deniability is endemic, and the natural outcome of feverish tribalism.

We can now see that the prime minister himself has practiced convenient incuriosity. About the rape allegations against Attorney-General Christian Porter, Morrison has told us that he hasn’t read them; he’s only been briefed “on their contents”.  

There’s more: when asked when he first knew about these allegations, Morrison eventually conceded that he’d heard “rumours” and knew that an investigative journalist was making inquiries about an alleged rape committed by a colleague. But Morrison tells us that he didn’t bother to find out who the colleague was.

This isn’t accidental incompetence – it’s wilful. And it’s worth contrasting it with his time as immigration minister, when he happily publicised the baseless allegations against Save the Children teachers. Regarding the hypocrisy of this public indiscretion, his colleague Peter Dutton is similarly guilty (consider his unsubstantiated and repeatedly refuted comments about the Good Friday attacks on the Manus Island compound, when drunk soldiers sprayed it with bullets).

But, sure: let’s say that Morrison is an “extreme pragmatist”.  

The government’s current appeals to “procedure” and “fairness” are to be viewed in the context of a history of behaviour that has otherwise been contemptuous of them. Media advisers are dismissive of reporters, the creation of a federal corruption watchdog has stalled, a federal judge this week described Dutton’s handling of medevac refugees as “disturbing” and potentially unlawful, the Australian National Audit Office – which exposed the sports rorts, as well as the infrastructure department’s “unethical” purchase of land at Badgerys Creek for 10 times its fair price from owners that have donated to the Liberal Party – has had its budget cut, along with the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner, which oversees freedom of information, and has said it cannot fulfil its responsibilities under current constraints.

Government secrecy is also aided by the fact that “cabinet-in-confidence” now includes commercial contracts, while the prime minister frequently withholds publicising reports into scandals – currently, he’s refusing to guarantee the release of a report into who knew what, and when, regarding the Higgins allegation. This is some context for Transparency International’s annual reports, which show Australia has become considerably more corrupt since 2012 when we scored 85 on its 100-point scale. We’ve since slid to 77.

On Tuesday night, the government began leaking word that the then-unnamed minister would declare himself the next day, assert his innocence and retain his role. It was managing expectations, attempting – vainly, desperately – to “control the narrative”. I say “vainly, desperately” because how else to describe the motivation of this line, which featured in some of the reporting: “The government is hopeful that his appearance will mark the end of the matter.”


Martin McKenzie-Murray

Martin McKenzie-Murray is the author of The Speechwriter and A Murder Without Motive: The Killing of Rebecca Ryle.

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