August 13, 2021

Federal politics

The great deceiver

By Martin McKenzie-Murray
Zoomed image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison during Question Time at Parliament House, Thursday, August 12, 2021

Prime Minister Scott Morrison during Question Time at Parliament House, Thursday, August 12, 2021. Image © AAP Image/Lukas Coch

The prime minister preaches faith but lies, deflects, dissembles and seeks to detach us from reality

“Your words can frame your future! Speak your faith, start seeing miracles … Owner of your first home! Best-selling author … Mother of handsome sons and beautiful daughters! Businessman who is prosperous and fruitful! Speak it into being!”

These words, spoken by Brian Houston – founder of the global megachurch and multimedia company Hillsong, and friend of the prime minister – were written into the notebook of journalist Deborah Snow, on behalf of The Sydney Morning Herald, not long before a security guard escorted her from the church’s stadium in 2015. Her scribbling had made people “uncomfortable” she was told, and when she raised her ejection with Houston himself a few days later, he expressed surprise.

Brian Houston is often surprised. He was surprised by the temerity of A Current Affair for examining his church’s opaque finances, and he was surprised to learn that others of faith had found his book You Need More Money vulgar and scripturally ignorant.

Houston was surprised to learn that his pastor father was a paedophile, and years later was surprised to learn that his protégé Carl Lentz – once a brash intern to Houston, and later the beloved confidant entrusted with opening Hillsong’s New York chapter in 2010 – was a serial liar and adulterer, a man who for years had enthusiastically sought and arrogantly embraced his own celebrity while alienating and manipulating his congregants. Houston sacked Lentz late last year for “leadership issues and breaches of trust, plus a recent revelation of moral failures”.

Houston was also surprised by the 2015 findings of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, which stated:

We are satisfied that, in 1999 and 2000, Pastor Brian Houston and the National Executive of the Assemblies of God in Australia did not refer the allegations of child sexual abuse against Mr Frank Houston to the police …

We are satisfied a conflict of interest existed because Pastor Brian Houston was both National President of the Assemblies of God in Australia and Mr Frank Houston’s son …

We conclude that in 1999 members of the National Executive who attended the Special Executive Meeting did not follow their own policy, the Administration Manual, for handling allegations against pastors and ministers, and failed to recognise and respond to Pastor Brian Houston’s conflict of interest.

These findings were made public six years ago; NSW Police began their related investigation two years ago. But this week, when Houston was charged with concealing a serious indictable offence and summonsed to return to Australia, he was surprised again. “These charges have come as a shock to me,” he said in a statement.

The year before Donald Trump lost the election and attempted a coup, he honoured Scott Morrison with a state dinner. It was September 2019, and Donald and Melania hosted our prime minister and wife, Jennifer, alongside Australian guests Kerry Stokes, Gina Rinehart, Anthony Pratt, Andrew Forrest and 2018 Australian of the Year Michelle Simmons – a quantum physicist, and the rare Australian attendee, outside of those from Morrison’s office or our diplomatic corps, who wasn’t a billionaire. 

The notable absence was Brian Houston, whose attendance Morrison’s office had repeatedly requested. The White House refused. This fact was first reported by The Wall Street Journal in the same month of the dinner, such was the anarchic porousness of the Trump White House.

For months after, Morrison avoided directly answering the question of whether his office had requested Houston’s inclusion, and he made various attempts to kill the story. He dismissed it as “gossip”, accused journalists of inaccuracy and superficiality, and derided the Opposition as vexatious and religiously intolerant when questioned in parliament. Then, almost six months after the first report, Morrison finally admitted it. “At the time, I could have answered the question differently,” he told the ABC’s 7.30 in March last year, a serious understatement that could be applied to so many of his other evasions, and of which he did well to express without wry laughter.

But why not just admit it at the time? Why not say that Houston’s an old friend, a spiritual leader, who’s been cruelly tested by the sins of his father? Was Morrison aware that NSW Police were opening an investigation?

Instead, the prime minister preferred to lie through repeated dissembling, casual slander and the hired noise of his staffers. It echoed his office’s bizarre and self-defeating deflections when asked his whereabouts during our Black Summer. Like a child under pressure, Morrison’s response is often instinctively deceptive.

This week, Wall Street Journal reporter Vivian Salama added more details to her 2019 reporting, while speaking to 7.30. She said sources told her that the prime minister’s office implored the White House to include Houston on the grounds that he was a mentor to Morrison. Salama added: “It suggests that we’ve hit a nerve with this issue. The fact that he was so protective and sort of defensive of that relationship for so long raises a lot of questions.”

In Melbourne’s sixth lockdown, I’ve considered again my two-year-old daughter’s happy Eden – her detachment from knowledge; her obliviousness to pestilence and our forsaken climate forecasts. Her world is prelapsarian, and her pleasures are simple: the moon, a waving garbo, the sight of a neighbour’s cat.

Scott Morrison is also detached from knowledge, but his detachment is not innocent but wilful. He was unaware of his government’s extravagant rorting of community sports funding, and unaware of the similarly corrupt use of train-station car-park investment (or at least he gives this impression – as with the issue of Brian Houston, he has never directly answered the question of whether he saw the electorate list of funding).

His entire staff were unaware of allegations that a colleague’s staffer was raped metres from his office, as he was unaware for a time of the rape allegations against his then attorney-general. Our prime minister was unaware that it was offensive and strange to sit on a Hawaiian beach while our country burnt, and professes unawareness of the significance of his closeness to – and secrecy about – a man charged with a serious crime.

Morrison has also sought to detach voters from knowledge. Thin-skinned and intolerant of accountability, he visibly bristles at hard questions. His serial revisions have made his public record a kind of charlatan’s palimpsest, while formal instruments of accountability have been either cynically withered – such as the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner, or the Australian National Audit Office – or seemingly aborted, such as the federal corruption watchdog that was promised over 1000 days ago. In this year’s budget, a record 384 items were marked secret.

These are deep and sustained transgressions, the sum of which is the undermining of a democracy that should be practically upheld by much more than elections.

Morrison’s blithe deflections about the nation’s vaccine campaign, say, or the planet’s grimly endangered climate, also help our detachment from reality. Blithe deflections are one thing, but this week he practised full Trumpian gibberish: “It doesn’t matter how you start the race, it is how you finish the race. It is how you finish the race. We are going to finish this race, and we are going to race all the way to the finish line, but we are going to do it as Team Australia.”

As Brian Houston preaches the “prosperity gospel”, promising material returns for the faithful’s literal investments in his church, so Morrison preaches the complacency gospel and promises that faith in him will return an uncomplicated peace and comfort, even as the world inexorably burns and millions of us cycle indefinitely through lockdowns.

In politics, naivety might be the worst possible criticism made of an individual. More so than ruthlessness or stupidity. Naivety is embarrassing, stigmatic. The currency of prestige in politics is minted by influence and acuteness of instinct.

I remain naive. And combined with my naivety is the soul-sickness and despair that follows reading this week’s report from the International Panel on Climate Change. In my naivety and despair, I would like to ask the prime minister if he thinks God will forgive us for destroying His creation, even if I know that Pentecostalism’s smug fatalism, combined with Morrison’s practised vacancy, would only yield inanity.

And I would also like to ask Morrison – a man who claims to feel His touch and explicit encouragement – what he thinks He says about moral seriousness: how He defines it and how it might be practised in our country’s highest office. And yes, again, I know that any answer would be tactically and temperamentally soulless, exposing no grounds upon which his own behaviour might be judged.

But still, I would like to ask.

The erosion of accountability, the triumph of mediocrity and the severe inability of our political system to respond to existential crisis, didn’t begin with Morrison – but he has been a wicked accelerant.

For a long time, politics has aggressively preferred massaging perceptions of reality to boldly embracing it. Reform has always required both, but we have long surrendered to unreality and achieved stasis and corruption as a result. A grasping and self-selecting political class – so allergic to naivety, it’s capable of promoting an undistinguished PR hack to treasurer after just eight years in parliament – has been playing clever short-games and kicking cans for a destructively long time. 

It’s naive to say so, and to ardently wish for much more. But I remain naive, as I remain the father of a young girl whose future I fear for. Morrison’s compulsive deceit and artful obstructions don’t alter reality, any more than my daughter’s sweet obliviousness makes the world she’s inherited any less degraded.

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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