The failings of Westminster: Scott Morrison’s shadow government

August 16, 2022
Image: Ratbag Media

In one of the world’s most secretive liberal democracies, the revelation that former Coalition 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 rings false in a country that tolerates secret trials (only revealed by accident), raids on journalists and the ABC headquarters, that prosecutes whistleblowers, gives immunity to intelligence officers engaged in alleged criminal activity and that mandates data retention by telecommunication companies for up to two years.

Compared to these realities, Morrison’s conduct and his shady actions indicate a mild consistency.

The Pentecostal former PM has 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. It may explain, in some measure, why he did not perform his mini-dictatorial duties with any degree of competence.

The current fuss over Morrison admitting to hold several portfolios, including some where the relevant minister was not advised, is something to behold.

Critics have said it was outrageous because it was secret and such appointments are normally published in the never-read Commonwealth Gazette.

That brought in the Governor-General David Hurley, representative of Queen Elizabeth II. He confirmed he did sign 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. “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.

Health minister Greg Hunt was one of the few who knew and agreed as a measure to cope with possible COVID-19 incapacitation. However, then finance minister Mathias Cormann, now OECD Secretary-General, was not told that the Prime Minister had also appointed himself as joint holder of the role.

Other members of cabinet were also kept in blissful ignorance.  “I wasn’t part of that decision-making process and they’re decisions that are within the domain of the prime minister,” opposition leader Peter Dutton stated.

The Nationals' leader David Littleproud, another former MP, 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”.

We now know that Morrison used his new powers to quash the controversial petroleum exploration permit, known as PEP 11.

Former resources minister Nationals MP Keith Pitt 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 is adamant that keeping Australians “in the dark as to what the ministerial arrangements were” is “very contrary to our Westminster system”. Further, he said, “It was cynical and it was just weird that this has occurred.”

“Weird” and “bizarre” are the commentariat’s buzz words. Former Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull called it “sinister”, asking why the cabinet and the Governor-General went along with it.

Sinister, perhaps, but why weird or bizarre? There is no law banning it and no figure halting it — necessarily. This is the colonial relic known as the Australian Constitution.

Also of interest is the legal commentary, which has been prickly, picky and sometimes missing the point. Professor of Constitutional Law at the University of Sydney Anne Twomey reproached those who claimed Morrison swore himself in. He could not do so — only the Governor-General can. She pointed out in her piece in The Conversation that the statutes permit ministers to confer power on others.

What was unusual was that such powers 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,” she argued.

Constitutional law academic Kim Rubenstein also showed a faith in the system that allowed Morrison’s daring subversion. 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 United States’ system lacks.

This is parochial nonsense, given that the PM 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 PM who, in turn, appoints the ministers who are sworn in by the monarch’s Governor-General.

This is hardly 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 will praise and defend the Westminster model. 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 his belief and the law: government cannot be trusted.

[Binoy Kampmark lectures at RMIT University.] 

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