Few now would dispute that in the annals of gold medal weirdness that are Australia’s prime ministers, none come weirder than Scott Morrison.
Standing at the bridge of his sinking ship at Wednesday’s press conference, invoking various nautical metaphors like a dishevelled Captain Ahab, there were all the traditional Gaslighter-in-Chief remarks in which the nation was blamed for having visited so much angst on poor Scott’s shoulders, expecting him to answer for every drop of rain, every new COVID-19 strain that had led him on his Great March to several secret ministries.
When the going gets weird, Hunter S. Thompson once wrote, the weird turn pro.
Scott Morrison enters the press conference on Wednesday.Credit:Nick Moir
And did Scott go pro. Having got green-lit by his attorney-general, Christian Porter, to be minister of health, he then, rather like the alien bursting out of Sigourney Weaver’s belly, took over Porter’s ministry without Porter’s knowledge along with several others, as if it wasn’t really a democracy but some reality-TV version of democracy.
As seasoned journalists noted of Wednesday’s hour-long Gregorian chant, none of it made any sense, but sense has never been Morrison’s style. His defences the day before were couched in language not unworthy of Lewis Carroll.
“If I wished to be the decision maker, then I had to take the steps that I took. And then I had to follow a very meticulous process in informing myself about the issue, taking briefs on the issue, and then making a decision in accordance with all the legal requirements, which I did,” Morrison said.
“And when I put myself in a position to take that decision, I informed Keith [Pitt] at that point. And then as a result, I went forward and made that decision.”
If this was nonsense, the Great Jabberwocky was unconcerned: it was a secret about which the few involved stayed shtum and about which no one else knew. Thus is the road to dictatorships made, the unsaid and unremarked bitumening over all that is left unknown.
The question of how a major party could select someone as weird as Morrison as leader is perhaps more easily answered when one considers in 2018 the same party voted in support of Pauline Hanson’s “It’s OK to be white” motion, echoing as it did a notorious white nationalist slogan popular with the Ku Klux Klan. The Liberals later blamed their vote on an administrative error.
One doesn’t have to have a high estimate of the Albanese cabinet to observe that in comparison, the Morrison cabinet sounds like the Taronga Zoo chimp enclosure, though even that argument is inadequate now that we know many of the chimps were, in fact, the same silverback.
Still, as Chris Wallace has rightly observed, Morrison’s weirdness only carries so far as an explanation. It’s a historic failure of our system.
And none of this should come as a surprise given how over a quarter of a century, the Coalition had weakened the bureaucracy both through endless cuts and a politicisation of its upper echelons, trashed the principles of accountability, prosecuted whistleblowers, made transparency a cynical synonym for secrecy, and secrecy the new currency of power.
Morrison personified these problems and built his highly successful career on them, but he did not invent them. He was product of the sickness at the heart of our democracy.
The nation is left with its head spinning like Linda Blair in ‘The Exorcist’.Credit:Warner Bros
With the revelations of the past few days, the nation is confronting a similar experience to Linda Blair in The Exorcist when her head does a 360-degree swivel, exorcising the devil. It is perhaps too much to expect anyone to have got beyond their initial astonishment at this derangement.
Yet what other secrets remain? What else has been done in the fetid darkness of the prime minister’s office away from public scrutiny, in defiance of parliamentary and democratic conventions?
What if Peter Dutton and his colleagues had mysteriously gone down in a plane or with a fresh outbreak of the bubonic plague – what secret powers would Morrison have then exercised in the name of the emergency? To use Morrison’s metaphor, what emergency glass was he willing to smash, what further norm was he willing to trash in the name of the next crisis?
The old arguments against constitutional change, that if it ain’t broke don’t fix it, ring hollow after Scott Morrison demonstrated how easily broken our present arrangements might be.
Our democracy has been shown to be wanting; it desperately needs renovation and renewal. In this, the Uluru Voice is a beginning, but it cannot be the end.
For now, the prospect of one-man rule reigns over us only as joke, a series of amusing memes and gags that never happened at which we laugh, not unlike the nervous laughter that accompanies those who walk away alive from a car smash.
But it also showed Australia what could happen. It showed future would-be despots a road that they might walk.
For the first time in our history as a nation, we have been confronted with an example of how the shadow of tyranny might fall upon us. And we would be foolish not to reflect on that experience, we would be wrong to dismiss it as the past, and we must act to ensure that the catastrophe of tyranny never befalls our nation – or even the folly of a fool who perversely advises others to not trust in government.
Twenty-first century despotism doesn’t look like 20th century fascism. It looks like Orban’s Hungary where a democratic veneer hides a reality in which almost all democratic process has been excised and one man rules.
All this brings into focus the need to bring some codified checks and balances on the powers of the prime minister, which clearly cannot be contained by existing conventions. The same applies to codifying the powers of the governor-general. And all that, finally, leads directly to the need for constitutional change which, in turn, leads to the republic.
In 1999, we were told there was a choice between a politicians’ republic or a monarchy. Perhaps the choice we now confront in the wake of this appalling scandal is between the possibility of a politician’s dictatorship or how we might make ourselves anew, wiser, better and stronger, as a democratic republic.
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