Scott Morrison’s epic decline and fall will be his place in history

Justice Bell will investigate Mr Morrison's secret takeover of five ministries.

Justice Bell will investigate Mr Morrison's secret takeover of five ministries. Photo: TND

Scott Morrison’s reputation was already diminished by the scrutiny of public life, but this week it underwent a precipitous collapse of a scale never seen before at the top of Australian politics.

Professor Paul Strangio has written a dozen books about Australian political history, most of them studies of the prime ministership or prime ministers whose rankings by scholars he oversees.

After the peak of the prime ministership, he says, reputations often wrinkle only for history to iron them out – bad business deals didn’t help Bob Hawke’s image post-politics; plans to borrow from Iraq dogged Gough Whitlam.

“But I don’t think we’ve seen anything to compare with Morrison,” the Monash University political historian said.

“This has been a fairly astonishing series of revelations that does not seem to have come to an end yet.

“His reputation has been tarred very badly; he stands as someone who, somehow, was alien to the system he ended up in, a place he didn’t seem to comprehend.

“I think the repeated refrain now is he was deceitful, which has been very disturbing.

‘‘He’s a man who has been willing to bend truths. There’s been further evidence that he wasn’t transparent with his colleagues, including his treasurer, the man he described as a friend.”

Morrison refuses to resign over ministries

A long time in politics

His critics once called him untrustworthy, but this week showed Mr Morrison was secretly accumulating power for himself at the expense of friends in a way that risked serious injury to an institution he spent his life campaigning to serve.

Only one political cycle ago, on the strength of a popularity not seen in nearly 15 years, he was alone among the past four Australian leaders in finishing a full term as prime minister.

Then in May the Liberal Party had suffered its worst ever loss and near-deletion of traditional urban constituencies.

Mr Morrison played no small part, as the most unpopular Liberal leader in 35 years.

Some sympathetic commentators described his as a mixed legacy before, in recent days, a decline became a plunge.

But Mr Morrison was already beginning a decline from the peaks of high office.

Liberal limbo

After the Liberal wipeout, Mr Morrison was criticised by party moderates who called him out of touch.

Conservative opinion leaders on Sky News who say he squandered power and left office without a legacy play to an audience party MPs call “base TV”.

But on Saturday as a report on the scandal of his cabinet government was published these criticisms were lent new credibility.

Another former Liberal PM, John Howard, campaigned hard for Mr Morrison. But in a new book Mr Howard suggests he didn’t really believe in the cause.

A newspaper excerpt lamented the government’s “defective” management; it breaking a promise on a corruption commission that invited criticism it was hiding something; an “egregious” attack on the character of ousted Australia Post CEO Christine Holgate, a woman Mr Howard said had “done nothing wrong”.

Perhaps most damningly, Mr Howard agreed with those who had detected the absence of any manifesto or program for the future.

The same newspaper ran the first report (with much less prominence) revealing Mr Morrison had been secretly making himself a minister in, it would emerge, five portfolios in cabinet, mostly without telling colleagues.

On Tuesday it was reported he even went so far as to make himself Australia’s co-treasurer without telling his friend Josh Frydenberg.

That seemed to add to perceptions of his reflexively secretive leadership style. And only hours earlier he told Sydney radio he had no recall of ever being sworn in to the role.

Mr Morrison says he only inserted “safeguards” into the system of cabinet for the pandemic.

But the claims are unsupported by dates and, in the case of a cancelled gas project, the end to which he exercised his covert power.

Anthony Albanese reveals Morrison's five secret portfolios

An illiberal stain

For any Liberal to have concentrated his own power in this way could be the most reputationally devastating aspect of these past few days.

Conservative politicians loathe the government but they love its democratic institutions and their history and myth of England, rights and the fight against dictatorial rule.

Conservatism is an opposition even to impudent tinkering; Mr Morrison’s account of his changes to cabinet government is suggestive of a DIY foundation repair job.

The changes to cabinet he brought in undermined the concept of ministerial powers on which governments have run and, in the case of the gas project, that could leave it open to challenge.

Elsewhere government quietly proceeded as a farce because only Mr Morrison knew it had been secretly transformed.

On election day, records show, Mr Morrison’s most senior adviser called a public service chief requesting an order; he was told only the office of the home affairs minister could make such requests and the call ended.

Unbeknown to at least one side of that call, one of Australia’s most powerful and long-serving civil servants, he was already connected to the office of the home affairs minister.

Mr Morrison’s foreign policy involved standing up to a far-flung arc of autocracy that posed a threat to Australia as great as any since the Second World War.

He might have even understated the immediacy of the threat to liberal democracy by those seeking to install “a transactional world, devoid of principle, accountability and transparency”.

“Former Australian PM Morrison took on extra powers in secret,” a headline in The Washington Post read on Tuesday night.

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