Inside Story

Power without purpose?

A long process of change has reached its apogee in the prime ministership of Scott Morrison

James Walter 24 September 2021 2943 words

In the thick of it: Scott Morrison speaking to journalists at the Lodge in July. Lukas Coch/AAP Image

Much has been said about Scott Morrison’s practice of leadership: both his strengths as a campaigner (witness the “miracle” 2019 election) and, increasingly, the worrying dysfunctionality of his government and its governance.

Anyone who watches him in action will see the evidence. He seems reactive rather than proactive, rarely thinking long-term, preoccupied with the immediate. He seldom anticipates emerging crises or imagines what his role in dealing with them should be. He appears unable to develop a significant policy agenda, instead pursuing a series of often-criticised measures designed to satisfy particular interests (of which the “gas-led” recovery — to ensure energy stability and mollify the Coalition base — is one example).

Obsessed with controlling the daily theatre of politics, managing perceptions rather than considering what must be done, Morrison is ill-prepared for the big challenges. When they arrive, there is hesitancy, inadequate planning and eventually a backlash from a disheartened public.

At that point, characteristic tactics emerge. He evades accountability by shifting blame; attributes responsibility to others; flatly refuses to answer questions (sometimes simply asserting “I am the prime minister!”); exhibits passive aggression when in a difficult spot; and gives absolute priority to “managing” problems rather than engaging fruitfully with their causes.

In her September 2020 Quarterly Essay, The End of Certainty, journalist Katharine Murphy captured Morrison’s unusual “shapeshifting” proclivities but regarded his prime ministership as a work in progress, fascinating to watch. A year later, she is incensed by a government that claims to be “trying to do its best” without the “barest hint of remorse, or any sustained interest in learning from past mistakes.” Instead, she says, “we endure these cycles of self-exoneration and thin-lipped irritation. Why are people so mean to us?… It is a disgrace.”

It is hard to disagree with such observations. But, as the late psychoanalyst, biographer and historian Erik Erikson argued in Life History and the Historical Moment (1975), leaders don’t spring from nowhere. They become prominent because their specific traits (product of their life history) coincide with the expectations or demands of a particular historical moment.

The economics writer Larry Elliott argues that the pandemic has made a twenty-year-long structural and social crisis so starkly apparent that it may finally make change imperative. Equally, it can be argued that the assumptions and institutions of that twenty-year “crisis” led to a leader like Morrison.

Above all, we are living in an age of leader-centrism. Gone are the mass parties of the past — the parties within which, despite ideological differences, internal disputes were resolved by moving to the centre. They have gone because the class and community coalitions that sustained them have been swept away.

In their place, we have smaller, professionalised parties with few members. Their financial support comes from interest groups rather than members, they use market research and polling to craft a message, and they rely on leaders to speak for the party, since appeals based on shared beliefs have lost traction among all except an activist few.

Resources have built up around leaders, extending their power and influence. Everything rests on what has become the leader’s key task: to deliver the vote. In media terms, we have arrived at the “retail” politician (can he/she deliver the message?); celebrity coverage; and, inevitably, a preoccupation with leadership battles (often sparked by who is and isn’t “winning” in the polls). This generates the “permanent campaign.”

These developments didn’t happen yesterday; they have evolved over years, reaching a frenetic peak in the revolving-door prime ministerships now so familiar to us. It is a context ideally suited to “Scotty from marketing.”

The diminished pool of true believers can’t be ignored. But none of the parties, and especially neither of the Coalition parties, is capable of reconciling the wishes of their remaining base with what polls indicate majority opinion demands. The scepticism about global warming displayed by many Coalition politicians is not only a matter of individual belief but also a constraint imposed, through preselection processes, by the party membership. Political scientists Anika Gauja and Max Grömping have shown how — from voter to branch activist to electoral aspirants to elected members — the deviation from general public opinion becomes more marked the closer you get to the centre.

The result is an intensification of partisan, adversary politics. The consensus-building essential for meeting major political challenges becomes near impossible. Only courageous politicians, with clear objectives, intent on leading public debate while also able to carry the party with them — politicians like Bob Hawke, Paul Keating and John Howard — can succeed.

The challenge is not only to show the courage to lead — a capacity Morrison has yet to demonstrate, as he continues to heed the naysayers within the Coalition — but also to deploy the vast resources available to a leader in an effective way. The pandemic has induced politicians to take expert advice from beyond their usual networks. They have intervened in economic management and social behaviour to a degree previously regarded as anathema, with largely positive effects.

And by exposing long-term structural deficiencies, the pandemic has also revealed much about the dysfunctional institutional configurations in which leaders are now embedded.

At the centre of the federal government is the Prime Minister’s Office, or PMO, which was never intended to become such a major player in contemporary politics and policy. It was prime minister Gough Whitlam who wished to bring the “ideas people” so important to his opposition campaign into advisory roles when he took government in 1972. The new office, designed principally by a young public servant, Peter Wilenski, was intended to shake up the public service, to bring new ideas to the fore.

Having soon decided that the real change needed to happen within the public service proper, Wilenski was influential in establishing Whitlam’s royal commission into Australian government administration. Terry Moran, another young public servant associated with that initiative, later said, “We did not know what we were doing.” Following his own term as secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Moran became a major critic of what the PMO had become.

But subsequent prime ministers were loath to sacrifice a resource that gave them a competitive advantage in the party room and fed into their debates with public service advisers. At first, they were still intent on ideas: Malcolm Fraser had David Kemp, Petro Georgiou and other former academics as key advisers; Bob Hawke and Paul Keating relied on Ross Garnaut, Don Russell and other economists. But they also ensured that the office was led by experienced public servants — Hawke’s office by Graham Evans (from Foreign Affairs), Keating’s by Don Russell (originally from Treasury), Howard’s by Arthur Sinodinos (from Finance and later Treasury) — who could understand and relate to their public service peers.

In favourable circumstances, where leaders remained aware of the benefits of robust debate, it was an effective policymaking network. There could be collaboration, not simply competition.

This began to change during John Howard’s term. The PMO continued to grow, staffed increasingly by party loyalists rather than people with ideas. Even though Sinodinos sustained good working relations with then secretary of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Peter Shergold, Shergold wasn’t always forewarned of important decisions, including the initiation of the controversial Northern Territory Intervention into Aboriginal communities.

Howard’s dissimulation in 2001 about the notorious “children overboard affair” is a notable example of how the office operated. In his book Don’t Tell the Prime Minister, political scientist Patrick Weller described how the PMO and other ministerial advisers facilitated “plausible deniability” by guessing what the leader needed but never conveying the detail, enabling him to deny all knowledge if questioned. Some advisers had become “the ‘junk yard attack dogs’ of the political system,” wrote Weller, “the hard men and the hitmen.”

The trend didn’t abate under subsequent governments of either stripe. Morrison’s office has been less high-profile than some — notably Tony Abbott’s, led by the formidable Peta Credlin. But it has worked to afford Morrison plausible deniability and has been intimately engaged in preserving secrecy when transparency was called for. It beggared belief that Morrison appointed his chief of staff, John Kunkel, to investigate pernicious activity by his own PMO media team, as he did in relation to Brittany Higgins’s claim that PMO staff had briefed against her partner after she made allegations of rape in Parliament House. Kunkel’s circumspect report was sufficient for Morrison to insist that his office had been “cleared,” but it turned out to be a gift for the opposition.

As a haven for loyalists, the PMO and ministerial offices have become training grounds for political aspirants to win attention and favour, paving the way for their own preselection. Armando Iannucci wickedly satirised similar trends in Britain in his TV comedy The Thick of It, but later remarked that he stopped doing the series “because politicians were seeing it as some sort of training manual rather than a warning.” In offices staffed by political wannabes, as Don Russell observes in his recent book, Leadership, the public service becomes “a problem to be confronted and addressed” rather than a source of expertise.

As this trend has deepened, the public service has become increasingly alert to the fact that it is just one voice in the policy domain. It must contend not only with advisers but also with consultants to whom specific tasks are outsourced. On the other hand, it remains the biggest player on the field, and its longevity and institutional memory give it an advantage, if only this can be sustained. The focus on the leader also plays a role here: the secretary of Prime Minister and Cabinet has become the pinnacle and coordinator of the public service. Talented incumbents can still effect change: Peter Shergold, for example, managed to persuade Howard’s sceptical Coalition cabinet to support an emissions trading scheme in 2007.

Yet the public service’s capacity has been eroded by three things.

First came the fracture of the political centre, as former Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Martin Parkinson argues in his recent book, A Decade of Drift. This was an outcome of the intensification of adversarial politics, which reached a crescendo with the disastrous battles over climate policy in 2009, the subsequent defeat of legislation that demonstrably worked, and the incapacity since then to reach the degree of consensus necessary for effective action on this and other policy imperatives.

Morrison was only a bit player in the last (failed) attempt to achieve consensus on emissions abatement, the National Energy Guarantee, which brought Turnbull down. But he artfully manoeuvred through the ensuing chaos to claim the prime ministership.

Second was the incremental diminution of the public service itself by under-resourcing, privatisation, and the outsourcing of key roles to the private sector and favoured consultants, which were managed with contracts veiled by “commercial confidentiality.” Paring back costs was the aim, but the latitude to act without scrutiny, and to reward mates, was an additional benefit.

Morrison has taken advantage of such developments, pouring money into private firms (even, for instance, outsourcing the initial management of the pandemic vaccination rollout) and refusing to answer questions, or even provide details, about the work being done. Combined with more manifestly dubious grant distribution enterprises — the sports rorts, the car parks in marginal electorates — these decisions encourage the perception of a system open to malfeasance.

At the heart of the efficiency drive imposed on the public service has been a blindness to the factors that make for innovation and flexibility. A degree of redundancy is needed within complex organisations to provide the capacity to change when required. Consider, for instance, the startups and tech giants fostered in Silicon Valley in the late twentieth century. Their “innovation hubs” brought together creative, ambitious individuals; all ideas were encouraged, some leading to enormous advances, others failing. You might conclude that the proponents of failed experiments were “redundant,” but learning from failure also fed into future success.

Governments have taken the opposite route, deciding that their role was “steering not rowing,” and that work could be doled out to “more efficient” private agencies. Rather than following assessments of where this might work and where it might prove problematic (as it has with some of the former public monopolies), the strategy was adopted across the board. Key players left, institutional memory was lost, and the “redundancy” essential to flexibility and rapid change was squandered.

Third, successive attempts were made to render the public service more “responsive” to government. This, too, could be said to have started in the Whitlam years, and accelerated under Hawke and Keating. The legislation was reviewed and amended periodically, and departmental secretaries were transferred to contract appointments, subjecting them to greater ministerial and prime ministerial control than the mid-century “mandarins” had experienced.

Political appointments were made to key positions. Whitlam installed John Menadue, a former adviser, as secretary of Prime Minister and Cabinet (though Whitlam’s successor, Fraser, thought Menadue acted entirely properly during the 1975 dismissal, and retained him for a time thereafter). Howard gave the same role to Max Moore-Wilton, who advised public service colleagues on his arrival that things would be “more presidential” now. After a rocky initial term, though, Howard reverted to a more conventional public servant appointment in Shergold.

Morrison, just as his predecessors had done, triggered a review of the public service in 2019. Its purpose, he told the Institute of Public Administration, was to tackle the “trust deficit” generated by the public service’s failures in service delivery, to make clear that once the government has set out its policy direction he “expects” public servants “to get on and deliver it,” and to insist that the public service be an “enabler of policy, not an obstacle to it.” Morrison evidently subscribes to the view of the public service (as Russell noted) as “a problem to be confronted and addressed.”

Again like some of his predecessors, Morrison provoked controversy by choosing someone seen as a partisan appointee to head Prime Minister and Cabinet, in his case Philip Gaetjens. Along with lengthy experience in state and federal public positions, Gaetjens had served as chief of staff to Liberal treasurer Peter Costello and to Morrison himself. His performance in Senate estimates when questioned about his handling of the investigation of Brittany Higgins’s allegations, handballed to him by Morrison, did little to allay suspicions about his engagement in the web created by Morrison. It might prove to be the capstone in Morrison’s control of a diminished public service.

My argument is this: Scott Morrison’s career to date suggests a man who steers by power chances, seizing on anything that will serve the cause of domination and control. Thus, the rapid shape-shifting, the consistent effort to avoid being pinned down, and the frustration of those who have attempted to discern his driving beliefs. This might be read as the pursuit of power without purpose.

Yet it has been enabled by the decay of institutions and conventions that once served to restrain capricious leaders — media committed to scrutiny, parties with real community engagement, a commitment to principles, a PMO offering alternative ideas yet capable of working with the public service, a public service with the resources and capacity to innovate, and commercial and interest-based groups operating at arm’s length from the policy domain rather than “contracted in” to the centre.

We need not pretend there was a golden age to realise that, in relative terms, all of those ideals have been diminished by successive governments, leading to the social and structural crises now apparent. And in virtually every step he has taken, Scott Morrison has been advantaged (and shaped) by developments and precedents with a long history.

But does last week’s announcement of the AUKUS alliance with Britain and America to develop nuclear submarines for Australia — and thus take a stand against China’s ambitions — finally demonstrate purposeful leadership? Some, like journalist David Crowe, argue that this move gives the lie to impressions of Morrison as “all tactics, no strategy.” Now he has made a hard call that shows his mettle. Yet Peter Hartcher, a hawk on China, was flabbergasted by and critical of the decision. Others want us to be wary of a deal that pairs us with an inveterate chancer like Boris Johnson and an America whose will to sustain the obligations of global leadership is subject to the unpredictability and volatility of its electoral politics.

While the wisest course may be to wait and see, this startling initiative is nevertheless commensurate with what I’ve described. Rather than a new departure, it is a reversion to our traditional allies, eschewing serious engagement with neighbouring Asian leaders. It is a strategy without a plan, and we will have to wait for eighteen months (well after the next election) for details. While a product of Defence officials, it also has a venerable history: Robert Menzies used the threatening “great world struggle” of the 1950s to reinforce his dominance, as did Howard in joining Blair and Bush in their interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Now Morrison takes his turn with our “great and powerful friends,” undoubtedly with the same objective of assuming the guise of commander-in-chief. A quiescent Labor Party, having largely abandoned its own ambitions, has fallen into line. We now face a national security election that will favour the incumbent (remember the 2001 election). With the enormous cost of this “defence” of our interests, allied with the austerity measures likely to be adopted to manage pandemic outlays, what chance is there that the structural, social and institutional dysfunction revealed by the pandemic will be tackled? •