Clear as a Bell | The Monthly

Two new reports paint Scott Morrison as a man disconnected from reality

It was a big day for new information about former prime minister Scott Morrison’s secret ministerial appointments. Former high court justice Virginia Bell has released the findings of her government-initiated inquiry, and they are scathing, finding that his actions were “corrosive of trust in government”. Morrison’s first two appointments were “unnecessary”, Bell found, while the other three “had little if any connection to the pandemic”, the only justification he’s since offered. (There was, as it turns out, a sixth portfolio huh considered being appointed to – Agriculture, Water and the Environment – ​​though he never followed through.) Another report has raised eyebrows, meanwhile, with former treasurer Josh Frydenberg breaking his silence in an extract from Niki Savva’s new book. A fuming Frydenberg labeled the takeover “extreme overreach”, adding that Morrison would have been rolled had his colleagues found out. After the news broke, Morrison initially told his deputy he would do it again if he had his time over, a statement he only partially walked back. It’s clear that Morrison still doesn’t think he’s done anything wrong, a sentiment confirmed by yet another lengthy Facebook statement.

Both reports paint Morrison as a man disconnected from reality, and his latest attempts to excuse himself are making little sense (though his excuses never did). His press conference back when the story broke was erratic and nonsensical, with the former PM contradicting himself from one answer to the next. He doesn’t seem to have come up with a better explanation for his actions in the months since then. Bell labels his appointments “bizarre” and “unnecessary”, adding that his evidence to the inquiry (given through his lawyers) was “difficult to reconcile” with the facts. Savva goes further, with her characteristic flair. His conversations with Frydenberg were “further proof” Morrison had “lost touch with reality”, she writes, reminding readers of the theory that “all prime ministers go mad after a while, even in supposedly normal times”. Frydenberg still can’t think of a good reason for Morrison to have secretly taken over Treasury, considering what a loyal deputy he had been to his PM. As Savva editorialises: “if, as Morrison revealed, he was medicating to sleep, who knows what he was thinking.”

(It is quite something that Governor-General David Hurley somehow comes off even weirder than Morrison in Savva’s book extract, with a bizarre anecdote about he and his wife Linda more or less forcing official dinner guests to sing, something the Department of Foreign Affairs has started forewarning new ambassadors about.)

Whatever state of mind Morrison was or is in, it’s clear he believes his actions – which Prime Minister Anthony Albanese described as “unprecedented” – were perfectly acceptable. In this afternoon’s defensive Facebook post (in which he states he is “pleased” on three separate occasions), the member for Cook “notes” that the criticisms of his decisions are being made with the benefit of hindsight – as if the self-appointments would not have been heavily criticized at the time had people known about them. Morrison also pushed back against reports that he declined to be involved in the inquiry beyond engaging through his taxpayer-funded lawyers – a point that Albanese was eager to push in today’s press conference, noting it contradicted Morrison’s earlier promises to cooperate. Morrison insists he did cooperate, with “six separate and comprehensive responses … via correspondence as was the practice with other respondents to The Inquiry”. It speaks volumes, however, that he declined to meet with Bell.

Bell’s report sets out a series of recommendations to ensure this kind of behavior can never happen again. The Opposition says it will cooperate with whatever legislative changes are required, although it’s worth noting a further revelation from Savva’s book: the shadow cabinet decided to “deliberately downplay” the secret ministries story in the hours after it broke. (“That’s not a description I would agree with,” Liberal deputy Sussan Ley said when it was put to her. She remains curiously reluctant to openly criticize Morrison.) It’s a relief that safeguards are now being put in place to prevent this from recurring . But it’s obvious that we will never get complete clarity on why Morrison did this – on what exactly possessed the leader of our nation to execute a power grab that he still refuses to acknowledge was wrong. Bell’s report is relatively circumspect, stating that it is “difficult to reconcile” Morrison’s words and actions. But Savva puts it more bluntly: these were the actions of “an isolated, mistrustful, out-of-control leader”.

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