The ‘disastrous’ Morrison government dissected

Almost a year after the victory of the Albanese government, the defects of its predecessors are increasingly obvious. The competence and teamwork of the current government underline the weaknesses of the Morrison regime.

Almost a year after the victory of the Albanese government, the defects of its predecessors are increasingly obvious. The competence and teamwork of the current government underline the weaknesses of the Morrison regime. The contrast between the two styles of leadership reminds us that bullying is no substitute for collaboration and empathy.

Review: The Morrison Government: Governing Through Crisis – edited by Brendan McCaffrie, Michelle Grattan and Chris Wallace (UNSW Press).

Future historians will probably be most struck by the impact of COVID during those years, and the extraordinary effect the epidemic had upon everyday life. In The Morrison Government: Governing Through Crisis, there are two chapters on the government’s response to the epidemic: one by Stephen Duckett in the policy section, and the other by Mark Evans and Michelle Grattan on the role of experts and democracy.

Evans and Grattan refer to claims that there was “a Melbourne circle, which Sydney experts believed had privileged access.” This may explain why Duckett was asked to write the substantive chapter on the COVID response. Duckett served as secretary of the federal health department during the Keating government, and is now based at the Grattan Institute. He provides a thorough and persuasive case that Australia’s pandemic response was reasonably strong overall.

“The states provided leadership and made the tough decisions,” he argues. “But the Morrison Government’s record in management of the pandemic was very poor indeed.”

I would be less certain about this distinction. There are questionable aspects in some of the state responses, such as the treatment of housing commission towers in Melbourne and the apparent double standards applied across the Sydney metropolitan area, that need to be acknowledged.

The argument that state premiers became important national leaders is supported by Alan Fenna’s analysis of federalism, which makes it all the more disappointing that this book gives so little insight into figures like Dan Andrews and Gladys Berejiklian, and their often tense relations with the prime minister. Too often the personalities of political figures have been bleached out in the interests of apparent scholarly objectivity.

Read more: Explainer: Scott Morrison was sworn in to several portfolios other than prime minister during the pandemic. How can this be done?

Rehashing the headlines

The Morrison Government does a competent job of chronicling the three years between 2019 and 2022, but it is a book to be used for reference rather than as a source of original ideas or insights. Too much of the book seems as if it is rehashing the headlines, while the criticisms are for the most part predictable.

Perhaps this is inevitable when one assembles a large group of experts to write on the very recent past, eschewing the sort of colourful political gossip that one finds in the work of Nikki Savva or the personal insights of Katherine Murphy. Not all of the contributors to The Morrison Government are academics, but the book has some of the mind-numbing quality that too often characterises academics trying to write for a general audience.

This makes it all the more thrilling to come across the opening paragraphs of Stan Grant’s chapter on Indigenous people, which begins with the sentence:

Aboriginal people can laugh; there are few things more joyous for me than hearing Aboriginal people laugh.

Grant has written an elegant piece that points to the philosophical questions underlying the demands for an Indigenous Voice to Parliament, though he has very little specific to say about the Morrison government’s actual policy failures.

Other contributors are more diligent in attending to specifics. Andrew Norton on higher education and Julianne Schultz on communications policy provide a wealth of information that remains useful background in the post-Morrison world. In other cases, such as the discussion of economic policy or the response to COVID, there is already a wealth of material available and much of what is here seems inevitably repetitive.

There are chapters on the obvious policy areas. In many of these areas, such as aged care and robodebt, it would be difficult to find much support for the government’s actions. Climate change, which was as significant as COVID in changing perceptions of the Morrison government, is addressed in a chapter by Darren Sinclair and Jo Mummery, which sees the Morrison government’s attitude as one of “denial, marginalisation, reactivity and politicisation”.

By the time I reached this chapter I was wishing for a red-blooded right-winger to offer an alternative assessment of what I agree was a disastrous government.

Read more: 'Amateurish, rushed and disastrous': royal commission exposes robodebt as ethically indefensible policy targeting vulnerable people

Mind the gaps

Inevitably, there are gaps in a book of this nature. I would have expected a chapter on immigration and refugee policy. The shameful ongoing treatment of offshore asylum seekers, some of whom have now been imprisoned for longer than most criminals, deserves more than passing attention.

Individual ministers also receive only passing attention, even though some of them – Josh Frydenberg in Treasury, Greg Hunt in Health, Peter Dutton in Defense – were significant figures in the government.

In her chapter on “delegating democracy”, Karen Middleton points to Morrison’s willingness to “jettison the conventions of the Westminster system”, which became most apparent after the election when it was revealed that he had secretly given himself control of some key departments without informing the legally appointed minister. The very title of the book suggests that we are moving towards a semi-presidential system, with a declining understanding of the conventions of cabinet government.

Foreign policy gets a chapter of its own and occasional references elsewhere, usually to AUKUS or to what Michelle Grattan aptly terms the “new Anglosphere”. In his chapter, Tony Walker is so obsessed with Australia’s relations with China and the United States that there is no discussion of relations with Indonesia or Papua New Guinea, or indeed of Australia’s declining foreign assistance, now amongst the lowest of rich countries. Even major foreign policy challenges, such as the American withdrawal from Afghanistan and the continued military repression in Myanmar go unmentioned.

Even odder is the omission throughout the book of any discussion of the war in Ukraine, which commenced three months before the 2022 election, although Walker does refer in passing to the “rules-based international order that is now in danger of fragmenting”. One does not need to be an apologist for the autocratic gangsters in Moscow and Beijing to point out that these rules are essentially the product of western hegemony, and themselves need to be interrogated.

What is lacking, above all, in The Morrison Government is a sense of what it felt like to live through those three years and how this was reflected in the collapse of Morrison’s authority. In her chapter on women and equality, Pia Rowe writes about the government’s failure to agree on a religious discrimination bill, but the religiosity of Morrison, apparently shared by the Governor General, gets little attention.

As a republican, I note that the contributors have written almost 300 pages about the Australian government without discussing the head of state.

Like most other political commentaries of the period, the book devotes considerable space to the emergence of the Teals, including a chapter on Allegra Spender’s successful campaign in Wentworth. Given how much has already been written about the Teals, it might have been more profitable to have looked at the success of the Greens in winning three inner Brisbane seats, or the way in which the collapse of the Liberal Party in Western Australia gave the incoming government a slender majority in the House of Representatives. Nor does the book feature any analysis of the remarkable success of Dai Le in winning what should be one of Labor’s safest Sydney seats.

In her introduction, Grattan states:

While the Morrison government could claim some successes, it was ultimately felled by a combination of deficiencies, especially in the leadership of the prime minister himself.

Anyone who doubts her judgement will find much to support it in this book.

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