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The Morrison Government’s “Disastrous” Performance Analyzed Through Its Combination of Shortcomings


Nearly a year after the Albanian government’s victory, the shortcomings of its predecessors are becoming increasingly apparent. The competence and teamwork of the current administration underline the weaknesses of the Morrison regime. The contrast between the two leadership styles reminds us that bullying is no substitute for cooperation 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 affected by the impact of COVID in those years and the extraordinary effect the epidemic had on everyday life. In The Morrison government: governing through crisisthere 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, Sydney experts believed to have privileged access”. This could 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 administration and is now stationed at the Grattan Institute. He makes a thorough and compelling argument that Australia’s pandemic response has been fairly strong overall.

“The states provided leadership and made the tough decisions,” he argues. “But the Morrison government’s track record in managing the pandemic has been very poor indeed.”

I would be less sure of this distinction. There are questionable aspects in some of the state’s responses, such as the treatment of the Melbourne Housing Commission’s towers and the apparent double standards applied in the Sydney metropolitan area, that need to be acknowledged.

The argument that state prime ministers became important national leaders is supported by Alan Fenna’s analysis of federalism, which makes it all the more disappointing that this book offers so little insight into figures such as 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 interest of apparent scientific objectivity.

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

Repeat the headlines

The Morrison Government does a good job of describing the three years between 2019 and 2022, but it is a book that should be used as a reference rather than a source of original ideas or insight. Too much of the book seems like it’s repeating headlines, while the criticism is largely predictable.

Perhaps this is inevitable when you gather a large group of experts to write about the very recent past, avoiding the kind of colorful political gossip you find in the work of Nikki Savva or the personal insights of Katherine Murphy. Not all contributors to The Morrison Government are academics, but the book has something of the mind-numbing quality that all too often characterizes academics trying to write for a general audience.

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

Aborigines can laugh; there are few things more enjoyable to me than hearing Aborigines laugh.

Grant has written an elegant piece referencing the philosophical questions underlying the demands for an Indigenous vote in parliament, though he has little to say specifically about the actual policy mistakes of the Morrison administration.

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

There are chapters on the obvious policy areas. In many of these areas, such as elder care and robot debt, it would be difficult to find much support for government action. Climate change, which was as important as COVID in changing perceptions of the Morrison administration, is covered in a chapter by Darren Sinclair and Jo Mummery, who see the attitude of the Morrison administration as one of “denial, marginalization , reactivity and politicization”.

By the time I got to this chapter, I was hoping that a red-blooded right-winger would provide an alternative assessment of what I thought was a disastrous government.

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Mural in Sydney, December 2019.
Scott Marsh/AAP

Read more: ‘Amateurish, rushed and disastrous’: royal commission exposes robodeb as ethically indefensible policy targeting vulnerable people

Note the gaps

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

Individual ministers also receive only fleeting attention, even though some of them – Josh Frydenberg of Finance, Greg Hunt of Health, Peter Dutton of Defense – were important 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 put himself in control of some important departments without the legally appointed minister. The title of the book alone suggests that we are moving towards a semi-presidential system, with a declining understanding of cabinet government conventions.

Foreign policy is given its own chapter and occasionally referred to elsewhere, usually to AUKUS or to what Michelle Grattan aptly calls 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 even Australia’s dwindling foreign aid, now one of the lowest of the rich countries. Even major foreign policy challenges, such as the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the ongoing military repression in Myanmar, go unmentioned.

Stranger still is the book’s omission of any discussion of the war in Ukraine, which began three months before the 2022 election, though Walker casually refers to the “rules-based international order now threatening to shatter.” You don’t have 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 need to be questioned themselves.

What is particularly lacking in The Morrison Government is a sense of what it felt like to live 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 law against religious discrimination, but Morrison’s religiosity, apparently shared by the governor-general, receives little attention.

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

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Allegra Spender, Independent Member for Wentworth, makes her maiden speech to Parliament, 1 August 2022.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

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

In her introduction, Grattan says:

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

Anyone who doubts her judgment will find much support in this book.

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