Morrison’s election day terror campaign is a final act of political bastardy
It is perfectly fitting that Scott Morrison’s latest official act as prime minister was one of pure selfish political bastardy at the expense of vulnerable people. Stick it on his tombstone – that’s all he deserves.
Teaching border forces to advertise the return of a ship of asylum seekers from Sri Lanka was clearly revolting, but will there be consequences? Short answer: no.
He hasn’t broken any law. The events of the grandiose Operation Sovereign Borders, militarized for the show as they have always been since Morrison’s tenure as immigration minister, are not actually classified. The secrecy linked to “water issues” has never been about national security, but only about politics, openly violated every time he adapted to Morrison to joke about some threat of incoming boatmen.
While our laws criminalize virtually any disclosure of government information by government employees, the government can choose what and when to disclose. So, legally speaking, it was in Morrison’s power to make sure everyone knew about the interception of a “ship en route to Australia”.
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What was broken were the “custodial conventions”. This is the period between the calling of an election and the appointment of the new government, the so-called custody period. The basic idea is for a government to stop holding the mandate of the electorate to set up policies and govern proactively once the campaign starts, because it may not be the government after the elections. Then it enters “custodian mode”, keeping your hand on the rudder but doing the bare minimum to maintain governance.
Custody agreements are serious business, generally treated as such by all parties and formally documented; the current version of the steering document issued by the Department of the Presidency of the Council of Ministers and the Cabinet was updated in December 2021.
As the guidelines say, the tipping point comes when the governor general dissolves parliament in anticipation of an election. The temporary non-existence of Parliament means that the executive arm of the government is no longer subject to its control, and thus a fundamental part of the three-pronged government system is broken. The government, consequently, goes small.
The main conventions are that the interim government should avoid making important political decisions or significant appointments or entering into important contracts or commitments. And it shouldn’t use government and public service resources “in a way that would benefit a particular political party.”
The guidelines go into detail on the practical aspects to ensure compliance with the conventions, but in reality the principles are very clear: do as little as possible and leave public service out of the way.
According to the media, Morrison’s office requested the Border Force directly (part of the Department of Internal Affairs) to publicly release the details of the boat’s return operation while it was in progress. Home affairs officials were concerned that this might violate the custodian’s conventions, but presumably concluded that it would not.
This, it seems to me, was obviously wrong. The question that should have been asked was: what important public interest would the public announcement serve. That question should have considered the context: it was election day, and making the announcement would be in direct contradiction to the government’s long-standing policy on these very issues. That is, the announcement would be a dramatic departure from the previous one in a highly politicized context.
The obvious and only conclusion that should have been drawn was that there was no public interest justification available, but many reasons to appreciate that the government’s request was motivated by one’s own political interests. Border Force should therefore have resisted and refused to allow itself to be used in this obviously politically partisan way.
Such failure on the part of officials should have consequences for them. However, the greatest evil is that they have been placed in such a hateful position. The question should never have been asked. This is about the now former prime minister.
Custody agreements have no legal value. Their violation is not illegal. Nobody wants to be punished. While civil servants could theoretically face disciplinary action (they won’t), there is no mechanism to hold Morrison accountable for flagrant violation of him.
This is also appropriate, because the Morrison government stands out as the Australian government that has most consistently and voluntarily violated the conventions of our democracy. In conducting the affairs of Parliament, contempt for ministerial responsibility, politicization of government and public service appointments and attacks on the independence of the judiciary, he has never encountered a convention that he did not instinctively want to trash.
It ended as it began: a misfortune.