The following is an extract from Bernard Keane’s new book Lies and Falsehoods: The Morrison Government and the New Culture of Deceit.
Scott Morrison’s insistence on lying about his own actions, and the actions of his government, rather than focusing his misrepresentation on his opponents, suggests his lies and falsehoods are aimed at avoiding accountability.
There can be no accountability for the slow speed of a vaccination rollout if the government never committed to any targets in the first place. There can be no charge of climate inaction if Australia will “meet and beat” its emissions abatement targets. There can be no community anger at Morrison in bushfire-affected communities if he has extensive conversations with the locals. There could be no rorting of sports grants if the Australian National Audit Office found that they were all OK and Morrison had no role in their administration.
Agreed facts are at the heart of the concept of accountability in a democracy. If a program failed to meet its goals, if government action or inaction led to harm or death, if a grant was handed out for political gain, if a policy was skewed to benefit an interested party — these all reflect on a government’s competence and integrity. But if a government says a timetable never existed, that a program met goals even when it hasn’t, that grants coincidentally ended up in marginal electorates, no accountability is possible.
That’s not freewheeling bullshit offered by someone who doesn’t even care particularly if you know he’s bullshitting, who is simply in the business of attacking his opponents relentlessly. That’s an agenda to avoid accountability.
This is wholly consistent with the government run by Scott Morrison. The Coalition governments since 2013 have been the most corrupt in Australian history, and have reversed recent trends towards greater openness and accountability in government.
The government has rorted taxpayer money for political and personal ends. It has distorted climate policy for fossil fuel donors and skewed finance regulation for financial industry donors. There have been repeated instances of misconduct: forgery and leaking to the media, within ministerial offices; ministerial misconduct around water purchases and environmental regulation lobbying; big increases in political donations by large consulting firms rewarded with a substantial expansion in their government contracts; friends of the government handed contracts; sexual harassment complaints ignored; the corporate regulator gutted.
And that has proceeded hand-in-hand with a growing hostility to accountability and transparency. Since 2017, Australia has slipped out of the top 20 countries in the world press freedom index, managing a lowly 26th spot in 2020. Journalists have been subjected to high-profile raids, whistleblowers have been prosecuted.
The figure most aggressively hostile to scrutiny throughout the life of the government has been Scott Morrison. As immigration minister, he blocked even the most basic requests for information on maritime arrivals and the activities of the Australian navy, including its violation of Indonesian territory, under the notorious, fabricated pretext of “on-water matters”; the deaths of asylum seekers in Australia’s care were left uninvestigated; NGOs working for the government with asylum-seeker detainees were banned and threatened with gag laws if they revealed crimes such as sexual abuse perpetrated on Australia’s watch.
And when caught out in false accusations about the murder of detainee Reza Barati on Manus Island, or the actions of Save the Children workers on Nauru (which led to that NGO receiving significant compensation from the Immigration Department, along with compensation for the workers involved, accompanied by a statement of regret), Morrison refused to apologise or to even accept that he had accused Save the Children workers on Nauru of misconduct.
This may have been the first time Morrison used the tactic of outright denial that he had said what he’d said — a tactic he would use repeatedly as prime minister. In a statement in 2014 he accused Save the Children workers of “making false claims and, worse, allegedly coaching self-harm and using children in protests”, which “is also completely unacceptable, whatever their political views or whatever their agendas”.
This led to a bizarre on-air exchange in 2016. When read his own words, verbatim, in a television interview, Morrison replied, “I did not say that”, and tried to claim he was only making allegations. “I said allegedly,” Morrison insisted, repeating “allegedly” over and over, despite having clearly not used the word in accusing Save the Children workers of making false claims.
Seen from a broader perspective of accountability and transparency, Morrison’s habitual lying about his own statements, actions and government record are no accident, but form part of a coherent whole: a political style designed to avoid responsibility and stymie efforts to hold him accountable for his behaviour as a public official.