Will Scott Morrison even care when he is censured?
This is the subtext of the matter: if Morrison had usually taken a different approach to accountability, perhaps his actions in the midst of a pandemic would be read differently, as sincere rather than controlling. But then a man with more respect for accountability would not have acted like this.
Morrison’s poor attitude to good process was tied to a broader arrogance in his approach. He did not need to be accountable because he was always the person most likely to be right. It was not that he thought he was the smartest person in the room; it was simply that he was the person most likely to arrive at the right decision once you had taken into account the politics, which was so often the most important category to be right about. Why would he brook questioning from people incapable of understanding the world the way he did?
Add to this a deep, deep desire to avoid ever being blamed for anything and you can see how accountability becomes a problem.
The Liberals, who look set to vote against the censure, will hope that Albanese looks unnecessarily punitive, malicious in pursuit of a wounded opponent. In fact, Albanese’s call to go forward with the censure was the only logical response to the report into the affair, handed down on Friday. The former High Court judge Virginia Bell agreed with the Solicitor-General that Morrison “fundamentally undermined” the principles of responsible government. She concluded the secrecy was “apt to undermine public confidence in government” and that, when the appointments did come out, the secrecy that had surrounded them “was corrosive of trust in government”.
Having called the inquiry, if Albanese had not acted on such serious findings he himself would have looked unserious, as though the whole exercise had been rhetorical. In other words, it would have felt a little too much like the way Morrison often behaved: treating the processes a government has at its disposal as props in a political pantomime.
The ultimate weight of the censure will depend, oddly enough, on Albanese’s own record. If, with time, the Albanese government becomes high-handed and hypocritical when it comes to standards, then Labor’s decision to proceed with a censure will look, in hindsight, base and cynical. If, on the other hand, it remains a serious government, one that allows itself to be held accountable and treats good process as an end in itself, then the censure will stick.
If that is the case, then the way Morrison feels about the censure may change over time. This week he may not care. He is likely to dismiss the vote as petty and political, with no more meaning than that. But if, over time, the approach of Albanese’s government cements the current perceptions of Morrison’s, then the censure will increase in stature, coming to seem like the final, damning word on a leader who never seemed to care about the institutions that make governing possible.
Then, and only then, might Morrison finally come to understand something he has never previously grasped: the immense power and importance of the parliament.
Sean Kelly is author of The Game: A Portrait of Scott Morrison, a regular columnist and a former adviser to prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd. Connect via Twitter.
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