By John Stapleton
The brutal and very ugly face of the Covid response in Australia, former Prime Minister Scott Morrison, is now mired in scandal, flayed daily in the public square.
The discovery that he appointed himself to five different portfolios in secret under the cover of the Covid panic made him the laughing stock of the parliament, the nation and the world.
More recently, a 16-year-old journalistic mystery, why Scott Morrison was sacked as managing director of Tourism Australia in 2006 with a year left to run on his contract, has now been solved.
Two years ago the intrepid Jommy Tee at Australia’s leading investigative news site Michael West Media found through an extensive Freedom of Information exercise that the then Prime Minister either lied about a critical probity report, or numerous government departments and agencies were so incompetent that all of them – together, coincidentally, jointly and severally – lost it.
Liberal tourism minister at the time, Fran Bailey, never revealed what led to the sacking of the man who went on to become Prime Minister of Australia.
Inspired by the scandal over all his secret ministries, and the utter buffoonery which led to it, she has spoken out, saying she sacked him for the exact same sort of behaviour. She told The Age newspaper:
“What has changed my mind is that all of those characteristics that make up Scott Morrison – the secrecy… the supreme belief that only he can do a job, the lack of consultation with those closest to him – those characteristics were evident 16 years ago, and perhaps we’re seeing the end result of those now.
“It came down to a complete lack of trust. It’s not something that I have stewed over for all those 16 years, but I certainly have become very concerned as he worked his way through the ministry, and I was gobsmacked when he became prime minister. Because I knew what he was really like to work with, and I think that’s been a tragedy for the Liberal Party and it has been a tragedy for our nation.”
The backdrop to Fran Bailey losing trust in Morrison is the story of the “Where The Bloody Hell Are You?” tourism campaign. Morrison was in charge, but refused to disclose even to his board or his minister how international ad agency Saatchi was chosen from a competitive field.
“He must leave the parliament. The Liberal Party has to prove to the Australian public that it has listened, it has got the message, and that it is prepared to adapt, just as society is adapting, and changing. It can’t do that while Scott Morrison sits on those benches, and is a constant reminder of all of the awful things that happened during the Morrison government. He must move on.”
While ever the now unemployable Scott Morrison refuses to leave his cosy little sinecure in the Australian parliament, the conservatives will be unable to rise from the ashes of their recent electoral drubbing.
The absence of any effective opposition does the country no good whatsoever.
A Sense of Place Magazine has been publishing highly critical stories on Scott Morrison since the beginning of his tortured Prime ministership. For history buffs, you can follow these stories here.
This is an extract from Chapter Seven, Covert Concessions and Sweetheart Deals, of the book Unfolding Catastrophe: Australia by veteran Australian journalist John Stapleton. It documents some of Morrison’s hapless mismanagement during one of the most critical periods of the nation’s history.
COVERT CONCESSIONS AND SWEETHEART DEALS
THE LAST THING these people wanted was for their sins to be exposed, but it is journalists who write the first draft of history.
Immediately after Scott Morrison won the May 2019 election in an improbable victory, after years of poor governance by the ruling coalition, one of Australia’s most accomplished journalists, Michael West, wrote in his piece “Election 2019: How good is plutocracy!”: “The votes were still being counted, the final tally of seats in parliament was yet to be settled, when the inevitable list of demands from big business lobbed in the financial press.
“For ordinary Australians, there will be no ‘working with the government’. The Great Unwashed have had their say, they can have their say again on a Saturday sometime in 2022. Between now and then, for every week in between, the business lobby will enjoy a privilege of access to those in government which is rarely available to the ordinary citizen.”
As West recorded, the Very Big End of Town queued up to congratulate the Prime Minister of Australia, Scott Morrison.
“A truly outstanding result,” said Fortescue Metals chief executive Elizabeth Gaines.
Soon enough, Nev Power, a former chief executive of Fortescue Mines and a friend of the prime minister, would be heading up the National COVID-19 Commission Advisory Board, criss‐crossing the country from his home in Perth at public expense; to achieve precisely what, was never made clear.
In a piece titled “Covert-19: Government stacks COVID Commission with Oil and Gas Mates”, seasoned journalist Sandi Keane wrote: “The government is quietly blowing away years of environmental protections under cover of COVID. Its COVID Commission is stacked with executives from the gas and mining lobbies in what is turning out to be a bonanza for multinationals.”
The NCCC was set up on March 25 with no terms of reference, no register of conflicts of interest and even less divulged about its financial resources.
“While the attention of the nation has been drawn to the daily COVID-19 count and embracing the digital world of schooling, working and socialising from home, the fossil fuel industry – with help from the Morrison government – has quietly seized the opportunity to entrench its power and profits.”
A report from environmental advocacy group 350 Australia detailed 36 individual policy changes or requests for project-specific support – all under cover of COVID-19.
The group claimed that concessions and sweetheart deals included fourteen requests to slash important environmental or corporate regulations, eleven requests for tax cuts and financial concessions, and twelve instances of requests to fast-track project assessment.
Lucy Manne, Chief Executive of 350 Australia, said: “It is rank opportunism for the fossil fuel lobby to call for slashing of corporate taxes and important environmental protections under the cover of COVID-19. Australians deserve better than to be fed a short-sighted pro-gas agenda, while they are trying to get through a global pandemic.”
Unashamed, the prime minister told Parliament House that the COVID Commission, led by Nev Power, “a very distinguished and very accomplished Western Australian”, was being tasked with the job of bridging the gap between the private sector and the government sector.
“That has seen us able to connect supply chains to access critical medical supplies and to deal with supply chain issues to get much needed food stores to remote Indigenous communities, as well as to regional towns and even metropolitan centres all across the country, particularly in those early days where we saw the rush on those stores and stocks at various times.
“I applaud their work. I think they are doing absolutely amazing work. When I called them and asked them to do this, I said, ‘I need you to serve your country.’ And they are serving our country, and this house should be very proud of their service.”
The prime minister moved to avoid any public scrutiny of the Commission by declaring that it would work “within government” as an advisory board to cabinet; meaning much of its advice would fall under cabinet confidentiality rules.
That meant the commission could operate in secret and was not required to justify its spending, which included more than a million dollars in so-called “market research”, money which went straight to Liberal Party‐associated groups.
Within four months of the commission’s inception, the Prime Minister’s Department was refusing to publicly release 1100 documents linked to the COVID-19 Commission’s discussion of gas projects and 690 documents about potential conflicts of interest, while also redacting its meeting minutes on economic and national security grounds.
A series of Freedom of Information (FOI) requests – including from Guardian Australia, environmental group 350 Australia, the Australia Institute, and wire service journalist Hannah Ryan – asked for documents that would likely have revealed how potential conflicts of interest were handled by the commission.
The requests were refused or heavily redacted by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.
Richie Merzian, the Australia Institute’s climate spokesman, said the institute’s FOI request revealed that the normal governance, processes and expertise involved in the Public Service were simply non-existent in the NCCC.
“This is concerning, as the commission is made up of business people who are using, in the chair’s own words, their ‘contact lists’ to ‘problem‐solve’ without being ‘managed from the centre’,” Merzian said.
Not long after, a University of Melbourne policy brief scrutinising the functioning of the National COVID-19 Commission advisory board, found the board suffered from a lack of transparency, had no legislative underpinning, and had not employed an independent appointment process to select its members.
The government’s COVID-19 Commission posed an enduring risk to Australian democracy and must be overhauled, including by the creation of a public and mandatory conflict-of-interest register, the paper found.
Author Elizabeth Hicks wrote that the NCCC “offers lessons” in the accretion of executive power during times of crisis.
“In Australia, the relationship between executive decision-making, political parties and regulatory capture remains a challenge for democracy,” she wrote. “Such challenges in turn colour the nature of novel advisory bodies and structures created to respond to moments of crisis.
“And although not immediate, the risks entailed within executive subversion of democratic deliberation reach far further than the life of the crisis itself.”
More than a year on from its inception, the COVID Commission would be wound up in shambolic ignominy.
In a piece lengthily titled “Farewell, COVID Commission, what did you leave us? A bunch of secrets, a heap of costs and that gas-led recovery”, news outlet Crikey put the nail in the coffin.
“Its greatest achievement was a secret manufacturing task force report which was used to justify the coalition’s ‘gas-led recovery’. This triggered a wave of criticism, given the board’s connections to the gas and fossil fuel industry, particularly special adviser Andrew Liveris, the former Dow Chemical boss who sits on the board of mining services company Worley and oil giant Saudi Aramco.
“The plan has been used to justify taxpayer subsidies for new gas projects, at a time when the rest of the world is making drastic moves to lower emissions.”
In closing down the NCCC, Morrison declared: “I want to thank the chair of the board, Mr Nev Power, and each of the current and former commissioners for their work. They answered the call for their country when they were needed and have worked hard to support the government’s plans for managing the virus and economic recovery.
“The board provided a real-time business perspective on critical aspects of our COVID-19 response. They helped businesses safely reopen with COVID‐safe plans, and provided a business perspective to help inform our policies for economic recovery.”
However many millions those on the COVID Commission pocketed, how much the entire exercise cost Australian taxpayers, would be carefully hidden, labelled as a “Cabinet in Confidence”, that is “Secret”, for the next 30 years.
Incensed by the heavily rorted fiasco unfolding in front of all their eyes, Alex published a piece called “Profiting from COVID: Welcome to the COVID economy”.
“Depleted incomes, smashed small businesses, bullshit jobs, a whole new platform for crony capitalism, deserted main streets. What’s not to love?
“Not many businesses and industries are growing in 2020.
“Main Street is dying, in small towns and large city downtowns, all over the world. Small businesses especially are suffering. Particular sectors, like tourism, have tanked. No one disputes this, though few in power seem to care. Or, if they do, it is clearly not a policy priority.
“When even non-COVID public healthcare has been all but abandoned, it is of little surprise that everything else too has been put on policy hold. Other than shovelling money out the door with the sole purpose of keeping unemployed and under-employed workers from marching in the streets against the lockdowns.
“The world is dipping into recession, or worse.”
Old Alex, in that freezing windswept winter, sat in the almost empty train carriages, rustling to and from work, and read over and over again the advertising slogans about the Australian Minerals Council, that is the Very Very Big End of Town; that is the same end of town to which this government was hostage, saying that we needed to look at mining in a new way, that donations from the mining sector were helping to cure cancer.
Only a brief instant in time before, such advertising on a public train would have been unusual. Instead, along with the perennial car and insurance companies, they promoted messages about helping your neighbours, or charities, thinking of others, mental health, education, bushfire relief, good causes.
There was nothing good about this mob. They plundered the land where his forebears had been. They gorged themselves at the trough. They deluded millions and millions of people into throwing themselves into serfdom. They created a new slave class.
Many a cold morning he watched the yellow‐vested construction workers getting off the train at the stations through the middle of Sydney – Central, Town Hall, Martin Place – those workers, the few there were, all of a sudden lucky just to be in work, lucky to be allowed out of their own homes, to have been deemed essential.
As he walked to his temporary office down at Circular Quay, he passed one closed shop after another, cafes, takeaways, bars, restaurants, dry‐cleaners, gyms – all closed. Entire office blocks empty. Only the occasional car in normally traffic‐jammed streets.
Sydney was a city utterly transformed.
He kept asking himself: How did quarantining the healthy and bankrupting in an entire economy make any sense at all?
But he met almost nobody who agreed with the sentiment; as they dutifully sanitised their hands and donned their masks, and soon enough he learnt to shut his mouth; trapped in a deceptive, treacherous world, encased by tinted mirrors, walking through the deserted precincts of the Opera House, walking, virtually alone, across the Harbour Bridge.
There was no use arguing.
They might as well have been police‐swarming protestors, the way the Twitter mobs pounced on anyone who was suspicious of the government narrative.
Journalism as a profession tends to lean left. There was the creation of a bizarre kind of moral panic akin to the pack mentality created around climate change; you were a bad person if you dared to doubt. Already, if you dared to protest, you were a criminal.
Amongst the gaggle of perpetrators were many of his former workmates, and he watched in surprise as they rounded on colleagues who disagreed with the lockdown policies as somehow being creatures of the right, as journalists who had sold their souls; none of which was true.
Old Alex had swum in a crowded media sea almost his entire working life; and there was little worse than watching the behaviour of the profession he had once been so proud to join.
In the upside-down world of Australian politics, the left were rushing to embrace lockdowns, curfews and the abolition of the liberty to protest, while the right were suddenly the champions of individual freedom, the ability to make your own decisions about your own health, and the privilege, in a free society, to doubt, and most particularly to doubt the COVID narrative spewing from uncritical government‐funded or -manipulated news outlets.
The surface story – the blitzing, ridiculing or excising anyone who disagreed with the official narrative – was all part of the beginning of a descent into horror.
Anyone who dared suggest that Australia’s lockdowns represented the most radical and destructive suite of policies ever perpetrated against the civilian population got pilloried; that is, anyone who stated the obvious, that Australian authorities were not the doyens of scientific literacy they pretended to be and were ignoring a considerable body of both populist and scientific opinion which placed them squarely in the wrong.
The best form of censorship is the one where people censor themselves, and live in fear of speaking out.
Like so many other dissenting voices, Old Alex often remained silent in the amphitheatre of social media and with the people he encountered.
Nowhere was comfortable, not on the shores of that over‐lit, normally hectic, famously beautiful waterway Sydney Harbour, not in that stricken house on the South Coast with the slow dying of his struggling parent, not within himself, not on these frightened streets.
And so, he just worked.
Lockdowns, masks, stay‐at-home orders, martial law, fear – all driven by fear. As it would turn out, a highly profitable fear for The Very Big End of Town.
Old Alex became obsessed with lockdowns partly because they impacted on his own life so badly; as they did, of course, on so many others.
While hundreds of thousands of people were losing their livelihoods in Australia, in total contrast, life in Sweden went on more or less as normal.
Model this: What would Australia be like if the government had done absolutely nothing?
Or If Australia had modelled the far less destructive Swedish response, designed by some of Europe’s most distinguished epidemiologists, which in essence protected the elderly and let everybody else go on about their lives, thereby preserving the nation’s civilian life?
There was no common sense. There was no rationality. The populace clung to beliefs without a shred of evidence; succumbed to government fear campaigns without a shrug of resistance.
While he walked free across a vaulting sky. And wished he could care not.
The country was in chaos from one end to the other.
Thread by dark thread, clod by dark clod. Step by terrible step. So it came to pass. Of all the injustices in Australian history, none was more consequential than this widely perpetrated deceit.
Already the Australian Government’s response to the pandemic was having significant impacts on the population’s wellbeing.
A research project between the ABC and Vox Pop Labs known as “COVID-19 Monitor”, published in late April of 2020, showed the coronavirus pandemic had made Australians more anxious, confused bored.
The number of Australians reporting poor mental health more than doubled compared with the previous month. The number frequently feeling despair more than tripled, while those frequently feeling confused was up five times.
The same survey showed that most Australians backed the Federal Government’s response.
It should have been obvious from the very beginning that more harm would be done by the government’s actions than the virus could ever have done.
Now they would all be paying the price of ignorance. Now the crashed fortunes of much of the population, as the rich got even richer, would lead straight to the pit, to chaos in the streets, to terrible annihilation. That isolation would prove both physical and of the spirit, in this place which had embraced a lunatic madness.
Empty emporiums, empty chairs, empty forecourts, bequeathed by empty hearts.
Across the entire period professionals raised concerns that the societal-wide destruction and community dislocation engineered by governments would increase death rates well beyond anything the virus might have caused.
A joint statement by the Australian Medical Association, the University of Sydney’s Brain and Mind Centre and the University of Melbourne’s Centre of Youth Mental Health, argued that many health professionals, including GPs, psychiatrists, and emergency physicians, were seeing significant growth in the number of patients seeking treatment and support for their mental health.
“We know that young people are going to be disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the measures that are needed to stop the spread of this deadly disease.
“Dynamic modelling of the adverse impacts of COVID-19 on unemployment, social dislocation, and mental health shows that there may be a 25 per cent increase in suicides, and it is likely that about 30 per cent of those will be among young people. If the Australian economy deteriorates further, this number may increase. We are facing a situation where between an extra 750 and 1500 more suicides may occur annually, in addition to the 3000-plus lives that are lost to suicide already every year.
“Furthermore, this tragically higher rate is likely to persist for up to five years if the economic downturn lasts more than twelve months. Such a death rate is likely at this stage to overshadow the number of deaths in Australia directly attributable to COVID-19 infection.”
The left-leaning Australia Institute warned; “Over the course of a year, from the introduction of the coronavirus supplement at the end of March 2020 to its removal at the end of March 2021, over one million Australians (1,055,000) will enter poverty, including almost 220,000 children.
“Poverty in childhood can have lifelong effects. Children living in poverty are more likely to have impairment in cognitive development which leads to them falling behind in school. They are also more likely to have impairment in their social, emotional and behavioural development. Poverty has also been linked to a range of adverse health outcomes. All of this means that children who grow up in poverty are more likely, when they are adults, to have lower incomes and to be unemployed or marginally attached to the labour market.”
Later research from the Journal of Psychiatric Research suggested that during the heights of the lockdowns one in ten Victorians had seriously considered suicide, one in five Victorians had felt suicidal, and another one in five reported experiencing anxiety or depression.
Other research by the Kids Helpline showed suicide attempts by teenagers soared 184 per cent during lockdowns.
Youth suicide gets all the government and media attention, but what about the rest; all those people driven to despair in their personal and business lives?
Australian media has a strong tradition of not reporting suicides for fear of encouraging copy-cat behaviour. Any editor who defies the restriction can expect a call from government operatives. The convention has the effect of concealing much social injustice in Australia and, during the COVID era, of concealing the impacts of government policies.
There were a number of dramatic and tragic incidents unknown to the public.
That the politicians dominating the airwaves were claiming to be keeping Australians safe was not just a little rich, it was a straight‐out lie. And the nation’s journalists should have been calling them out.
The closed‐off walking trails in national parks, perhaps the healthiest place in the country to be, were another sign of a signal derangement.
Old Alex thought the government was doing a terrible job. He trusted them not one jot. But back in Oak Flats he was an outlier.
The prime minister’s ratings had soared.
There was one, one whole case, in Moss Vale and three in the adjoining town of Bowral, a place characterised by mansions on large blocks, but almost the entire economy of the Southern Highlands of NSW had been shut down.
How did that make any sense?
There were no cases in South Australia and none in the Northern Territory, according to one radio report, yet they refused to open their borders.
The authorities knew already that this was for a disease which had, according to some of the world’s leading epidemiologists, a 0.01 to 0.03 per cent death rate, on a par with the flu.
Yet half of all workers in the country were now reliant on a government payment.
How did that make sense?
Decide in haste, repent at leisure. But it was worse than that. The recriminations were yet to start. There was an evil afoot in it all, and a lunacy.
The timeline had become dangerously chaotic.
His contempt for ordinary working people oozed from the prime minister’s every pore, or so it seemed to an entirely jaundiced old reporter.
And every day the country lurched ever further to a standstill, a tower falling.