Maybe Prime Minister doesn’t actually want to win?

Centre for Public Integrity

Written by Dr Colleen Lewis. Dr Lewis is a member of the Centre’s National Integrity Committee and is an honorary professor at the ANU’s Australian Studies Institute. This article was originally published in the Canberra Times on Nov 30 2021

When reflecting on Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s statements in Federal Parliament last week, one could be forgiven for thinking he does not want the Coalition to win the forthcoming election.

Presuming that he doesn’t, it’s easy to conclude that he made a wise decision to attack the NSW ICAC for simply doing its job. Another possible wise decision was making it abundantly clear to the electorate that he has no intention of introducing a federal anti- corruption commission similar to ICAC, on the basis that he considers it to be a “kangaroo court”.

On one level it could be argued that the PM is just tossing out an emotive message in the hope he can justify the introduction of his government’s widely discredited model for a federal anti-corruption commission: the Commonwealth Integrity Commission. The PM has a marketing background, and I am not deriding him for that. What I am saying is that such a background means he is acutely aware of the potential power of emotive messaging, even when it does not reflect reality.

To be kind, perhaps the PM does not know what a kangaroo court is, or at least didn’t before he spoke in Parliament last week. If that is the case, he or one of his many advisers could have done a quick and easy fact check.

To be kind, perhaps the PM does not know what a kangaroo court is, or at least didn’t before he spoke in Parliament last week. If that is the case, he or one of his many advisers could have done a quick and easy fact check.

Perhaps the Prime Minister already knew what a kangaroo court is and chose to pretend that the NSW ICAC was one, knowing full well that he would be criticised for trying to mislead Australian voters. If you want to lose an election, it is a very clever strategy.

A desire to lose the election may also explain why Mr Morrison and other members of his government chose to make highly contestable statements about ICAC’s decision to have former Premier Gladys Berejiklian appear before it. ICAC has not treated Ms Berejiklian in a “shameful” manner. Nor did it force her to resign. It merely asked her questions which went to the heart of the former premier’s decision not to disclose to any of her cabinet colleagues a relationship she was having with a fellow, and then former, MP. The issue is not the relationship per se. The matter ICAC is examining is whether there was a conflict of interest when Ms Berejiklian failed to disclose the relationship, despite being part of a decision-making process which involved the granting of considerable sums of public money to her boyfriend’s electorate. At this stage, ICAC has not come to a conclusion in relation to her conduct. The PM knows this, but if you don’t want to win an election his and some of his colleagues highly contestable statements are very wise.

If losing the election is indeed the goal, the Coalition is also to be congratulated for deciding to ignore the combined wisdom of nearly every expert in the anti-corruption field. These experts have stridently criticised the structure and processes of the proposed CIC. And how astute of the PM to advise the Australian electorate that the Coalition government will not be altering, in any significant way, the already discredited CIC, despite approximately 80 per cent of the Australian population making it clear that they require the establishment of an effective federal anti-corruption commission.

Disrespecting the wishes of the Australian electorate is an excellent strategy if you don’t wish to win. Given trust in the political class is plummeting and integrity in public office is increasingly becoming an election issue, Australian voters will be examining the statements and claims made by every political party and the ethical compass of all candidates. Australians’ focus on trust will not diminish the closer we get to the forthcoming federal election, as integrity goes to the heart of good governance and good government, something the electorate is increasingly demanding.

The government’s decision to ignore the wishes of the people they purport to represent is a smart and insightful tactic if you want to lose the election.

If I am misguided in my reflections and the government is keen to be re-elected, it will have to consider, very carefully, the wisdom of relying on emotive messaging and highly contestable statements, as reiterating them insults the intelligence of Australian voters – and they know it.

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