Plagued: Australian’s Two Years Of Hell – The Inside Story

3 March 2023

By: John Roskam

By John Roskam

In April 2022, a month before the federal election Gideon Rozner, the Director of Policy at the Institute of Public Affairs, was a guest on the ABC’s Q+A program. When asked about the legacy of Scott Morrison as Prime Minister, Rozner stated:

My concern is what Scott Morrison has done to the Liberal Party and to liberalism, to the values that I subscribe to. My concern is the fact that the Morrison government has embroiled Australia in a $1 trillion debt, that it’s ramped up online censorship, that it made it a criminal offence for Australian citizens, during the pandemic, to re-enter their own country, rendering them stateless.

And I have to say, Scott Morrison would have to be, in my opinion, the worst prime minister the Liberal Party has put up since Billy McMahon, except Billy McMahon had principles.

No doubt some would disagree with Rozner. It was said of another prime minister, Edmund Barton, that he ‘may be seen as a great statesman, or as one of those lightweights who occasionally float to the top’. Which, if either description fits Morrison, will be debated in the years ahead.

‘Plagued’ by Simon Benson and Geoff Chambers, journalists at The Australian newspaper, recounts two years of the federal government’s response to Covid from January 2020 to Morrison’s election defeat in May 2022. ‘Plagued’ is engrossing and painful. Not because it isn’t well-written – it is. Benson and Chambers have a deep understanding of politics and Canberra, and they succeed at putting the process of government at the time into both a global and domestic context.

What makes ‘Plagued’ difficult is reading about Scott Morrison, someone who was completely ill suited to the prime minister during a crisis. He demonstrated regard only for his own political fortunes. Morrison was so forthcoming with Benson and Chambers that some in the Labor Party wanted the former prime minister investigated on whether he unlawfully revealed classified information. It’s interesting to speculate whether Morrison has regretted his participation. He emerges from the book a diminished figure.

The access to the machinations of government at the country’s highest levels includes details of discussions in cabinet meetings, what Morrison said to his wife Jenny, the brand of whisky he and the Victorian premier Daniel Andrews drank together, and the television programs he and the federal treasurer Josh Frydenberg enjoyed.

Shortly after the national plan was agreed on 30 July 2021, Frydenberg moved into Morrison’s Covid war bunker at The Lodge. ACT health restrictions dictated that he could travel only between The Lodge and his Parliament House office. Frydenberg was concerned that he would be stranded in Victoria. So the two decided to become flatmates as they plotted the economic response to the second crisis.

The day of Frydenberg’s arrival at The Lodge, Morrison sent all the staff home early. He made a fire in the lounge room and went into the kitchen to make a curry for the two of them…

In their downtime as temporary flatmates, they would watch action films and re-runs of Yes Minister, or play pool in a small room off the main dining room adorned with sporting memorabilia including a small table pasted with images of the Cronulla Sharks, handcrafted by one of Morrison’s constituents.

Clearly a curry with Scott Morrison only goes so far.

Morrison didn’t tell Frydenberg that three months earlier Morrison had made himself co-treasurer. When Frydenberg delivered his May 2021 budget, he didn’t know he was job-sharing with the PM. When, subsequent to the publication of ‘Plagued’, Frydenberg discovered what happened, quite understandably he was reported to be ‘furious’. The book’s revelation that Morrison had secretly made himself health minister and then finance minister was front page news. Subsequently it was discovered that Morrison had given himself other portfolios too.

The former PM’s justification, in a nearly 1,300 words on Facebook, was he ‘considered it necessary to put in place safeguards, redundancies and contingencies’ during the ‘crisis period’. Nowhere did Morrison explain why any of what he did needed to be done in secret and no apology was offered. The tone of Morrison’s Facebook post is the same as he adopts in ‘Plagued’. He was the only person who could have steered the nation through the Covid crisis and he did anything and everything he thought was necessary to do so. More than one person has stated that Morrison possesses a ‘Messiah Complex’ – and not all of those applying that description have been of the left. Morrison believed the Coalition’s federal election victory in 2019 was due almost entirely to his, and no-one else’s efforts. And he was right. From being the only person who could save the Coalition in 2019, Morrison thought he was the only person who could save the country in 2020.

‘Plagued’ is presented as ‘the inside story of Australia’s two years of hell’, when the country was besieged by crisis after crisis, and a rolling series of challenges and setbacks. Much of what took place behind the scenes will astonish the public’. Some readers will be astonished by Morrison’s cavalier approach to democracy and his brazen disregard for human rights, while others will simply take the book to be confirmation of what they had long suspected about the former prime minister.

After all, it was Morrison as treasurer in 2017 who explained his lack of interest in freedom of speech by claiming ‘this issue doesn’t create one job, doesn’t open one business, doesn’t give anyone one extra hour. It doesn’t make housing more affordable or energy more affordable’. Morrison’s desire to ‘make energy more affordable’ is noteworthy given a few years later he committed the Coalition to implement ‘net zero’.

The claim that Morrison was willing to sacrifice civil liberties only because of the extraordinary circumstances of Covid doesn’t withstand scrutiny. Morrison had never demonstrated even the barest commitment to the basic principles of political liberalism.

A few months before the federal election, he announced a re-elected Coalition government would give the Australian Communications and Media Authority the power to censor social media to control ‘misinformation’ and ‘disinformation’ – in other words a government organisation would adjudicate ‘the truth’. Naturally it was a policy the Labor Party supported.

‘Plagued’ helps solve the mystery of the relationship between Morrison and Daniel Andrews. As Victoria endured the world’s longest lockdown, as the state Labor government presided over catastrophic administrative failures, and the Victoria Police became world famous for their brutality, Morrison refused to utter a word of criticism against Andrews. In August 2020, when in her home in Ballarat, Zoe Buhler was arrested and handcuffed in her living room, in her pyjamas, in front of her children, because of a social media post she’d made advertising an anti-lockdown protest, Morrison made no comment. Now we know why.

In early 2020, as panic buying swept the nation, Morrison claimed ‘Our country’s story is not going to be written in the aisles of shopping centres having tiffs over toilet paper’. No. Instead the enduring image of Australia during Covid is a pregnant mother handcuffed by black-clad Victorian police, closed playgrounds wrapped in red and white striped plastic tape, and the government stopping Australian citizens from leaving the country.

Friendship might be too strong a term to describe what developed between Morrison and Andrews, but it was an affinity built on a form of admiration for each other. According to Benson and Chambers, ‘Morrison had a high regard for Andrews’ political skill and the two had built an agreeable relationship since Morrison had become PM. Not all Morrison’s colleagues shared his positivity about the fiercely tribal Labor leader.’

In July 2020, even as the residents of aged care homes were feeling the full brunt of the Andrews government’s multiple failures, as health authorities ordered staff in homes to leave and refused to transfer infected patients to hospitals, Morrison remained eager to placate the Victorian premier. After Andrews held a press conference attempting to shift the blame to the Commonwealth government and claiming ‘I would not let my mum be in some of these places, I just wouldn’t’, Morrison sent a text (which presumably he provided to the authors) to Andrews:

Am standing up shortly, I assure you my tone will be very supportive, you’ll note Greg’s [Greg Hunt, the health minister] tone his morning was very supportive, let’s speak later today/this evening. All good. There is nothing to be gained by personalising the challenges we both face.

Andrews replied: Agreed.

On another occasion, after Andrews had imposed on Melbourne one of his six lockdowns, ‘Morrison sent Andrews a friendly text: ‘Hang in there Dan.’ Morrison’s sympathy was for ‘Dan’, not Victorians.

The Victorian government’s management of Covid was the worst in the nation, but Morrison was always ready to make excuses for Andrews. Rather than acknowledging what was happening in Victoria was the direct outcome of Andrews’ style of government, ‘Morrison believed that Andrews was being let down badly by his officials.’ This was despite the fact that many of those officials had been appointed by Andrews and Andrews had himself been Victoria’s minister for health for three years. As of the middle of November 2022 Victoria had reported 5,936 deaths from Covid out of its population of 6.7 million, 0.089 deaths per 100 people. New South Wales with a population of 8.2 million had 5,476 deaths, 0.067 deaths per 100 people.

It’s not clear what Morrison gained from the special connection he cultivated with Andrews. The result of the 2022 federal election proved the electoral benefit to the Coalition was zero. For reasons unfathomable, Andrews was popular with Victorians, and Morrison would have been keenly aware who would win a slanging match between the two. For Victorians though, with parliament suspended, public protest outlawed, and with Melbourne media enthusiastically supporting the state government, Morrison was the last best hope at tempering the excesses of Andrews. But Morrison stayed silent, appeased Andrews and tacitly endorsed the Victorian premier’s authoritarianism.

In May 2020, Victoria’s ‘second wave’ had begun following outbreaks at two hotels in Melbourne used as quarantine facilities. This ‘second wave’ would, by December 2020, be determined as responsible for more than 20,000 cases and 820 deaths. Yet somehow, ‘[I]n spite of the acrimony that would play out publicly through the course of the second wave and beyond, Morrison and Andrews privately maintained a deep level of cooperation. In fact, they were in contact almost daily and often several times a day.’

That Morrison and Andrews got on well together is not surprising given their political personalities are so similar and their professional backgrounds nearly identical. Every job Morrison had before becoming prime minister was either for the Liberal Party, the government or as a lobbyist, while Andrews has only ever worked in politics.

Morrison and Andrews each ran their cabinet and their government the same way through systems of command and control that centred all power to the leader’s office. Morrison’s secret ministries should not be a surprise. Their creation was a natural extension of his style of government.

As the minister for immigration from September 2013 to December 2014, Morrison implemented the border protection policies championed by Tony Abbott. As minister for social services from December 2014 to September 2015 Morrison had no policy achievements to speak of, while as treasurer, until August 2018 when he replaced Malcolm Turnbull as prime minister, Morrison’s two signature domestic policies were the imposition of higher taxes on banks through a bank levy, and the introduction of retrospective changes to the taxation of superannuation.

After reading Anne Henderson’s biography of Joseph Lyons, Morrison very deliberately modelled himself on the one-time Labor premier of Tasmania, federal treasurer in an ALP government, and then prime minister and leader of the conservative United Australia Party.

Lyons’ plan to deal with the Depression was based on returning the budget to balance, cutting government spending and lowering wages, among other things including price control… Morrison saw himself governing in a similar fashion, a leader unchained from orthodoxy, ideologically uninhibited and politically licensed to employ dramatic intervention as leader of a conservative party.

Lyons’ legacy bequeathed Morrison a set of guiding political principles to steer Australia out of economic despair once again, including his central theme of leveraging private enterprise rather than government.

Some would observe Morrison was ‘uninhibited’ by an ideology because he didn’t have one. If he had a commitment to private enterprise it was loosely held. For example, he had no qualms about the federal government interfering in the contracts of commercial tenants and their landlords.

Morrison was hearing – from friends, MPs and well as the premiers – about landlords maltreating tenants who had lost business due to the lockdown.

Morrison and the premiers kicked the issue back to their Treasurers but when only weak proposals came back from them Morrison started having private and very heated conversations with some of the larger commercial landlords. He left them in no doubt as to what he thought of their behaviour.

Then, having given up on the Treasurers, he sat down and wrote the policy himself, on an issue over which the Commonwealth had no jurisdiction. The principles included a system of waivers and deferrals on rent, which would see landlords share a proportion of reductions in turnovers of their tenants. There would be a moratorium on evictions. It didn’t mean landlords couldn’t demand rent; they just couldn’t throw their tenants out for not paying it.

There’s three points to make about all of this. First, most likely the reason why the state treasurers could only offer ‘weak proposals’ was because they had a stronger grasp of the principles of contract law in a free enterprise economy than Morrison. Second, it was Morrison who took it upon himself personally to rewrite the terms of commercial tenancies, and only someone like Morrison could have imagined this was the job of the prime minister. Third, the fact that the federal government had no constitutional authority over landlord and tenant relations was no obstacle to Morrison.

There’s a revealing passage at the beginning of the book describing a dinner at the prime minister’s Sydney residence, Kirribilli House, in early March 2020 with Morrison, Frydenberg and ‘a select group of CEOs’.