It was yet another example of the Guardian-ABC axis in action.
The Guardian was established in Manchester in 1821 as an avowedly left-wing newspaper and this tradition continued when it moved to London in 1961. Guardian Australia was set up in 2013, and it follows the ideological tradition of its British relative.
Despite the fact Guardian Australia is a small online newspaper, many of its journalists appear on ABC programs such as News Breakfast, Insiders, The Drum, Radio National Breakfast and the like – a higher per capita representation on the taxpayer-funded public broadcaster than any other news outlet in Australia.
Indeed, Guardian Australia appears to have a weekly Thursday slot on RN Breakfast. So much so that when the paper’s political editor, Katharine Murphy, cannot do the job, her role is invariably taken by a colleague. The program has no position reserved for a conservative weekly commentator – as befits the taxpayer funded public broadcaster as a conservative-free-zone.
On Thursday, Murphy took up her regular slot speaking to RN Breakfast presenter Patricia Karvelas. Initially she supported the Albanese government’s energy price relief plan legislation. Then discussion turned to the Royal Commission into the Robodebt Scheme, which is sitting in Brisbane and is presided over by former Queensland chief justice Catherine Holmes.
Karvelas put it to Murphy that former prime minister Scott Morrison “was chastised at the robodebt royal commission yesterday for his verbose answers to questions”. To which Guardian Australia’s political editor responded with sneering laughter. Karvelas soon joined in the mocking chorus.
Murphy went on to bag Morrison. She stated that his response to questions “is to kind of stick his tractor in low gear and go, go, go and basically just crash though whatever questioning might be there”. Murphy claimed Morrison “certainly brought that approach to the royal commission”. She said “he faced a slightly tougher time from the royal commission than he did routinely from journalists when he deployed basically the same tactics for the duration of his prime ministership”.
Murphy went on to describe the robodebt scheme as a “car crash” and “shameful”.
Well, the former comment, while something of a cliche, is true. But there is nothing new in this assessment. It is likely that the royal commission will consider evidence that the robodebt scheme led to some vulnerable people taking their own lives.
The letters patent by which the royal commission was established acknowledged that “in November 2019 the Federal Court of Australia declared, with the consent of the Australian government, that a demand for payment of an alleged debt under the robodebt scheme was not validly made”. The letters patent also stated that “the Australian government subsequently announced that over 400,000 debts raised under the robodebt scheme would be zeroed or repaid”.
In short, the Coalition government admitted its error three years ago. Subsequently, the debts were written off or repaid.
In May, the Morrison government was defeated at the polls and the former prime minister now sits on the opposition backbench. Isn’t this sufficient retribution? Apparently not.
In one sense, Labor’s approach to Morrison is understandable. After all, soon after the Coalition’s election victory over Kevin Rudd in September 2013, Tony Abbott’s government set up the Royal Commission into the Home Insulation Program. This was an inquiry, headed by Ian Hanger KC, into what was called the pink batts scheme – whereby the Labor government provided free home insulation as a means of generating economic activity during what in Australia was termed the global financial crisis circa 2008.
It was a disastrous scheme in which several young men working on properties died due to poor management. But Labor acknowledged its mistakes and Rudd was defeated by Abbott in the 2013 election. That, too, should have been sufficient retribution.
Not surprisingly, Hanger criticised the Rudd government. And it is likely that Holmes will find against the Morrison government.
However, the tone of Holmes’s royal commission so far, with respect to Morrison, is demeaning to the former prime minister and is not far off the approach taken by Guardian Australia’s Murphy.
Watching the proceedings on Wednesday it was evident that the royal commissioner and her counsel assisting, Justin Greggery KC, were talking down to Morrison. How else to explain this exchange, which ran on some TV reports that evening? Greggery: “You’re linking, as I understand it, reforms with the social security system (that is, the robodebt scheme) as part of the funding required for the NDIS.” Morrison: “What I am simply saying – and, by the way, that bill is now $50bn, not $12bn when it comes to the NDIS …”
At this stage Holmes interjected: “Mr Morrison, can I just get you to stick to answering the question a bit more? I do understand that you come from a background where rhetoric’s important. But it is necessary to listen to the question and just answer it without extra detail, unnecessary detail.”
It would have come as a surprise to some viewers that Holmes regards rhetoric as part of a politician’s trade, since lawyers seem to engage in a bit of their own rhetoric from time to time. In any event, Morrison’s reference to the rising cost of the NDIS was not rhetoric, just fact, as a quick reference to the October 2022 budget would reveal.
On another occasion, Greggery spoke to the former prime minister as if he were a misbehaving schoolboy, stating: “Please don’t interrupt me. I have given you the courtesy of not interrupting your answers; I expect the same, Mr Morrison.”
Little wonder that Murphy told RN Breakfast listeners that Morrison faced a tougher time from the royal commission than he did from the Canberra press gallery. It’s a matter of record that the socially conservative Pentecostal Christian former prime minister did not have many supporters within Canberra’s fourth estate.
It’s too early to anticipate what the royal commission’s findings might be about the robodebt scheme and who might have been primarily responsible for its botched implementation.
But it’s not too early to argue that it is in the interests of good government that former prime ministers, whatever their politics, be treated with respect by journalists and lawyers alike.