PM, we have a problem with Houston … and the pillars of democracy


Why did he answer the question honestly, finally? It probably had something to do with Fordham’s preamble. “I promised my listeners I would [ask], including some people who have been, sadly, victims of child sexual abuse, and I have to keep my promise to them,” Fordham told the PM.

Listeners of the Sydney radio station beloved by the Liberal base, listeners who are survivors of child sex abuse – are we still in the Canberra bubble?

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has confirmed at last that he asked the White House to invite Hillsong founder and his spiritual mentor Brian Houston to a state dinner in Washington last year. Credit: Alex Ellinghausen, Trevor Collens

Houston, Morrison’s mentor and close friend, was censured by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse for failing to report to police his father, Frank Houston, when he confessed to sexually abusing a boy in his ministry. Houston the younger removed his father from ministry, with a retirement package, but the older man never faced justice before his death in 2004. He had seven reported victims.

Brian Houston has defended his actions on several grounds, including a disputed claim that one of the victims did not want police involvement. NSW police have said their investigation into the matter is still open. In 2016, Houston declined to be interviewed or assist police with the matter.

Houston, incidentally, dismissed the report of his White House invitation as “fake news” and said he “had no discussion with the Prime Minister or anyone else about this”. That is surprising. I thought Morrison would have mentioned to his close friend that he was trying to jag him an invitation to a fancy White House dinner. It’s kind of a big deal.

Why does any of it matter?

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Because it adds to a slow-forming impression that the Prime Minister cordons off parts of his public role as private and therefore nobody’s business but his own. The cordoned-off space is unaccountable and when he is challenged to be accountable for it, he obfuscates, gets irritable and implies it is the questioning which is out of order, not his own secrecy.

We saw this with his office’s deception over his Hawaii holiday, which left journalists in the ridiculous position of being unable to confirm who was actually in charge of the country.

We see it in the sports grants affair, where Morrison has tried several tacks to elude responsibility for the allocation of taxpayer money to applications which, according to the Audit Office, were “not those that had been assessed as the most meritorious”.

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The Prime Minister has maintained a line that “all projects were eligible” and he instituted an investigation by his department which ended up deposing the minister responsible, Bridget McKenzie. He has refused to release the findings of that investigation.

Now it has become impossible for him to deny the involvement of his own office in the affair. It has emerged that 136 emails were sent between his office and then-sports minister McKenzie’s, including a spreadsheet of programs that was colour-coded by electorate. Crucially, changes to the program were made after the caretaker period of government commenced on April 4 last year. On Thursday McKenzie emerged to say she didn’t make those changes. So who did?

Unseen hands changing documents in a traceless digital netherworld … it brings to mind Energy Minister Angus Taylor. This week Taylor emerged from political quarantine to front ABC’s 7.30, but failed to enlighten viewers on the reasons his office sent a doctored document to a journalist with the clear intent of stitching up Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore.

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A pattern is beginning to emerge.

We have an apparent breach of caretaker conventions, a minister’s office sending out woeful misinformation to journalists and the inclusion of Defence imagery in a promotional video Morrison controversially released at the height of the summer bushfires (something that “discomfited” ADF Chief Angus Campbell, he told Senate Estimates this week).

We have the obfuscation and secrecy over the Hawaii holiday and the Houston White House invitation.

Democracy, and much of the law, is a fiction, or at least an abstract, only as strong as the people who abide by the web of conventions that holds it together. The conventions of respecting the caretaker period of government, for example, or of not including the armed forces in what is essentially a political advertisement, are not iron-clad laws that independently police themselves. They work only insofar as they are respected by the political and bureaucratic classes.

There have always been people in public life who have disrespected the institutions, conventions and laws that constitute democracy. But a pervasive culture of incremental disregard for those conventions is something new, emboldened, perhaps, by the post-shame global environment, where the British Prime Minister can unlawfully prorogue parliament for political reasons, and the US President can urge a foreign power to investigate the son of a political opponent while shaking off multiple credible accusations of sexual assault and harassment.

You might say our petty domestic scandals should be put aside now we are facing a major health and economic crisis that no one can know the end of. But if we can’t trust our politicians to respect the conventions of fairness and transparency in ordinary times, imagine what they will be able to get away with under the cover of an all-engulfing crisis.

Twitter: @JacquelineMaley

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