I could open with pro-forma generosity, noting politicians are humans, and they, like the rest of us, sometimes forget things, and have rushes of blood to the head.
But honestly, we are well past that.
We are facing the unnerving proposition that Australia’s 30th prime minister struggles to differentiate fact from fiction. What happened on Monday was deeply disconcerting, and all the more troubling because this conduct is an established pattern of behaviour.
Labor came into question time with a simple objective: to pin Scott Morrison as a liar. We have entered the final two parliamentary sitting weeks of 2021, the federal election is now only a few months away, and Labor has a narrow window of opportunity to try to first define, then rapid set Morrison’s negative characteristics with Australian voters.
Labor has been pounding away on Morrison’s trustworthiness for much of the back half of this year. Only a couple of weeks ago, the French president, Emmanuel Macron, declared Morrison had lied to him in the lead-up to the cancellation of a multibillion dollar submarine contract. Monday was the first time parliament has sat since Macron’s sensational j’accuse on the sidelines of the G20.
Questions front-loaded with Morrison’s own conflicting statements came at him thick and fast from the opening of Monday’s session, and unfortunately for the prime minister, there’s an extensive back catalogue to draw on.
One of the questions related to the events of December 2019. Morrison was asked about his decision to leave Australia during the catastrophic bushfires and holiday with his family in Hawaii.
The Labor backbencher, Fiona Phillips, bowled her scripted bouncer: “When my electorate was burning, the prime minister’s office told journalists he was not on holiday in Hawaii. Why did the prime minister’s office say that when it wasn’t true?”
Morrison answered the charge of institutional deception by declaring he had texted Albanese on the plane when he took off for the infamous overseas holiday “and told him where I was going and he was fully aware of where I was travelling with my family”.
There was a significant problem with Morrison’s self-exoneration.
It was completely untrue.
Albanese corrected Morrison and the Hansard record very shortly after. He told the House of Representatives Morrison had texted him at 9.44pm on December 15 2019 to impart the news he was going on leave.
“He did not tell me where he was going,” the Labor leader said.
“He said he was going with his family. I kept that text message confidential, as you do, with private text messages between private phones.”
Albanese said Morrison had subsequently disclosed the heads-up during a radio interview. “That was the first time [the text] became public. But at no stage did he tell me where he was going.”
Now it’s possible at this point in the recount this whole fracas might sound like a distinction without a difference. Morrison told Albanese he was going on leave, so why does the ultimate destination matter?
The answer to that question is simple. Morrison’s staff were so sensitive about the destination becoming known to voters they went to great lengths to conceal the bosses’ holiday in Hawaii. A holiday in Hawaii in the middle of a catastrophe was a very bad look for any prime minister.
It was known Morrison was on annual leave. Michael McCormack was acting prime minister. But there was no timely transparency about the destination, and the destination was politically potent.
Given how heavily that whole issue was contested, and how long that negative symbolism has endured, you would think if you were Morrison, you would remember reasonably vividly what you said to whom at various points in the whole drama.
So why lie?
And why lie on an issue that even the most disengaged voter in the country would actually remember?
After Albanese corrected the record, a visibly irritated Morrison then corrected his own untruth while blaming the Labor leader for provoking him. The prime minister acknowledged he had told the opposition leader he was going on holiday (“and that was the important thing”) but he hadn’t told him where he was going. “Mr Speaker [Albanese] chose to politicise that and has done so ever since.”
An hour or so later, Morrison had another go at trying to clean up. “I wanted to confirm what the leader of the opposition said that in that text I did not tell him the destination of where I was going on leave with my family.”
“I simply communicated to him that I was taking leave. When I was referring to ‘he knew where I was going and was fully aware I was travelling with my family’ what I meant was that we were going on leave together,” Morrison said.
“I know I did not tell him where we were going because that is a private matter where members take leave and I know I did not tell him the destination, nor would I, nor would he expect me to have told him where [I] was going. I simply told him that I was taking leave with my family and he was aware of that at that time”.
Perhaps Morrison is working on a supposition that voters don’t care about politicians lying because they assume all politicians lie. Perhaps he really is that cynical.
Perhaps the prime minister is retreating into a world where truth is defined by what is true to him. When you believe something to be true, is it really a lie?
Is this character, or strategy? Perhaps Morrison thinks he’s just escalating various distractions before a close election contest, rendering politics a hall of distorting mirrors. Perhaps you get to a point where you reposition so kinetically and so often (and that is Morrison’s hallmark) you can’t remember what you said yesterday.
But whatever the explanation, the behaviour is corrosive.
It seems extraordinary that a prime minister who worked, I believe genuinely, to rebuild trust in institutions, including the Australian prime ministership, during the pandemic, could so willingly abandon that advantage.