Among the slew of mostly predictable speeches that culminated in the first-ever House of Representatives censure of a former prime minister, one stood out.
Bridget Archer, Liberal backbencher from Tasmania, was brief and brave, as she told the house she’d vote to censure her former leader.
The point is not diminished by Archer being something of a habitual rebel. This was a situation totally out of the ordinary.
Having “relentlessly advocated for more integrity in politics”, to “sit quietly now would be hypocritical,” Archer said, as the parliament debated Scott Morrison’s unprecedented move to have himself installed, almost entirely in secret, into multiple ministries.
In a few sentences Archer cut to the chase, rejecting Morrison’s actions, explanation and absence of contrition in the speech he had just delivered to the house.
The Australian people had a right to be informed, she said. “What can be more fundamental than this?” She was “deeply disappointed by the lack of genuine apology”. More importantly, by the failure to understand the impact of what he’d done.
There were things that sat above the cut and thrust of politics, with the motion going to “our system of democracy”, Archer said.
“This issue also sits at the heart of the ability of our party to move forward,” she said. “This is a clear opportunity for a line to be drawn and to move in the right direction. We must heed the message sent to us at the May election – learn those lessons, reset and move forward constructively.”
Archer was the only Liberal to vote for the motion. But Karen Andrews, who has previously said Morrison should quit parliament, abstained. Morrison was Andrews’ secret co-partner in home affairs.
Unsurprisingly, the opposition generally did not use this as a moment to reject its former prime minister.
Rather the Coalition, denouncing the motion as grubby politics, tried to defend – or, more accurately, to at least provide fig leaves for – his indefensible conduct. However, its heart clearly wasn’t in the effort.
Opposition Leader Peter Dutton – who has previously criticised Morrison’s behaviour – didn’t even make a token effort, remaining silent. One can see this as squibbing his duty, condemning Morrison by conspicuous silence, or just finding it all too hard.
The censure condemned Morrison for “failing to disclose his appointments to the House of Representatives, the Australian people and the cabinet, which undermined responsible government and eroded public trust in Australia’s democracy”.
Moving the motion, Leader of the House Tony Burke said the multiple ministries had breached “the absolute core” of responsible government.
“That entire concept of responsible government only works if the parliament and, through the parliament, the Australian people know which members of the executive are responsible for what.
“There is no previous Liberal prime minister where this sort of motion would ever be moved,” Burke said.
Morrison, speaking immediately after Burke, gave a defiant response, repeating many of the arguments he has made previously.
He had no intention of “submitting to the political intimidation of this government using its numbers to impose its retribution on its political opponents”.
He argued: “Just because a minister is sworn to administer a department does not mean they ‘hold the office as minister’ for that portfolio. This means it is a falsehood to state that I was the minister for health or any of the other portfolios that were the subject of the Bell Inquiry.”
This sits at odds with his profile on the official parliamentary website, which indeed now records him as “minister for health”, from March 14 2020 until May 23 2022. His other multi-ministries are also listed, with the relevant dates.
Morrison suggested that if anyone had asked at his “numerous press conferences”, he would have “responded truthfully about the arrangements I had put in place”.
The censure motion was “entirely partisan”, he said, but “I will take the instruction of my faith and turn the other cheek”.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese positioned himself carefully, leaving ministers – including Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus, who seconded the motion – to carry the debate, but intervening down the list of speakers to deliver an all-round spray against his predecessor.
He said Morrison “owes an apology to the Australian people for the undermining of democracy, and that’s why this motion should be supported by every member of this house”.
There was a note of more-in-sorrow-than-anger in some of the speeches from crossbenchers, but also clear firmness. Integrity had been at the heart of the teal campaigns, a springboard for their arrival in parliament. But, keeping their contributions short, crossbenchers were also aware of the politics being played in this motion, as Labor keeps the spotlight shining on Morrison.
After a three-hour debate the censure was carried 86-50. The Greens voted for it, along with crossbenchers Sophie Scamps, Kylea Tink, Zoe Daniel, Allegra Spender, Monique Ryan, Andrew Wilkie, Helen Haines, Rebekha Sharkie and Zali Steggall.
Morrison’s public trials are far from over. On December 14, the former treasurer and former social services minister will appear before the Robodebt royal commission. As former High Court judge Virginia Bell said in her report, Morrison’s multi-ministry affair had, in practice, limited effect, wrong as his action was. Robodebt, in contrast, had devastating practical implications for a great many people’s lives.