Hugh Riminton: Should Scott Morrison Have Made That Phone Call?
“G’day Mick. It’s Scott…”
The Prime Minister personally calling a police commissioner to ask about a current investigation is a weighty thing. Especially when that investigation involves a senior minister of the Crown.
But these are men who know each other well.
Until Scott Morrison upgraded to Kirribilli and The Lodge, he and NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller were neighbours and -- it seemed -- mates.
Last year, Mick Fuller said Scott Morrison used to bring in Fuller’s bins on rubbish night.
“He was the Treasurer at the time,” recalled Fuller last year on 2GB. “He did tell me recently that he’s the Prime Minister now and that should be Josh Frydenberg’s job, but he won’t take my calls!”
Yesterday, it was Fuller’s turn to take the call.
Scott Morrison says he quizzed the Commissioner on the “nature and the substance” of the inquiries now underway by Strike Force Garrad. Specialist financial investigators are examining allegations of falsified numbers used by Energy Minister Angus Taylor to attack Sydney’s Lord Mayor Clover Moore over her council’s travel budget.
Fuller now says he didn't tell the Prime Minister anything beyond what was already in the press release.
Today the Commissioner went further, though, saying the investigation would "absolutely" look at whether Angus Taylor has committed a crime, if indeed a crime has been committed.
Whatever Fuller said convinced the PM that it would be safe for him not to suspend Taylor from the Ministry.
“I consider that there is no action required by me,” he told Parliament.
But the conversation itself is raising questions.
“It is a call I would not have made,” said former PM Malcolm Turnbull.
“It is always critically important that in any police inquiry, particularly something that involves a politician, that the police are and are seen to be acting entirely free of political influence.”
“I’ll tell you what Australians will be thinking today,” said Opposition leader Anthony Albanese. “They will think to themselves, ‘if one of my mates was under investigation, can I pick up the phone to the head of the police and ask for the details of that investigation on the day that it’s launched?’ I think not.”
Commissioner Fuller now insists he has no personal relationship with Scott Morrison.
"I've never visited his house, I've never been to The Lodge, I've never had a personal invitation from him to join his family or his friends," he says.
He says the reference to rubbish bins was "a joke".
Even if the police clear Taylor of any personal wrongdoing, it only gets him partly off the hook.
There is still the allegation of misleading Parliament -- traditionally in itself ground for dismissal.
He has apologised to Clover Moore for claiming the Green-tinged mayor presided over a multi-million dollar emissions-heavy travel budget. In fact, the council’s travel budget was a trifling $6,000.
But he still has left hanging the claim that he got the figures from the Council’s own website. There is no evidence the inflated numbers were ever on that website. The council says its own metadata proves they weren’t.
“What he has said is wrong, which is it came from the City of Sydney website and that is a statement he has repeated,” Mr Albanese said.
“It is clearly not the case from the metadata that’s there. That alone is enough -- if you deliberately mislead parliament, you cannot remain a minister under the Westminster system.”
Angus Taylor, a Rhodes Scholar, once touted as a future Liberal Party leader is Morrison's most accident-prone minister.
Morrison’s own “Statement of Ministerial Standards” makes it plain "it is for the Prime Minister to decide whether and when a Minister should stand aside if that Minister becomes the subject of an official investigation".
That gives the Prime Minister the political power. It also means he has no-one to blame but himself if he is left stuck with a minister who has become a liability.
Listen to Hugh Riminton and Peter Van Onselen discuss the bushfire situation and the government's reaction on the latest episode of The Professor and The Hack.