Scott Morrison managed to check in at a Washington DC church before flying out to a cardboard box factory in Wapakoneta, Ohio last Sunday. His handlers didn’t say what denomination the church was, and wouldn’t disclose the location, but we can be fairly sure it was an evangelical organisation sharing the prime minister’s belief in the prosperity gospel of material reward for faith.
Today, Morrison arrived back in Australia — after quite a week in the US. He navigated a freewheeling, impromptu Oval Office press conference, got honoured at a state dinner, suffered an Ohio Trump rally, lectured the Chinese on trade, and moaned at a United Nations General Assembly address about being misrepresented.
However, the issue of Morrison’s religious ties might be the most telling thing to come out of the trip, potentially posing a problem for the PM in the future. While our leader was shuffling between a formal lunch at the State Department and the bells and whistles state dinner at the White House, the influential Wall Street Journal was reporting an invitation-gone-wrong side story.
According to the Murdoch-owned journal, Australian officials had included Brian Houston, controversial Hillsong Church leader and close religious mentor of Morrison, on their wish-list of guests. US officials did some brief due-diligence and decided that, because of the failure to disclose the significant cloud over the pastor’s behaviour, Houston was going to be a persona non grata.
According to New South Wales police, Houston is still under investigation for failing to be fully forthcoming about child sex crimes committed by his father Frank, who died in 2004.
After the WSJ story broke, travelling journalists asked the PM’s staff about the Houston snub and received a standard non-response: the invitation list for the state dinner was entirely a matter for the White House.
Later, when Morrison fronted the media, and was asked the same question about the pastor’s rejected invitation, he went into full deflection and avoidance. It’s a very familiar style, easily recognised by any close observer of the PM.
“I don’t comment on gossip, honestly,” he said. “It’s all gossip.” Despite being repeatedly pressed and urged to clarify what he meant by “gossip”, all he added was, “I think I’ve answered the question.”
Of course, Morrison did not deny the story and refused to give it anything but the absolute minimum amount of news oxygen. In Australia, Houston tried to squeeze his way out of the story, saying he hadn’t had any contact with the prime minister, the White House, or anyone else.
“I have had no invitation to the White House and I have had no discussion with the prime minister or anyone else about this,” said Houston. “As far as I’m concerned this is baseless rumour and totally false news.”
By Thursday, Hillsong was issuing heavy-handed threats to the media, saying that the reporting on the invitation request was factually incorrect and highly defamatory. “We call on the media and others to immediately stop making these spurious claims,” a statement read. Hillsong went on to say they’d directed their lawyers to review articles and take legal action on anything they saw, in stories or on social media, as smears to Brian Houston’s reputation.
Morrison’s “non-denial denial” suggests that he didn’t want to make any admission, because there might be a piece of paper in Canberra or Washington that would rebut a denial. A Freedom of Information search in either the US or Australian capital might trip up any loose words, which would explain why Morrison’s response was so tightly scripted.
Morrison’s closeness to Houston is well known. He acknowledged him in his 2008 maiden speech to parliament as being of “great assistance”, and recognised him as a personal mentor. In July, Morrison and his wife Jenny stood beside Pastor Houston as they led a 1000-strong congregation in prayer.
Morrison has made his religion a factor in his political life, commonly referencing it and allowing television cameras into evangelical services he’s attended.
At that July Hillsong event, Morrison finished his televised prayer by saying he had one more person to pray for. Houston jumped in and said “pray for me”. After some awkward silence, Morrison added a call to pray for “more love and less judgement”.
Many people believe Morrison is too close to Houston and that the relationship will be a problem for the prime minister at some point — perhaps quite soon. The fact that he tried to get Houston invited to the White House dinner was a failure of judgment and it will return as a problem for the PM.
That’s why this otherwise minor event will be the lasting and most difficult controversy to come out of Morrison’s grand adventure to the USA.
Dennis Atkins is a freelance writer based in Brisbane where he was a national political editor during the Howard Government. He is filling in for part of the time while Bernard Keane is enjoying a break.