(Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

The premise to what follows is a simple proposition: Scott Morrison is incompetent to lead this country at this time. 

I put that up, not because it’s my opinion (although it is), but because we should consider what happens if it’s right.

In the ordinary run of things, having a hopeless hack as our prime minister isn’t that much of a biggy. Australia has thrived under leadership that has mostly ranged from terrible to uninspiring.

There was a moment when we actually needed something better. That was in 1941, when Australia was facing the real possibility of a hostile invasion, and its whole army was elsewhere defending the Empire. That’s when we got John Curtin, and when he died in 1945, Ben Chifley. Leaders who knew how to lead.

The British had hit their nadir 18 months earlier, with the fall of France.  Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had been carrying the stain of his earlier appeasement of Hitler, compounded by his having the personal charisma of a long-deceased haddock. Finally Chamberlain knew he had to go, making way for Winston Churchill. Enough said.

Well, we’re there again. The fact that none of us (under 80) knows what it means to live through something genuinely existential may retard us in realising the depth of the shit we are in, but I think we’re all coming around.

More than a million Australians have just or will shortly become unemployed. The economy has ceased. People are going to die.

If Scott Morrison is our Chamberlain, and people whose opinion matters agree, then what? 

Who can sack a prime minister? Well, not us. The Australian constitution makes no mention of the PM. It vests all of the powers of the executive government, the body which runs the country, in the governor-general as the Queen’s representative. Not at all anachronistic. 

It’s the GG’s signature that makes laws real, and he or she appoints ministers to run the departments of government.

The convention is that the government in practice is run by the party which has the confidence of the House of Representatives, usually because it has the numbers (or sometimes with the help of cross-benchers).  The governor-general always goes along with that. 

Okay, not quite always (see Sir John Kerr, below).

The same convention says that, if the government loses a vote of no confidence on the floor of the House, it is finished. Its leader goes out with the bathwater. So that’s one way to remove Morrison: dislodge a couple of grumpy Coalition backbenchers and get the numbers in the Reps to roll him on a no confidence motion. 

Problem: parliament, or the collective of gutless, irresponsible time-servers we call parliament, has called time on itself and will be on holiday (on full pay) until at least August. 

The second option is that the prime minister ceases to be the leader of his own party, necessitating (again, by convention, not law) that he heads to Yarralumla and resigns his commission. Achieving that used to be easy; you just needed Niki Savva to drop some hints in her column about leadership rumblings, and it’d be over by the next day. 

The Liberals, like Labor, have now entrenched their leaders more firmly with rules about leadership coups, but the rules can be changed. If, hypothetically, a sufficient number of Liberal MPs have also noticed how good a job Morrison has been doing and occasionally think about the national interest (yes, big ask), then they could do him in a heartbeat.

Problem: we could easily get someone even worse. Looking around the Liberal party room, there is no obvious candidate capable of exercising serious and authentic leadership, at least not one with a chance of getting the numbers.

Which brings us to the nuclear option: back to the governor-general (presently a he). I mentioned that, if you just read the constitution, you’d think he was as powerful as Putin. But convention (that word again) promises that he’s not. He follows the advice of the prime minister, in practice.

Sir John Kerr did not. He sacked Gough Whitlam, installed Malcolm Fraser, and then dissolved both houses of parliament altogether.  To do so, he used his explicit constitutional power to remove ministers (under section 64, ministers serve at his pleasure), as well as his more controversial “reserve powers”.

The reserve powers are undefined and their extent is anything but certain.  The underpinning theory of the constitutional arrangement is that the governor-general is our backstop; if he doesn’t like what’s going on, he can step in and fix it. Including by removing the prime minister, and perhaps (in extremis) governing alone.

The present crisis would not justify that. It does justify parliament, the people we pay to mind our national interest, coming together, acknowledging collectively that it has not placed the best person in the job to lead us through this emergency, and replacing him with someone who can. Even better, with a government of national unity behind them.

The politics of that are their problem. This is about their responsibility.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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