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My name’s Scott Morrison, and I have a truth problem

Mar 6, 2020 • 13m 17s

Scott Morrison has admitted he attempted to invite Hillsong founder Brian Houston to a White House dinner. But why did he deny it for so long? And is he telling the truth about his office’s involvement in the sports grants scandal?

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My name’s Scott Morrison, and I have a truth problem

177 • Mar 6, 2020

My name’s Scott Morrison, and I have a truth problem

RUBY:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.

This week Scott Morrison finally told the truth about his attempt to invite Hillsong founder Brian Houston to a White House dinner. At the same time more details have emerged about his office’s involvement in the sports grants scandal. Today, Paul Bongiorno on the bigger questions being asked about trust and the Prime Minister’s relationship to the truth.

RUBY:

Paul, hello.

PAUL:

Hi, Ruby.

RUBY:

The week started with Scott Morrison finally answering a question about his relationship with Hillsong founder Brian Houston. Can you tell me what happened?

PAUL:

Well, Ruby, this goes back to the Morrison trip to the United States last September. Back then, there was a leaked report. In fact, in one of the Murdoch papers that he'd invited the Hillsong founder, Brian Houston, to a White House presidential dinner.

But that request had been vetoed by the White House.

RUBY:

Paul Bongiorno is a columnist for The Saturday Paper.

PAUL:

At the time, Morrison dismissed the report as gossip, but far from being gossip. It was true and it has now been admitted to be true.

Archival Tape -- Reporter:

“He’s offered himself up for a quick chat this afternoon, he’s on the line from Parliament House, Prime Minister, good afternoon”

Archival Tape -- Prime Minister Scott Morrison

“G’day Ben.”

PAUL:

The Prime Minister, talking to Ben Fordham on to 2GB this week, finally admitted as much.

Archival Tape -- Prime Minister Scott Morrison

“On that occasion we put forward a number of names, that included Brian, but not everybody whose names were put forward were invited… “

PAUL:

Fordham pointed out that Houston was and is under New South Wales police investigation for his handling of his late father's paedophilia.

Morrison somewhat incredulously said that these are not things I follow closely.

Archival Tape -- Reporter

“As it turns out, he was under Police investigation, and he still is according to NSW Police - would it be fair to say you weren’t aware of that at the time when you-”

Archival Tape -- Prime Minister Scott Morrison

“No these are not things I follow closely, all I know is that they’re a very large and very well…”

PAUL:

But he did note that Brian Houston did turn up at the White House a few months later at the invitation directly of the White House. The prime minister explained that in the context of the Hillsong Church having a big network of churches across the United States. And I think it's good to remember here that key allies of the president, are, of course, the Christian right in America.

RUBY:

So, Paul, why did Scott Morrison admit to this? Now, six months later.

PAUL:

It's definitely curious, Ruby. One theory around the corridors of Parliament House was maybe someone has a piece of paper and he wanted to preempt further embarrassment. There obviously was a list that was sent to Washington.

In fact, Morrison in his chat with Ben Fordham said that others on the list were also dropped, although he didn't spell out who or why. Certainly Ben Fordham asked the question, but it was no different, you know, to the question that Morrison has refused to answer honestly for months.

RUBY:

Scott Morrison also appeared on 7:30 this week where he was questioned about his secrecy on certain issues. How did that go?

PAUL:

Well, the ABC's Leigh Sales summed up the prime minister's position pretty succinctly in a killer question on that Tuesday night edition of the show.

Archival Tape -- Leigh Sales

“When you want to talk about those big issues, peoples’ trust in you and your credibility are your most important assets. I’ve outlined two examples there, where your ministers have breached public trust, and in both cases you’re saying to voters “there’s nothing to see here” when there are still unanswered questions…”

Archival Tape -- Prime Minister Scott Morrison

“Well, no, that’s not what I said, Leigh, and you shouldn’t paraphrase me in that way. What I said is that…”

PAUL:

She cited three instances of secrecy about issues she said on the surface would seem to be no big deal.

Archival Tape -- Leigh Sales

“You won’t release the Gaetjens report into sports rorts, your office tried to conceal when you were on holidays in Hawaii in December, the government cited “national security” to avoid answering a question under FOI about whether Pastor Brian Houston was invited to a White House dinner although you’ve finally admitted this afternoon that he was invited...why all the secrecy on stuff that on the surface would seem to be not that big a deal?”

Archival Tape -- Prime Minister Scott Morrison

“Well those things aren’t that big a deal that you’ve talked about Leigh…”

Archival Tape -- Leigh Sales

“But why the secrecy then?”

Archival Tape -- Prime Minister Scott Morrison

“Leigh I’m just focused on the things I took to the Australian people”

Archival Tape -- Leigh Sales

“No no, I just want to know why the secrecy, you’re not answering what I’m asking”

PAUL:

Morrison didn't quibble. He agreed that they weren't a big deal. However, he admitted that he could have answered the question differently when he denied putting Pastor Brian Houston on the White House guest list.

Archival Tape -- Prime Minister Scott Morrison

“I mean, in relation to one of those matters, I mean, I could have been more candid at the time about it, but frankly it wasn’t a big deal…”

RUBY:

Paul, is this starting to look like a trend?

PAUL:

Well, Ruby, that is a big problem for the prime minister. Of course, if people can't trust the prime minister on the small truths, as it were, how can they trust him on the big stuff?

RUBY:

We’ll be back in a moment.

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RUBY:

Paul, we're talking about accusations that the prime minister isn't being transparent on issues affecting him and his government. Tell me about how he was pressed on this in Parliament this week.

PAUL:

Ruby Labor leader Anthony Albanese attempted to censure the prime minister in parliament and only the government's slim majority - it's one on the floor of the House - saved him.

Archival Tape -- Anthony Albanese

Thank you Mr Speaker. I seek leave to move the following motion: that the house: “1) notes that...

PAUL:

Five of the six crossbench, including the three that hold traditional non-Labor seats. In other words, center right independents supported Labor's censure. The Queensland maverick Bob Katter wasn't in the chamber to vote. That means if Morrison was in a minority, he would have lost that censure.

Archival Tape -- Anthony Albanese

“Mr Speaker, it is very clear that this Prime Minister has misled Parliament over and over again-”

Archival Tape -- Speaker

“The Leader of the Opposition will resume his seat. The leader of the House now-”

Archival Tape -- Anthony Albanese

“Thank you Mr Speaker I move that the member no longer be heard.”

PAUL:

The Senate inquiry into the Community Sport Infrastructure Grant Program, as it's called, revealed explosive new evidence of 136 emails between the prime minister's office and the Office of Sports Minister Bridget McKenzie that came out in evidence this week.

Now, Morrison has denied any decision making involvement from his office. Well, that's just no longer credible. The big question here was, well, what else would those emails be about and whether the prime minister's office was, in fact, deciding which grants were to be awarded and which were to be rejected. You know, the old saying, if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, well, it's got to be a duck.

RUBY:

So Paul you’re saying Scott Morrison’s office had a role in the approval process then?

PAUL:

Well it certainly looks that way, as I was saying, Ruby. The decisions were made, we now know from the evidence before the inquiry on colour coded charts of the political stripe of the seat. And we do know that the political stripe of the seat was more important than the meritorious assessment or the assessment on merit made by the Sport Commission.

So according to Labor's Tony Burke, “this is colour coded corruption-

Archival Tape -- Tony Burke

“and it goes right to the Prime Minister’s office!”

PAUL:

Well, that caused the government to move that Burke no longer be heard. It's a device the leader of the House used to shut down the debate.

But you know, Ruby, it also meant - and someone on the government's own backbench acknowledged this - that neither the leader of the House, nor the Prime Minister mounted a sustained, coherent defence. Almost certainly because there isn't one.

RUBY:

Mm. So will there be further attempts to investigate this sports grants scandal?

PAUL:

Well, the Senate inquiry is ongoing, and when it next sits, I think in a couple of weeks time, they're going to call the disgraced sports minister Bridget McKenzie, she can't evade it because she's a senator. But it's also revealed this week that the planned National Integrity Commission would not investigate something like the sports rorts scandal.

Archival Tape -- Fran Kelly

Attorney-General Christian Porter joins us now in our Parliament House studios. Christian Porter, welcome back to Breakfast

Archival Tape -- Christian Porter

Yes thank you Fran, good to be here.

PAUL:

The Attorney-General, Christian Porter, told RN breakfast neither the police nor Integrity Commissions investigate things that aren't offences.

Archival Tape -- Christian Porter

“There hasn't been any suggestion whatsoever that there's been a criminal offence committed or reasonably suspected by anyone…”

PAUL:

Now, I can tell you, Ruby, there's been a development late this week, and simply that's not true.

And one Victorian sports club that missed out is planning on suing the government based on the dubious legality of the way in which McKenzie exercised her discretion.

Archival Tape -- Christian Porter

“The complaint that an Integrity Commission that we might design wouldn’t investigate things that weren’t offences is kind of a circular argument-”

Archival Tape -- Fran Kelly

“Well it’s an integrity commission...it’s investigating matters of integrity, that doesn’t necessarily mean criminal offences…”

Archival Tape -- Christian Porter

“Well, that’s just not correct, so…”

PAUL:

The point here is that on the planned integrity commission, Well, that integrity commission would be a sham.

RUBY:

On that Paul, where do you think people are at with trust, both in the government more broadly and in the prime minister?

PAUL:

Well, the sad thing, Ruby, for our democracy is trusted political leadership is an essential ingredient when we're faced with the sorts of crises buffeting Australia right now, and we don't seem to have it. Morrison has gone into overdrive trying to be seen at the helm of the response to the Coronavirus health emergency.

Look, but can he be believed when he tells us how world-leading the government's been, only to have doctors warn our emergency departments are already stretched.

And GP’s say they are being left in the dark and under-resourced. There were reports late this week that, in fact, doctors are having to resort to Google to find out what's happening and they can't get access to medical masks.

So trust is being tested all over. And Morrison doesn't seem to have a compelling story to tell about why he deserves to now have it.

RUBY:

Thanks so much for talking to me today.

PAUL:

Thanks so much, Ruby. Sorry for being so gloomy.

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RUBY:

Also in the news -

The Federal Government has expanded its coronavirus travel ban to include South Korea, and added additional screening for travellers from Italy, amid fears about the spread of the disease.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has also confirmed that the existing ban on foreign nationals travelling from China and Iran to Australia has been extended for another week.

And an ex-WA Police officer has been charged with more than 100 sexual offences. He’s been accused of drugging and raping women he met online.

The offences date from 2010 up to his resignation in 2018.

7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper.

It’s produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, and Michelle Macklem.

Elle Marsh is our features and field producer, in a position supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.

Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief.

Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

New episodes of 7am are released every weekday morning. Make sure you don’t miss out by subscribing on your favourite podcast app.

I’m Ruby Jones, Monday is a public holiday, but we’ll be back on Tuesday, with a special series hosted by our editor Osman Faruqi.

This week Scott Morrison finally told the truth about his attempt to invite Hillsong founder Brian Houston to a White House dinner. At the same time more details have emerged about his office’s involvement in the sports grants scandal. Today, Paul Bongiorno on the bigger questions being asked about trust and the prime minister’s relationship to the truth.

Guest: Columnist for The Saturday Paper Paul Bongiorno.

Background reading:

Life after the Christchurch shootings in The Saturday Paper
Scott Morrison's misleading hedges in The Saturday Paper
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is hosted by Ruby Jones. The show is produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, Elle Marsh, and Michelle Macklem. Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

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177: My name’s Scott Morrison, and I have a truth problem