This trend of democratic decline has been accompanied by a rise in the appeal of the strongman governance model, a type of goal-oriented leadership that ignores democratic processes and norms.
“As prime minister, only I could truly understand the weight of the responsibility that fell on my shoulders, and no one else,” Morrison said.
“And as a result, I made decisions that I felt I needed to make.”
This statement strongly echoes the inaugural speech of former US President Donald Trump, in which he presented a dystopian vision of American society and stated: “I alone can fix this.”
The erosion of trust in elected officials and the perception or actual occurrence of corruption provided an opportunity for anti-democratic forces to capture the discontented and disenfranchised.
I am not suggesting that exposure of Morrison’s secret portfolios will lead to a surge in far-right, anti-government and anti-democratic extremism. Extremism and polarization do not emerge all at once, but gradually, over time.
However, the behavior of elected officials, especially their honesty and transparency, or lack thereof, determines the health of our democracy. When people do not see themselves as represented in mainstream politics, see their politicians as corrupt or untrustworthy, and can no longer trust government institutions and leaders, they either relinquish their obligations as democratic citizens or look for alternatives. Some of them are radical, legitimizing violence and further delegitimizing democracy.
We have seen in the past that crises such as the pandemic have been used as opportunities to strengthen executive power in both non-democratic and democratic countries.
Some anti-democratic movements in Australia, especially those that emerged during Canberra’s response to the pandemic, are already arguing that Morrison’s clandestine ministerial appointments were evidence of what they say has been going on all along – a “secret cabal” controlling our lives and COVID. -19 measures that were attempts at authoritarian control.
Speaking to reporters, Morrison has repeatedly stated that his ministerial appointments are in fact a form of emergency powers. But in democracies, a state of emergency must be officially declared, and its acceptance of additional portfolios was not.
Morrison also argues that since he did not use these powers, there is no cause for concern and that since he was elected Prime Minister, his actions showed that he did not act in an undemocratic or illegal manner. But democracies are more than elections, they are based on norms and principles that we cannot always legislate, but that all citizens, especially elected leaders, must abide by.
That’s why it’s so important that both sides of the government condemn Morrison’s actions almost universally.
Not politicizing the issue will limit the damage from Morrison’s covert maneuvers and blunt the opportunity for anti-democratic forces to capitalize on this episode. Unlike the US Republican Party, which facilitated and justified Trump’s mendacity, the Coalition has so far resisted partisan defense.
This will go a long way in mitigating the damage.
Lydia Khalil is a research fellow at the Lowy Institute. Her book The Rise of the Far Right Is the New Global Extremism and a Threat to Democracy will be published by Penguin Books next week.