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Australia’s (Latest) Quiet Crisis

Lawmakers in one of the world’s leading democracies are scratching their heads over a power grab that doesn’t quite add up.

By , the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy.
Australia's former Prime Minister Scott Morrison
Australia's former Prime Minister Scott Morrison
Australia's former Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaks to media in Sydney on Aug. 17. Steven Saphore/AFP/Getty

Welcome to today’s Morning Brief, where we’re looking at Australia’s political drama, suspected Ukrainian attacks in Crimea, and Brazil’s presidential election kickoff.

Have tips or feedback? Hit reply to this email to let me know your thoughts.


Australia’s Chaotic Winter

Welcome to today’s Morning Brief, where we’re looking at Australia’s political drama, suspected Ukrainian attacks in Crimea, and Brazil’s presidential election kickoff.

Have tips or feedback? Hit reply to this email to let me know your thoughts.


Australia’s Chaotic Winter

Whether George W. Bush’s ranch retreats, Barack Obama’s rounds of golf, Donald Trump’s executive time, or Joe Biden’s extended public absences, it’s become common to accuse U.S. leaders of shirking responsibility.

That’s not the problem for Scott Morrison, Australia’s former prime minister, who was revealed on Tuesday to have secretly taken on five ministerial posts—health, finance, treasury, home affairs, and resources—for two years before he was deposed in elections last May.

Morrison reportedly held the roles in tandem with his cabinet colleagues, with some ministers unaware they were sharing positions. The news has sent shock waves through Australian politics, raising questions of overreach, accountability, and transparency at the highest levels of Australia’s government.

Morrison attempted to excuse himself on Tuesday, saying his moves were necessary at a time of increased uncertainty due to the coronavirus pandemic and in the event that members became incapacitated.

Morrison’s maneuvers are all the more bizarre for the actions (or lack thereof) taken while multitasking. “The word used by everybody here was: weird,” Anne Twomey, a constitutional law expert at the University of Sydney, told Foreign Policy, citing the fact that Morrison appeared to have acted on his powers only once—vetoing a mining deal.

“On the one hand, you could say he did it because he had delusions of grandeur and all the rest of it, but if he was wanting to become a dictator, he didn’t actually exercise the power. So what was the point of it? It’s a complete mystery to everyone.”

And although the episode has made Morrison a figure of fun in the media and online, the fact he was able to do it at all has set off alarm bells for the country’s democracy. “It is a big deal because we don’t want a precedent like this. He may not have misused it on this occasion, but someone will use it as a precedent next time, and they may well misuse it,” Twomey said.

Luckily for Morrison, his actions aren’t illegal. In keeping with its British foundations, Australia’s Parliament runs on the Westminster system, where precedent and tradition are usually the biggest guardrails.

And as the officials found in the movie Air Bud, there’s no rule against a dog playing basketball. In Morrison’s case, there’s no rule against secretly standing in for almost a quarter of your cabinet.

Those loose rules also mean there’s no way to reprimand Morrison in Parliament or among his constituents. Members of Parliament can’t be recalled, and all lawmakers can do is issue a rhetorical censure.

Instead, the battle plays out in the media. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has led a chorus of criticism, accusing Morrison of an “unprecedented trashing of our democracy” by shielding his moves from the Australian public.

New Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil, whose department oversees Australia’s intelligence apparatus, took the criticism a step further by saying that Morrison’s actions made Australia more vulnerable, citing a recent shooting incident at Canberra airport.

“What would have happened on that day if there had been two ministers for home affairs, two people with the same powers, having different views on how such a situation should have been handled? What would have happened if we had a significant terrorist attack during the time we had two ministers of home affairs?” O’Neil said.

How Australia seeks to rein in the prime minister’s power in the future remains unclear. Australia’s constitution is notoriously difficult to alter, so lawmakers will have to play around the edges if they wish to avoid a repeat offense. One solution Twomey recommends is a public register that the government must update each time a ministerial appointment is made, adding an additional layer of transparency to cabinet choices.

Such is the level of disapproval expressed by politicians across the political divide, Twomey is confident stricter safeguards will be put in place in the wake of the revelations. “The reaction to this is very strong at the political level on both sides, even though about half the community is still mystified as to why anyone cares.”


What We’re Following Today

Odinga’s rejection. Kenyan presidential candidate Raila Odinga criticized the naming of William Ruto as the victor of last week’s election as a “travesty” and vowed to fight the result in the courts. Odinga’s comments come as four out of the country’s seven election commissioners disavowed the result announced by chair Wafula Chebukati on Monday, which gave Ruto 50.8 percent of the vote. While dismissing the final tally, Odinga has also called for calm and warned his supporters against violence.

The SADC summit. Heads of state and government from 16 countries (Angola, Botswana, Comoros, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Eswatini, Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Seychelles, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe) will converge on the Congolese capital of Kinshasa today for a two-day summit of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) with a focus on regional industrialization. The meeting marks a handover of ceremonial power as Congolese President Félix Tshisekedi takes over from Malawian President Lazarus Chakwera as SADC chair.


Keep an Eye On

Brazil’s election. Brazil’s presidential election campaign officially began on Tuesday after President Jair Bolsonaro and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, himself a former president, formally launched their bids. Lula currently leads opinion polls by double digits, while Bolsonaro has made repeated claims that results could be fraudulent. Voters go to the polls on Oct. 2.

Crimea attacked. An ammunition depot in Russian-controlled Crimea was the site of several explosions on Tuesday, in another suspected attack from Ukrainian forces. No casualties have been reported, but the blasts forced the evacuation of 2,000 people from a nearby village and slowed train traffic. As with last week’s attack on a Russian air base in Crimea, Ukraine has not taken public responsibility for the attack.

Russia’s economy. Russia’s economic contraction in 2022 is predicted to be less severe than expected, according to projections from the country’s economic ministry on Tuesday. Russia’s GDP is expected to fall by 4.2 percent this year as sanctions continue to bite. Russia is also expected to post a reduced GDP in 2023, with a 2.7 percent contraction projected. Writing in Foreign Policy last month, Jeffrey Sonnenfeld and Steven Tian explained why Russia’s economy is on much shakier ground than it appears.


Tuesday’s Most Read

How Nancy Pelosi’s Taiwan Gambit Backfired by Craig Singleton

More Chinese Military Bases in Africa: A Question of When, Not If by Eric A. Miller

New Congressional Report: U.S.-Trained Afghan Special Forces Forced to Flee to Iran by Jack Detsch and Robbie Gramer


Odds and Ends

U.S. and Australian researchers are attempting to turn back the clock on the Tasmanian tiger, a native Australian marsupial that was hunted to extinction in the early 20th century. The group attempts to use stem cells and gene editing to revive the animal, with a goal of reintroducing it into the wild in the next decade.

The project has been dismissed as “fairytale science” by its detractors. It’s unlikely to stop a research team that includes the same company vying to bring back the wooly mammoth.


That’s it for today

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Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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