New South Wales police launched an investigation into how that document came to exist. That’s when Morrison picked up the phone to the NSW Police Commissioner, Mick Fuller.
Morrison still insists there was nothing wrong with making the call. Well, Prime Minister, there’s plenty wrong with it. It’s a clear breach of the doctrine of separation of powers.
As far back as Aristotle in ancient Greece people have recognised the danger of too much power being held by one absolute ruler. Aristotle held that a true democracy distinguished between those who deliberated over the laws, those who administered them and the judiciary.
This golden thread of sharing power so as not to see it abused has been handed down to us through history. The Glorious Revolution of 1688 established that both the king and parliament had a social contract with the people. No power was absolute.
The idea was expressed best 60 years later by the French writer Montesquieu: “Constant experience shows us that every man invested with power is apt to abuse it … To prevent this abuse it is necessary from the very nature of things that power should be a check to power.”
The framers of our constitution were influenced by Enlightenment thought and especially by the American constitution. So, they made an explicit delineation between the powers vested in the Parliament to make laws, the executive (from ministers in the cabinet down through every government agency, such as the police) to administer them and then the judiciary to make rulings over them.
It’s an ancient idea but one we too often take for granted. But these are not dry, dusty legalistic notions. They form the bedrock on which our free society is based. They can’t be casually tossed aside if they get in the way of scoring a cheap political point.
To use a simple analogy, if the captain of Collingwood had a private meeting with the umpires before a big match, even if the call was innocent, it would make us all question the very foundations of the competition.
If you want a picture of what life is like without the separation of powers just look at Russia, China or North Korea, where a leader can order the police to arrest any inconvenient citizen and then have a quiet word with the judge to make sure the court arrives at the “correct” verdict.
To come back to the idea of trust, we have to trust that people who hold high office are fully aware of their responsibilities and the weight of history that anchors the rules of government. Morrison’s reckless and unthinking disregard for those principles should alarm us all.
The freedoms we take for granted depend on a respect for history and our constitution. That’s especially so today when the shrillest voices get so much airtime and our democracy seems so vulnerable.
Duncan Fine is a lawyer and regular columnist.