His campaign to stop the boats made him the government’s toughest minister, but a new portfolio has Scott Morrison remodelling. By Mike Seccombe.

Social Services Minister Scott Morrison’s ‘fluffy’ new image

Minister Scott Morrison at the National Press Club.
Minister Scott Morrison at the National Press Club.

Scott Morrison, the hardest of hard nuts in the Abbott team, is now presenting as a voice of moderation, his simplistic sloganeering about stopping the boats replaced with more nuanced messaging. 

The man known for his haughty refusal to engage with advocates of policy change is suddenly accessible, receptive, even charming to them. The dictatorial minister for immigration has become the consultative minister for social services.

It’s a change so dramatic and sudden as to encourage cynicism.

“I’ve started to call him ‘Fluffy Morrison’,” says one senior executive in a welfare organisation, who has had extensive dealings with the new minister. 

The man now in charge of Australia’s biggest-spending ministry might not even object to the joke. He has certainly been working hard to fluff up his image.

He chose The Sydney Morning Herald, not the Murdoch press or populist radio, to advertise his new persona recently.

“I have no need or interest or desire to take this policy area into a combative space,” he said in the interview, in which he also declared his intention to co-operate with the Labor opposition towards bipartisan reform, and declared himself not “wedded ideologically” to some of the government’s previously announced harsh welfare reforms.

It was a stark departure from the minister we thought we knew.

If there was one incident that more than any other defined Scott Morrison as a tough bastard, it happened early in 2011. February 14, to be precise, after it became known that the previous Labor government was meeting the costs of flying 21 survivors of the shipwreck of an asylum-seeker boat on Christmas Island to Sydney for the funerals of family members who had died.

Morrison, then a year into his role as opposition immigration spokesman, set about determinedly exploiting this tragedy for political purposes. 

And where better to stir people’s nastiest instincts than on Sydney radio 2GB? On air, he damned the exercise as a waste of taxpayers’ money. He didn’t stop there, though. Morrison bobbed up all over the place, before cameras and microphones, spreading his mean-spirited message.

In the grand sweep of things, it was a tiny issue. As one commentator tartly noted, the total expense to the taxpayer was probably “less than the $80,000 it will cost to replace the taxpayer-funded Toyota LandCruiser that Barnaby Joyce trashed before Christmas while trying to cross a swollen creek”.

But elements of the media, largely Murdoch’s papers and radio shock jocks, quickly made it big. They were all over the issue like an ugly rash, encouraging resentment of the bereaved asylum seekers.

The Australian carried out an online poll of its readers, and of the nearly 78,000 who voted, almost 97 per cent backed Morrison’s view. In a similar poll of nearly 18,000 Sydney Morning Herald readers, only 31 per cent agreed with him. The figures point to Morrison’s astute understanding of the way the issue could be used to stir up the punitive right in the electorate.

They say something, too, about the courage of Joe Hockey. Whatever his ministerial failings, Hockey occasionally displays a degree of human decency that is otherwise sadly lacking among his conservative colleagues and their supporters.

Hockey was prepared to defy the shock jocks, the right-wing press and the vindictive base of his party and do what his leader Tony Abbott would not.

He swatted Morrison down, telling reporters in Sydney: “I would never seek to deny a parent or a child from saying goodbye to their relative. No matter what the colour of your skin, no matter what the nature of your faith, if your child has died or a father has died, you want to be there for the ceremony to say goodbye, and I totally understand the importance of this to those families.’’ 

It was one of his proudest moments, and resulted in a backdown of sorts. Morrison conceded his timing had been insensitive, although he never apologised for the substance of his remarks.

Hockey’s political star is now fading, while Morrison’s continues to burn ever brighter. Which seems to go to the old saying about what happens to nice guys.

But wait. Scott Morrison is now a nice guy – or so we are asked to believe.

The question is whether we can trust the sincerity of this man whose overweening ambition has always been obvious and whose motivations have always been equally obscure.

The tentative answer from those who have had most to do with him in his new ministerial role, members of the welfare lobby, is that the early signs are encouraging.

But with Morrison you never really know. His political history shows a chameleon-like capacity to change to match his surroundings. In this he is quite unlike Abbott or Kevin Andrews, the man he replaced as minister, both of whose social conservatism was always utterly fixed.

1 . Skill as an organiser

Morrison was a political machine man before he sought elected office and his defining trait was never his ideology but his consummate skill as an organiser. In 2000 he became the New South Wales Liberal party director. John Howard declared that the organisation had never run more smoothly.

In 2007, when one of the federal party’s few remaining moderates, Bruce Baird, gave up his unrewarded political life as a Howard government backbencher, Morrison entered the preselection contest for his seat of Cook, in south-eastern Sydney.

He was comprehensively beaten by the right’s Michael Towke. But Towke was immediately subjected to a smear campaign. The source of the smears was never clear, although the primary vehicle was Murdoch’s Sydney tabloid The Daily Telegraph. Although Towke successfully sued over the allegations, they were enough to deter the party’s state executive from endorsing him.

A fresh ballot was held and Morrison installed as a non-factional compromise candidate.

In his first speech to parliament, Morrison gave the impression of being a very small “l” liberal. As Nick Bryant wrote in The Monthly magazine: “Not only did he acknowledge the traditional owners, honour Desmond Tutu and William Wilberforce, quote Bono and pay tribute to Bruce Baird, he made reference to Kevin Rudd’s national apology to Indigenous Australians that had brought the chamber to its feet the previous day.”

“Much of the speech could easily have been penned by Malcolm Fraser,” suggested Bryant, who went on to quote Morrison’s father saying the speech represented the real Scott.

It is hard to reconcile this Morrison with the one we heard on 2GB barely three years later.

The man’s own rationalisation of his harsh border protection policy was that it saved lives at sea. But the ginning up of the funerals issue belies that excuse. Those lives had already been lost. He sought only to find political advantage in the grieving.

To sum up, Morrison stood for office as a non-aligned cleanskin, started out in parliament as a moderate under the moderate leadership of Malcolm Turnbull, and swung with the party under Abbott to become the darling of the right.

And now, with the Abbott regime in decline and the dawning realisation that the Coalition government has swerved too far from the political centre, Morrison is again a moderate.

It is tempting to offer the cynical analysis that it is all about positioning himself for political life after Abbott. And there is further evidence to support that interpretation.

The popular wisdom has it that Morrison would become treasurer if Turnbull supplanted Abbott as PM. That’s as may be. But it is very clear that Morrison and Turnbull have patched up past differences, are in frequent contact and are not even trying to hide it.

“They’re dating again,” said one recent story, noting they shared two meals at Canberra restaurants in three days, one of them at an “outside table, no less”.

But to suggest Morrison’s shift is just about ambition is to sell him short, for it pays insufficient regard to his circumstances and his competence.

2 . Fixer not ideologue

In his interview with the Herald, he declared himself to be a fixer rather then an ideologue. And that rings true, given his history. Assigned a particular task, he will seek an outcome, using whatever methods he deems necessary. If that means, as it did in immigration, being harsh and divisive, so be it. As they said in The Godfather, “It’s not personal, it’s just business.”

Rob Oakeshott, the former independent MP, can attest to that. He knows Morrison well. There is a family connection, and some years ago the two men retraced the route of the Sandakan death march together.

“With most politicians,” Oakeshott says, “there is that separation between the private and the public face. And I think Scott’s a really good example of that. Personally he’s a really good guy. He’s personable and charming and good company.”

But dealing with Morrison politically during the period when he was opposition immigration spokesman, says Oakeshott, was “enormously frustrating”.

“You just couldn’t pin him down. In my view, he was playing games for their political benefit. They didn’t want to resolve anything in that period, because it was to their benefit that it wasn’t resolved.”

Morrison’s style is a bit reminiscent of the archetypal Labor fixer, Graham “Whatever It Takes” Richardson.

“Richo”, the meaty Machiavelli of the NSW Right and denizen of a thousand smoky backrooms, was incongruously appointed minister for the environment and proceeded to make it an election-winning issue. When shifted to communications he immediately stopped hugging trees and embraced Kerry Packer instead.

These days a commentator for Sky News, Richo clearly recognises in Morrison a kindred spirit. He schmoozed the minister on air in late January: “You’re the tough guy of the place, you also know which way is up. I think you know the electorate pretty well, I don’t think you live in some on-high castle. I think you’ve been pretty good at what you do.” 

Morrison’s new constituency in the welfare sector also recognises him as highly competent.

David Crosbie, CEO of the umbrella group, the Community Council of Australia, says: “There are two important things to say about Morrison. First, he does the work. He knows his brief. Second, you get the feeling that he is listening. He’s not necessarily committing, but he is listening.”

This contrasts with his predecessor, Andrews, whose strong conservative ideology saw him lose the respect of the sector. Andrews’ intentions were good, says Crosbie, but “were not always matched by those around him”.

Kasy Chambers, executive director of Anglicare, also sees a welcome contrast not just in the minister but in his staff.

“One measure of a politician is who they have around them,” she says. “He seems to have put together an office reflective of what I see in him, which is optimistic and solution focused.”

She is encouraged that one of Morrison’s first actions as minister was to dump one of Andrews’ pet projects, which allocated scarce resources to 100,000 relationship counselling vouchers for couples. Only a few thousand people ever attended a counselling session.

“That was a very personal hobbyhorse of Minister Andrews,” Chambers says. “Morrison couldn’t signal better that he was a different minister from the last one.”

Cassandra Goldie, CEO of the Australian Council of Social Service, also saw that decision as an important indicator that he was not wedded to anachronistic ideas of family values.

“He has certainly a much more pragmatic view on modern society,” she says. “He doesn’t care about what choices families make, but about making sure Australian families have the choices available.”

In early discussions, Morrison has indicated he is not committed to the policy of cutting access to the dole for young unemployed, driven through cabinet by Abbott and his chief of staff, Peta Credlin. Nor does he appear to share Andrews’ determination to abolish the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission, the national regulator strongly supported by the sector.

He has brought a measure of order to the chaos surrounding funding cuts, although he has not yet reversed the cuts themselves.

But the sector heavyweights all say he has indicated a preparedness to at least consider alternative savings measures.

That’s not to say they entirely trust the new, fluffy Morrison. But they at least respect his competence and the fact that he has not resorted to the sort of negative stereotyping the government has previously employed about welfare recipients and which he used against asylum seekers.

They live in hope that their new man will elevate the discussion about welfare policy to a more mature level. That he will be, to misquote his prime minister, a lifter not a demeaner.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 7, 2015 as "The making of ‘Fluffy Morrison’".

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Mike Seccombe is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.

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