Inside the broad church of Scott Morrison
Prime Minister Scott Morrison was described this week as the Coalition’s “great unifier”, but his new ministry, sworn in on Wednesday, shows he is willing to wield his new unrivalled authority, garnered from his stunning election victory.
Needing to replace a clutch of cabinet ministers who resigned from parliament ahead of the election, including leading moderates Christopher Pyne and Kelly O’Dwyer, Morrison has taken the opportunity to ensure that three of the five new faces in his cabinet are those who backed him over Peter Dutton.
They include Ken Wyatt, Anne Ruston and Stuart Robert, who have all been promoted into cabinet portfolios to keep a balance between conservatives and moderates.
Robert, in particular, was a key plotter behind the Morrison coup and has been vaulted into cabinet, despite an embarrassing stint as assistant treasurer during which he was forced to repay a $38,000 bill for home internet use. The other two new faces in cabinet, Alan Tudge and Sussan Ley, both promoted from the outer ministry, voted for Dutton and signed the petition that triggered the final spill against Turnbull.
It is a sign that Morrison – as a prime minister with a clean slate and an unassailable position – will seek to be a pragmatic rather than an ideological leader, paying homage to John Howard’s “broad church” vision of the Liberal party instead of leading as an all-out conservative.
Morrison has struck a pragmatic balance in the outer ministry, too, which has seven new Liberal faces, three who backed him over Dutton. A big winner was Ben Morton, the former West Australian state Liberal director, one of the half-dozen swing players who destabilised Malcolm Turnbull by voting for Dutton, then switched sides to get Morrison home. Morton, set to be a powerbroker in the new government, is now assistant minister for prime minister and cabinet – a position that will have increased importance given the post of special minister of state, previously held by another key Morrison ally, Alex Hawke, has been abolished.
On Wednesday, the prime minister wheeled out his favourite lines to a jubilant joint party room meeting in Canberra, telling colleagues, “we must burn for the Australian people every single day that we have this privilege of serving them”. At his first cabinet meeting on Thursday, Morrison showed more of the same passion, telling colleagues his government would be the “curse breakers” of the “scourge” of youth suicide.
Outgoing Liberal senator Arthur Sinodinos, a leading moderate and former Howard adviser who is set to replace Joe Hockey as United States ambassador when his term expires later this year, told Nine newspapers this week that Morrison had “the capacity to be the great unifier. I think he will seek to listen; he’s not going to be caught inside the beltway, he’s going to get out there and engage with the electorate as our best prime ministers have always done.”
Most commentary stressed the continuity in Morrison’s ministry. More than half the cabinet are in the same or similar portfolios, and the same four Nationals – Michael McCormack, David Littleproud, Bridget McKenzie and Matt Canavan – have kept almost all the same portfolios between them, albeit with rejigs in water and agriculture.
Among his newer ministers, however, Morrison has made some signature appointments that suggest a deft touch in areas where he will be looking for policy outcomes in this term of parliament. Wearing his kangaroo-skin booka, given to him by his own Noongar people, West Australian MP Ken Wyatt stole the limelight this week as the first Aboriginal person appointed to cabinet and first to hold the Indigenous affairs portfolio. Wyatt’s appointment received widespread acclaim, but he has been keen to temper expectations as the challenges in his portfolio are enormous – from Indigenous suicide rates to closing the gap to addressing the Uluru Statement from the Heart.
On ABC Radio’s RN Breakfast this week, Wyatt said he was wary of putting a tight time frame on constitutional recognition, for fear of a repeat of the failure of the 1999 referendum on Australia becoming a republic, which put the cause back decades.
“In order to take forward a question that the Australian people will support, it has to be well thought out and have both the consensual agreement of both Australians and Indigenous Australians,” Wyatt said. “If we go in with something that we think is the right set of wording and we lose it, then it probably is relegated back to the past for another 30, 40 years.”
Wyatt said there was more work to be done on the Indigenous voice to parliament, indicating he was interested in establishing regional structures to give Indigenous communities a say in policymaking that affects them. It would be a different model from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, abolished by John Howard in 2005, but achieving something similar – “local communities providing input to local policies”.
Another deft move was promoting Linda Reynolds to defence minister. The former defence industry minister was the first woman soldier to be promoted to the rank of brigadier and is eminently well qualified for Defence. The portfolio has seen extraordinary turnover in the past and is often seen as a political graveyard. With Australia in the midst of its biggest rearmament program since World War II, the only concern is that Reynolds – who also previously worked for defence contractor Raytheon – will be too close to the defence establishment.
Reynolds, who has a master’s degree in strategic studies, had her first test this week when Australian naval pilots came under laser attack in the South China Sea from Chinese maritime militia vessels posing as fishing boats. “The reason for vessels using the lasers is unknown but it may be to draw attention to their presence in congested waterways,” said a statement from the Department of Defence, playing a straight bat. “The inappropriate use of lasers would pose a potential safety risk to all those operating in the region.”
Likewise, the appointment of former Optus executive Paul Fletcher to the communications and arts portfolio, a promotion from families and social services, to replace the outgoing Mitch Fifield, was welcomed across the board this week. But a reckoning looms in the portfolio. The NBN, which is scheduled to finally complete its rollout next year, is running late, beset by technical and service difficulties, and it faces a multibillion-dollar write-down.
At the same time, Fletcher is expected to begin work on the eventual privatisation of the NBN, which is certain to be contentious – especially since the network needs further investment to upgrade the already-redundant copper-based fibre-to-the-home.
Fletcher was also parliamentary secretary to Malcolm Turnbull when the former Wentworth MP was communications minister, and so is implicated in the botched rollout. “In 2013, we inherited a shambles from Labor with barely 50,000 premises connected to the fixed network,” he said this week. “Today 9.28 million premises around Australia are able to connect to the NBN and almost 5.3 million premises are connected.”
Former Internet Australia director Laurie Patton, who has connections on both sides of the political aisle, told The Saturday Paper that Fletcher is “without question the most qualified person within the Coalition when it comes to understanding the economic and social value of the NBN, and the problems resulting from his predecessors’ flawed technology choices.”
Another one to watch in the senior ranks of the Morrison government will be the ambitious attorney-general, Christian Porter, a conservative and Dutton backer who has been given the added responsibilities of industrial relations and leader of the government in the house. The combination of attorney-general and industrial relations is unprecedented, but Liberal sources say the attorney-general’s role has diminished since the formation of the Home Affairs super ministry and is now more of a traditional first law officer’s role.
Porter indicated his initial focus in IR would be “on the law-enforcement aspects of the portfolio, ensuring adherence with Australia’s industrial relations laws, particularly on building sites across Australia”. In his first media appearance since his appointment, Porter told Sky News’s Chris Kenny that the election result represented a rejection of class war rhetoric and the Australian Council of Trade Union’s Change the Rules campaign had backfired.
“Sally McManus has said that the campaign didn’t resonate for the union movement, and I think the reason why is because that campaign sought to divide employers from employees and vice versa,” he said.
In the same interview, Porter made waves by dismissing the proposal for an Indigenous voice to parliament as “vague” – showing Wyatt will have a tough job persuading his colleagues.
The appointment of Porter may prove a circuit-breaker after the years of combat between the ACTU and employment minister Michaelia Cash. ACTU assistant secretary Liam O’Brien took a swipe at Cash on Thursday, criticising her “appalling record as a minister”. “Questions remain about her office’s involvement in leaks about AFP activity,” he told The Saturday Paper. “We are surprised that Prime Minister Morrison would burden his cabinet with such a controversial appointment.”
The ACTU, which will undergo a thorough review of its Change the Rules campaign, is approaching Porter with an open mind.
“While Christian Porter in previous roles has been critical of the union movement for standing up for members and retired members, we hope that this new ministry is an opportunity for him to engage with us on how Australia can solve the insecure work, low wage growth crisis as well as ending wage and superannuation theft,” O’Brien said.
“Wage and superannuation theft are two of the most significant legal issues in Australia. As attorney-general, as well as industrial relations minister, he is uniquely positioned to implement real reforms that allow workers to quickly, and at no cost, get paid the money they are owed from wage and super thieves.
“However, unless he acts quickly one of his first acts as minister will be to oversee another round of penalty rate cuts, deepening the wages crisis for 700,000 low-paid workers.”
Other appointments by Morrison appear higher-risk. Richard Colbeck, the 60-year-old Liberal senator from Tasmania, was an odd appointment as minister for youth affairs and was immediately lampooned on social media. Jason Wood, a former police officer who has posted to Facebook about the need to deport African gangs, was an immediately controversial appointment as assistant minister for multicultural affairs. There may be blowback coming from those left disappointed: the decision to dump Nationals maverick Barnaby Joyce as special envoy for drought was already causing concern this week, as the government looked set to fall to a two-seat majority with the loss of Macquarie to Labor. Joyce was all but threatening to cross the floor, saying he was an expert at throwing his weight around as a backbencher.
With just a two-seat majority, it’s clear Morrison, the great unifier, will have his work cut out for him.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 1, 2019 as "Inside the broad church of Scott Morrison". Subscribe here.