Still dogged by questions about his rise to the Liberal leadership, Scott Morrison is keeping his allies close, and rewarding those who voted for him in the spill. By Karen Middleton.

Scott Morrison’s inner circle

Prime Minister Scott Morrison arrives in Osaka for the G20 summit.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison arrives in Osaka for the G20 summit.
Credit: EPA

When moderate Liberal MPs swung their votes away from factional ally Julie Bishop and behind Scott Morrison during last year’s leadership crisis, they did so at the urging of frontbencher Paul Fletcher.

In the string of WhatsApp messages leaked after former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull was ousted in late August, it was Fletcher who told moderates they must back Morrison to counter what he suggested was trickery from Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, the most senior supporter of original challenger Peter Dutton.

“Cormann rumoured to be putting some [Western Australian] votes behind Julie Bishop in round 1,” Fletcher wrote to the group he labelled “Friends for Stability” in a message thread leaked to ABC TV’s Insiders.

“Be aware that this is a ruse trying to get her ahead of Morrison so he drops out and his votes go to Dutton. Despite our hearts tugging us to Julie we need to vote with our heads for Scott in round one.”

Cormann has denied there was ever such a plan. None was ever executed.

But Fletcher’s manoeuvre, which was executed, did the same thing in reverse. The group abandoned Bishop and marshalled their votes behind Morrison, ensuring he stayed in the race at her expense.

Although Bishop was more popular with voters, this group decided Morrison had the better chance of beating their mutual opponent, Dutton, in the ballot. Burned by disloyalty, Bishop quit the ministry and ultimately politics.

Choosing pragmatism over sentiment, the moderates argued they didn’t want to risk the right-wing, electorally unpopular Dutton becoming prime minister.

But Fletcher’s move also reflected a pattern of mutual assistance between Morrison, his centre-right New South Wales Liberal power base, and others who need or are needed by him – or whom he needs to keep happy. It is a pattern that reaches back beyond Morrison’s preselection 12 years ago, to his time as the party’s NSW state director.

As well, it offered another glimpse of the prime minister’s network of friends, associates, rivals, confidants and beneficiaries who have risen through the ranks of government to serve alongside him.

This week, Peter Dutton spoke publicly about the leadership challenge for the first time since Morrison became prime minister.

In the Sky News documentary Bad Blood/New Blood, he claimed partial credit for Morrison’s election win, saying his failed challenge had put the Liberal Party in its “best possible position” since the Howard era.

The Sky program canvassed details of the challenge first revealed in The Saturday Paper the week after Morrison’s ascendancy. Five of Scott Morrison’s supporters secretly voted for a spill and against Malcolm Turnbull in the early votes last August, ensuring the crisis continued and enabling Morrison to become a candidate.

The conservative NSW Liberal senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells described what happened.

“Five of clearly the Morrison camp voted for the spill and voted to say ‘no’ to Malcolm Turnbull and then those votes obviously went that way [to Morrison],” Fierravanti-Wells told Sky News’s David Speers. “That’s as I read the numbers and numbers always tell their own story.”

In other words, some of Morrison’s supporters voted from the start to ensure Turnbull’s leadership was irreparably damaged, despite Morrison’s public pledge of loyalty.

She said it was “very clear that that’s the way it had gone”.

The Turnbull camp had already figured out what was happening, The Saturday Paper was told at the time.

Turnbull lieutenant Craig Laundy attended a meeting of Morrison’s core supporters in the office of key backer Alex Hawke while the crisis was unfolding.

Two let slip about the secret voting strategy, which Laundy then reported back to Turnbull’s staff. They duly told their boss. But by then, with Turnbull having spilled his own position and invited the vote, the damage was done.

Morrison continues to insist he remained loyal and didn’t canvass support until Turnbull gave his blessing to both Morrison and Bishop to run.

After that meeting, Turnbull and his supporters no longer believed Morrison.

Present were key Morrison supporters who share his commitment to Christianity, including Hawke, Queensland factional player Stuart Robert, Brisbane MP Bert van Manen, NSW regional MP Lucy Wicks, and Perth-based MPs Steve Irons and Ben Morton.

Hawke and Robert are machine men who, like Morrison, have links to the Pentecostal Church.

Robert and Irons were Morrison’s long-time flatmates in Canberra during parliamentary sitting weeks.

Like Morrison, 38-year-old Ben Morton is a former state Liberal Party director, in his case in Western Australia, and he was active in the NSW party before moving west. He worked in the government members’ secretariat, a centralised information unit, during the Howard era. Morton and Morrison are close friends.

Paul Fletcher falls into a different category – tied less by friendship than by mutual political benefit – as a one-time rival turned supporter and now senior minister. He was familiar with the leapfrog tactic he advocated on WhatsApp in August. Just such a manoeuvre helped him win preselection for the prized Sydney seat of Bradfield in 2009.

Fletcher was one of 17 to contest the blue-ribbon seat when Brendan Nelson resigned after losing the party leadership to Malcolm Turnbull. Also in the field was David Coleman, who would eventually win preselection for the seat of Banks and enter parliament in 2013.

After voting rounds knocked out the lower ranks, three remained: Fletcher, who had the backing of the party’s left; former opinion editor for The Australian newspaper Tom Switzer, who was backed by the right; and lawyer Julian Leeser, who headed the Liberal Party’s Menzies Research Centre and had the centre or so-called soft right.

All three had substantial credentials, with Switzer the newest to the Liberal Party.

To secure Fletcher’s win, some left-wing voters swung behind the quiet Leeser in the three-way runoff, ensuring he came second to Fletcher, leapfrogging Switzer and knocking him out of the race.

But the votes did not stay with Leeser to the end. In the final round, they mysteriously swung back to Fletcher and delivered him the preselection and ultimately the seat.

Centre-right powerbroker Alex Hawke, the member for the safe seat of Mitchell, has been credited with masterminding the move.

It was not the first preselection Fletcher and Coleman had lost.

Hawke was already an influential player two years earlier, when Scott Morrison secured preselection for the seat of Cook in Sydney’s Sutherland Shire, in a contest that had also included Paul Fletcher and David Coleman.

As has been canvassed in the years since, the Cook preselection turned nasty early. Candidate Michael Towke delayed the vote by mounting a Supreme Court challenge to the eligibility of some of the 165 preselectors.

Towke, a right-wing candidate who had recruited significant numbers of personal supporters to the Liberal Party, was objecting to the way some preselectors had been chosen.

Two other candidates joined the court action to oppose Towke – David Coleman and Paul Fletcher.

The judge reinstated the preselectors, the ballot ensued and Michael Towke nevertheless scored a resounding victory, 82-70.

Morrison, the Liberal Party’s former NSW director, had the backing of John Howard. But Morrison was knocked out in the first round, with only eight votes.

As journalist Paul Sheehan wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald in 2009, a win by Towke – a long-time shire resident and a Lebanese Christian – would have meant that “a Lebanese Australian would represent the Liberal Party in the seat where the Cronulla riot and revenge raids had taken place 18 months earlier”.

Damaging stories about Towke began appearing in Sydney’s The Daily Telegraph, over which he later won a defamation settlement.

After Morrison became prime minister last year, former Labor senator Sam Dastyari revealed Liberal operatives had contacted him at NSW Labor Party headquarters, where he worked in 2007, and asked him for a dirt file on Towke, who had previously been a Labor Party member.

Dastyari told KIIS FM that unnamed Liberals he called “Morrison’s people” had requested the information and that he had met them at a Sydney Chinese restaurant to hand it over.

“I’ve seen a lot of dirty things in politics,” Dastyari said. “… I’ve never had the Liberal Party come to us and ask for dirt … to fight one of their own internal opponents.”

In describing what happened, he paid Morrison the kind of compliment that can only come from a political enemy.

“I would never underestimate Scott Morrison because I would never underestimate a guy who would turn to one of his political opponents to take out one of his own ... A guy that will do that will do anything.”

The Telegraph stories were used to justify a second preselection ballot. The situation took its toll and Towke signed a deed with the Liberal Party, agreeing not to be a candidate. The state executive, not the local branches, managed the re-run and Scott Morrison was installed, sidelining the other candidates, including Coleman and Fletcher.

After Morrison won the prime ministership last year, both men – by then serving their second and third full terms respectively – were among those he promoted. Coleman was moved to the immigration portfolio and Fletcher was elevated from the outer ministry to cabinet.

After last month’s election, Coleman retained his immigration and multicultural affairs portfolio and Fletcher was promoted to replace Senator Mitch Fifield as minister for communications, cyber safety and the arts. Fifield is retiring to take up a diplomatic post as Australia’s ambassador to the United Nations in New York.

Morrison’s other key supporters have also been well rewarded.

Late last year, he appointed former flatmate Stuart Robert as assistant treasurer, returning him to the frontbench two years after Malcolm Turnbull dumped him for helping a friend and Liberal Party donor sign a private business deal in China.

After the election, Robert was promoted into cabinet as minister for the National Disability Insurance Scheme and government services. Their other flatmate, Steve Irons, was made assistant minister for vocational education.

Alex Hawke was also promoted, still in the outer ministry but with the twin portfolios of international development and the Pacific – spearheading Morrison’s Pacific push – as well as being assistant minister for defence.

Ben Morton, who travelled with Morrison for much of the election campaign, became assistant minister to the prime minister and cabinet – a position reserved for the most trusted allies.

Other backers received a boost, too.

Queensland MP Luke Howarth, whose threat to move a spill motion against Malcolm Turnbull back in August sparked the leadership crisis, has become assistant minister for community housing.

Jason Wood, among the first to sign the 43-signature petition that Turnbull demanded before calling the final spill and who helped Morrison’s unlikely election win by holding his outer Melbourne seat, has become assistant minister for customs, community safety and multicultural affairs – which caused some controversy after his comments about African gangs in Melbourne.

Another signatory and Morrison supporter Sussan Ley was returned to the ministry, having been dumped two years ago over travel expenses.

Initially in a junior job, Ley held off a high-profile independent challenger in her regional seat of Farrer and has been elevated to cabinet as environment minister.

In seizing the leadership, it was very important to Morrison that he be seen as having clean hands. He knew anyone blamed for causing the change could face a voter backlash.

In the Sky News documentary, Morrison was asked how he won the ballot.

“I talked to my colleagues,” he said. “They were very aware of the position that I’d taken all the way up until that point and the support that I had provided. And it was really then about, well, who was in the best position to really take us forward? I mean, the country had just been through a very traumatic experience. They were looking for someone to really take hold of this and tell them it would be okay.”

Morrison certainly took hold of it and went on to win the unwinnable election. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 29, 2019 as "Scott Morrison’s inner circle".

A free press is one you pay for. Now is the time to subscribe.

Karen Middleton is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.

Sharing credit ×

Share this article, without restrictions.

You’ve shared all of your credits for this month. They will refresh on September 1. If you would like to share more, you can buy a gift subscription for a friend.