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A power-sharing relationship inside the NSW Liberals has given the party stability – and edged out the influence of Scott Morrison. By Mike Seccombe.

How power and factionalism work in Berejikliand

Premier Gladys Berejiklian gives a Covid-19 update in Sydney as NSW battles the highly contagious Delta variant.
Credit: Mick Tsikas - Pool / Getty Images

There was no waiting. Straight into the call, the New South Wales government minister was ripping into Scott Morrison. The prime minister had two jobs, he said: roll out the vaccination program and fix the quarantine system. “And he stuffed it.”

When it was suggested to the minister that he sounded as if he was reciting Anthony Albanese’s talking points, he replied: “Well Albo’s absolutely correct.”

He continued: “The main job of the prime minister is to protect the community. And clearly, he failed on that critical KPI [key performance indicator]. He wasn’t desperate enough to get vaccines. As a result, we’re behind the rest of the world, and the only way we can keep our community safe is through these punitive measures like lockdowns. If you want to blame anyone for the shutdown of the NSW economy, look no further than Scott Morrison.”

This minister is not the only state Liberal pointing the finger of blame. Another – again echoing Labor – criticises Morrison’s failure to lobby the global chief executive of Pfizer, Albert Bourla, about increasing vaccine supplies. “The prime minister of Israel just said to Pfizer, ‘We’ll pay you 25 per cent overs if you can get us 20 million doses.’ Surprise, surprise: Pfizer, being a commercial organisation, did.”

A third veteran Liberal gives a frank assessment of the federal government’s approach to vaccine supply and eligibility: “Piss-poor communication.”

The NSW premier, Gladys Berejiklian, while not as colourful as her backgrounding supporters, has been more public in expressing her views. At many media briefings she has expressed frustration not only about the number of vaccine doses but also about the unreliable logistics of their supply.

In response, a senior federal Liberal says the criticism by his state colleagues reflects “an instinctive tendency of different levels of government to blame each other for problems”.

“Over the last couple of months, we have seen state governments rushing to blame the vaccination program to basically distract from their own errors, be it Queensland allowing people to be unvaccinated while working outside Covid clinics or NSW not ensuring that its transport workers were properly masked and vaccinated.”

Nonetheless, he says, “I think it’s certainly the case that there’s no love lost between the state and federal parliamentary leadership.”

And that is a big problem for Scott Morrison. It’s one thing to engage in political fights with the federal opposition and Labor premiers; it’s quite another to come into conflict with the Coalition government of Australia’s most populous state.

Morrison’s big criticism of the Labor states was that they were too risk-averse and too quick to go into lockdown. He regularly lauded the Berejiklian government’s approach – which placed greater emphasis on keeping borders open and businesses operating and relying on superior contact-tracing to mitigate the risk.

NSW, he said regularly, was the “gold standard”. Indeed, he said it as recently as June 25, nine days after the first case of the current outbreak – a limousine driver who had ferried international flight crew – when several dozen were infected and daily numbers were increasing fast.

“NSW, I have no doubt, has the gold-standard contact-tracing system, not just in Australia, but I think in the world,” he told Sky News. “And that’s why I think, you know, fellow Sydneysiders, you and I, can feel very confident that if anyone’s going to get on top of this with their tracing and not have to shut the city down, it’s the NSW government.”

The lockdown of Sydney began the same day. It would seem Morrison was not well briefed by his state colleagues. Not only that, but any blame that attaches to the state for being too slow to lock down must also attach to him for encouraging it to wait.

According to early polling, the public shares the view of epidemiologists: NSW should have moved much faster. As UNSW Sydney epidemiologist Professor Mary-Louise McLaws points out, Victoria went into lockdown three days into its previous outbreak in May.

Morrison’s ill-timed bravado on Sky News illustrates a couple of things.

First, it highlights the different political styles of the prime minister and the NSW premier. As one of her state supporters says: “She has never been a person who’s lauded herself. Gladys never said we have the absolute gold standard, ever.”

While she has come into some conflict with other leaders during the pandemic, notably with Queensland’s Annastacia Palaszczuk over border closures, Berejiklian did not go about gratuitously trying to score political points. She was cautious, her colleague says, because she understood “that we’re always one outbreak away from disaster”.

The second point in the Morrison interview is that it illustrates the extent to which his political currency is devalued in his home state. It was not great before the pandemic and it is worse now.

Berejiklian supporters will tell you that much of the success of her government is due to the fact it is comparatively moderate, yet inclusive of its more conservative elements. It has established a relatively stable left–right balance. It was not always this way. Not so long ago, when Scott Morrison was still state director of the NSW Liberals, the party was deeply divided.

“There were marauding caravans of the religious right,” one moderate says, “being stacked into the branch network.”

At that time, the right was led by David Clarke, an extremely conservative Catholic who “essentially used religious and ethnic groups to take control of the division and purge party moderates”.

“There was a big element of Opus Dei Catholics joining the party. There were Pentecostal Christians used, out of Hillsong, and things like that. That reached fever pitch in the early [to] mid-2000s.”

In response, moderates stacked other branches. The divided party regularly changed leaders and remained in opposition for 16 years.

Even when the Coalition was returned to power, in 2011, it was more the result of good luck than good management. Labor was swept from office less by its opposition and more by a wave of corruption scandals.

But in the past five years, maybe a bit longer, there has been a shift in how the Liberal factions use their power.

“There’s been an understanding or détente between the left and the right, who decided to put aside their differences, which is what’s provided the stability for us to govern,” the powerbroker says.

“And what we do now is have an arrangement – almost like the Labor Party – whereby we have an understanding that there’s enough of the spoils to go around.”

The custodians of the peace are the leaders of the two main factions, the moderates’ Matt Kean, who is the state Environment minister, and the right’s Dominic Perrottet, who is treasurer and deputy leader to Berejiklian.

There is a third faction, too: the centre-right. The leader of this group is Alex Hawke, federal member for Mitchell since 2007 and currently minister for Immigration, Citizenship, Migrant Services and Multicultural Affairs. He is Morrison’s emissary in NSW.

In former times, the Morrison–Hawke faction tended to play off the moderates against the hard right, forming alliances of convenience, albeit more often with the moderates.

But the peace pact between the other two has seen this third faction increasingly marginalised. The left–right–out faction, as one joke goes.

“So,” says the source, “you’ve got the moderates and the right working together. And it’s the Alex Hawke right – Scott Morrison’s faction – that is the main enemy.”

The powerbroker explains the numbers: “The moderates control about 40 per cent of the party, the right control about 40 per cent of the party, the Alex Hawke right control about 10 to 15 per cent of the party, the rest are sort of independents.”

Other sources give a slightly different breakdown, but the fact remains that Morrison’s numbers man now has a tough time using those numbers to play the other factions off against each other.

According to the version of events Kean and Perrottet provided to The Australian a few years ago, the agreement to ally and lock out the centre-right was seeded when the two men were having dinner in the members’ dining room at state parliament in September 2017. The two “young bucks” – as the article described the then 36-year-old Kean and 37-year-old Perrottet – had known each other since their teens. They got on well, despite their factional differences. Neither liked nor trusted Alex Hawke.

This lack of trust extended to Morrison as well, who has made a career by playing the ends against the middle factionally. That’s how he won preselection and how he became prime minister.

Stories attest famously to Morrison’s fickleness. One relates to a meeting of the Liberals’ federal council in 2009. Traditionally, on the night before council, the factions have separate events. When Morrison turned up late to the moderates’ “Black Hand” dinner, questions were asked; it turned out he’d been at the right’s function first.

Alex Mitchell, who covered NSW politics for decades, much of it as political editor of The Sun-Herald, says he often counselled others who mistook Morrison for a moderate.

“I used to say to people in the gallery, ‘If you think Scott Morrison is a genuine lefty – in Liberal Party terms – you’re crazy.’ He’s only mentioned one person, and that’s Scott Morrison. He doesn’t give a shit about factions.”

Mitchell never believed claims that Morrison had given Gladys Berejiklian a leg-up in her political career, either. “Morrison attached himself to Gladys and her faction but she didn’t need him,” he says. “She was already on the way. She already had power before she ever met him.”

Morrison was state director when Berejiklian was preselected for the seat of Willoughby in 2003, but she had long been on the rise in the moderate faction before that – serving on state council from 1996 and on the state executive from 1997.

A number of Berejiklian’s supporters say she never had much time for Morrison then, and has no more than a working relationship with him now.

In March, confronted by an accusation that the state branch was a boys’ club, Morrison’s attempt to take credit for Berejiklian’s career was meek even by his standards: “I remember when I was state director of the Liberal Party in NSW, Gladys was running for Willoughby. And, you know, there were many women that we were bringing to the parliament back then … And, you know, I’ve always been very committed to this.”

Berejiklian’s relationship with Perrottet is more nuanced. He is widely seen as her heir apparent, likely with Kean as his deputy. But Perrottet has lost some skin lately.

On July 7, it was reported that the treasurer had vehemently opposed an extension of the lockdown at a meeting of the state’s crisis cabinet the previous day, arguing that rather than adopting stronger measures to stop the spread of the virus, it was time to accept the need to live with it. Perrottet has not denied this, saying he will not discuss what happened in cabinet. It’s a damaging story, though. As one Berejiklian loyalist noted on Wednesday, no one in government has dared repeat it since.

“If he were to make that comment now, with 110 cases, and 43 in the community, that we shouldn’t be locked down, then I think even the most libertarian person would say, ‘Mate, you’re kidding yourself.’ ”

The more pressing question within the party is who leaked and why. Was it intended to damage the left–right peace pact? Was the leak intended to shut down the Perrottet view or to embolden it?

Others outside the party are asking why Berejiklian waited so long to lock down in the first place. Was it just due to her own free-market predilections? Or excessive trust in contact tracing? Or pressure from others in cabinet?

One insider suggests all three things. Having given a quick, unflattering assessment of other members of the crisis cabinet, he says: “Executive summary, she was trying to build a consensus among those in the inner sanctum. But when it was clear that wasn’t able to be delivered, she made the tough call.”

And that’s where the power lies. In the end, the prime minister did not have a say. Nor did the treasurer or anyone else. The decision rested with Gladys.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 24, 2021 as "How power and factionalism work in Berejikliand".

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Mike Seccombe is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.