Interviews with more than a dozen senior Liberals show how Scott Morrison’s belief in his own ‘genius’ and self-image as a ‘master strategist’ cost the party government. By Rick Morton.

Coalition loss: ‘The transphobe thing was an absolute disaster’

Scott Morrison concedes defeat last Saturday night, following the federal election.
Scott Morrison concedes defeat last Saturday night, following the federal election.
Credit: AAP Image/Mick Tsikas

In the final campaign of his prime ministership, Scott Morrison picked some fights and ran from others. The order in which he was willing to do so – against transgender people first, and later the superannuation industry – says more about the man’s character than perhaps anything else he did in office.

It also explains a key strategic failure in the six-week election campaign, which has obliterated a generation of Liberal Party talent, evacuated Perth of any federal representation and nearly gutted Melbourne.

Morrison was happy to attack transgender kids in particular because they could not fight back. The $3.4 trillion superannuation industry, however, was a different matter.

Morrison gave himself only six days to sell what some believe could have been an election-winning policy on housing, allowing first home buyers to access their superannuation for a deposit.

The policy itself would not greatly affect the housing market, but it gave Morrison two of his sharpest lines: Labor wants to own your home and; Labor won’t let you spend your own money.

These lines could have run throughout the campaign, except Morrison was afraid to launch his policy sooner. He was worried about the money the super industry had to attack his party with advertising.

“The super-for-housing policy was a good one but they dropped it late, in the last week of the campaign, because Morrison was terrified of a multimillion [dollar] TV campaign from the super funds,” one Liberal MP tells The Saturday Paper.

“Josh [Frydenberg] was onside but Morrison was scared of having the fight. I think we should have had the fight.”

There has been no official autopsy of the Liberal Party’s extraordinary collapse at the ballot box last Saturday, but more than a dozen current and former MPs, party officials and advisers who have spoken with The Saturday Paper in the wake of the bruising loss have reflected on a campaign so dense and so small-minded that an implosion was all but guaranteed.

“We spent a full fucking week being transphobes in parliament and then we spent weeks during the campaign doing the exact same thing, and it was fucking insane,” an MP says. “The transphobe thing was an absolute disaster. We clearly didn’t have enough economic policies. I think the strategy, such as it was, was to repeat the 2019 election campaign, but that was never going to be adequate for a few reasons.”

Chief among them was that Scott Morrison had become deeply unpopular in the eyes of the electorate. “I think it took people three years to realise what a horrible person he is,” a Liberal Party insider says.

In this respect, at least, there is only so much a campaign can do. Even so, usually leaders try to reverse perceptions. To the extent that Morrison publicly offered to change from his nominated “bulldozer” personality type, it was too little, too late. The reality, of course, was that Morrison had not changed at all.

According to one Liberal MP, he was still as vindictive as ever. Even as he was fighting a losing campaign, he was busy attacking colleagues. The MP says, “His office hated me and they consistently briefed against me during the campaign.”

Fiona Martin, the then Liberal member for Reid, was also iced out of the campaign. While Morrison visited the electorate for a jobs fair in Homebush, Martin – who was hand-picked by the prime minister to replace Craig Laundy in 2019 – was nowhere to be seen. When she lost the seat to Labor’s Sally Sitou, she was the only MP Morrison didn’t call to thank. Martin told that the last time she had spoken to Morrison was by text message on February 23.

In the Prime Minister’s Office, as loyal staff followed Morrison’s every command or pre-empted his wishes, a sort of conqueror’s fantasy set in after the 2019 “miracle” win. According to observers, it eventually manifested in a near total break with reality.

Morrison was a “political genius” and a virtuoso campaigner, a brilliant tactician with a canine-like ability to hear the high-frequency pleas of the otherwise Quiet Australians. Only he could intuit the real concerns of the body politic.

A senior MP in the now former government tells The Saturday Paper Morrison was “the kind of clever who believes his genius can never be decoded by someone else”.

The MP says, “Sometimes, that is indistinguishable from the madness of kings. And in his case, Morrison believed his infallibility until the very end. His office enabled it, they briefed it and they injected it into the campaign at every opportunity.

“As I understand it, the [Crosby Textor polling firm] tracking we were having done was deteriorating on some metrics and staying flat on others. It was the opposite in 2019. And where it once confirmed Morrison’s self-belief, this was different. I don’t think he was capable of truly adapting to the tracking. In fact, I don’t think he believed it was correct.

“Everything else was wrong and he was right.”

Others are only slightly more generous. “Morrison had some ‘fiddly people’ in his office like [former Daily Telegraph journalist Andrew] Carswell, but he had some great people, too. Isaac [Levido] was there and he is a good, normal guy,” an MP says.

Much of the team this time around were the same as in 2019 – including Andrew Hirst as party director, and another Crosby Textor alumnus in Morrison’s principal private secretary, Yaron Finkelstein. The tactics didn’t change between campaigns.

It was Morrison, over the Christmas break in 2018, who decided his first election campaign had to be about him and not the party. As one insider told The Daily Telegraph after the 2019 victory, “the campaign director of this campaign was Scott”.

That might have worked against Bill Shorten, but in this campaign a handful of significant internal and external forces had marshalled against the Coalition. One of them, simply, was time.

Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce tells The Saturday Paper what he told Scott Morrison just days ago: “People got sick of the curtains. Sometimes the curtains still work and there’s nothing wrong with them, but people want a change anyway.

On Monday morning, Nationals colleague Darren Chester posted on his Facebook page that “the message from voters was brutal and will take some soul searching”. The Liberal Party, he said, will need to rebuild.

“The voters are never wrong. As politicians, we mightn’t like what they say to us but it’s a dumb idea to think they’ve got it wrong,” he wrote. “By voting for the so-called teal independents in the city, metropolitan voters have made it clear that they want more action on climate change (whatever that looks like) and a federal integrity commission. When the wealth-belt is prepared to toss out a moderate, experienced and capable Treasurer, for an unproven activist, you need to listen to the message, regardless of how unpalatable it is.”

The reality for the Nationals, he said, is that the fact they held seats “masks the fact that we have lost government and any genuine capacity to influence policy outcomes for the betterment of regional people”. He went on: “It was simple and devastatingly effective to say a vote for those moderate Liberals, was a vote for the ‘dinosaurs’ in The Nationals who didn’t believe in climate change.”

In Western Australia, where the Liberals experienced a historic federal wipe-out in Perth, many of the national undercurrents of mistrust merged with hyperlocal anger and structural problems around funding and finance.

WA senator Michaelia Cash, the former attorney-general, told ABC’s 7.30 on Wednesday that “it is rock bottom” for the party in the state. One view emerging in the west is that Scott Morrison’s right-hand man, Ben Morton, who was also state director of the WA Liberal Party throughout the resources boom from 2008 to 2015, was the focus of considerable anger within the party. He lost his seat in the wipe-out.

“The sense I have picked up in the party is that there is a lot of ‘Fuck you, Ben, you left us with nothing’,” the insider says. “He had a golden run and yet the fundraising arm of the party was really drying up.”

It didn’t help, either, that federal ministers had spent the better part of two years telling the state to open up during the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Morrison, and indeed federal members from Western Australia, arguing to open borders and criticising the state with terms like ‘living in a cave’ was all very offensive, and that damaged the campaign,” an elder statesman of the WA Liberal Party tells The Saturday Paper.

“I believe the swing against the Liberals, which was bigger here than anywhere else in the country, is directly related to the standing of the party in this state.”

The campaign, this former high-ranking Liberal MP says, was a lot like a pitch for “local government”, with no real policy until the very end.

“It was a very poor campaign all around, offering some parks and parking areas here and there,” he says. “Someone over east said it was like a campaign to decide the mayor of Australia, and that felt about right.”

This Liberal is also of the view that the government has, over the past six years in particular, “lost the best half of its cabinet”. Another state source said this talent had been replaced with candidates even the Liberals knew were duds. Kristy McSweeney, who had been rejected for state preselection by a party that questioned her absence from the fold, was parachuted into the seat of Swan, where she had “very tenuous links”.

“She thought she was god’s gift to the Liberal Party – a white-bread, good-looking woman from central casting – but why would anyone vote for her when she hadn’t been involved with the party for a decade?” a source says.

Other candidates failed. Ben Morton was scarcely present in his own electorate. The niece of WA Liberal Party royalty, Kate Chaney, ran as an independent and defeated the Liberal’s Celia Hammond in Curtin. She had the backing of former federal Liberal Party deputy leader Fred Chaney, her uncle, and on Saturday her father, the businessman and former University of Western Australia chancellor Dr Michael Chaney, and the extended clan were doing booth work for the corporate lawyer.

One-time star fundraiser for the WA Liberal Party and close friend of Julie Bishop, Danielle Blain, has been the subject of “fucking awful treatment” in the party over the past six years. After being passed over for various positions, she did not raise substantial funds this campaign – and it showed in the result.

“Everywhere you look, the seeds of this election loss from an organisational point of view go back a long, long way,” a source says.

While Morrison made several visits to WA, he spent little time in Melbourne and none at all in affluent Kooyong, where his treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, was battling, and failing, to keep his seat. In metropolitan Melbourne, there is scarcely a seat left for the Liberal Party.

There is a particular vitriol reserved for the former prime minister in his apparent engineering of a “five-dimensional chess” strategy to install Katherine Deves, who made appalling comments about transgender athletes, as the star candidate in Warringah, hyping her credentials as a culture warrior in the belief it would win votes in other more conservative suburban and regional seats.

Instead, it almost certainly cost nearby Sydney electorates such as Wentworth, and possibly Frydenberg’s seat as well.

“He fucked us and his fingerprints are absolutely fuckin’ everywhere on that,” a moderate Liberal MP says. “The bloke thinks he is a master strategist. He is a fuckwit.”

Another Sydney Liberal says: “A cynical person would say Deves was put up to murder the moderates.”

“They were totally kneecapped by that,” the source says. “Barely able to do any media at all because that’s all they were going to be asked about.”

As recriminations take off, and right-wing media outlets such as Sky News call for a “mad-left resistance”, there is a hint of schadenfreude among some members of Morrison’s own cabinet.

“He’s not the messiah,” one says. “He’s just a very naughty boy.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 28, 2022 as "Coalition loss: ‘The transphobe thing was an absolute disaster’".

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