Paul Bongiorno
Leaks undermine Scott Morrison’s image

There is compelling evidence a vicious “Scuttle Scott” campaign is under way and, unlike the “Kill Bill” strategy, this one is being mounted from inside the government itself.

The new prime minister faces parliament next week for the first time since the Liberal Party toppled Malcolm Turnbull, and most of the ALP’s ammunition against Morrison will come courtesy of internal Liberal leaks and undermining. Morrison’s appearance at the dispatch box as the nation’s leader is also overshadowed by voters still wondering why he’s there in the first place. He has no compelling answer to that question.

This hit home in an interview on Seven’s Sunrise. If Morrison was looking for a soft welcome in his new role, he didn’t get it. The first question echoed a sentiment showing up in focus groups run by the Labor Party since the latest regicide. “Why did your party knife another sitting PM?” Morrison was asked. His answer was an admission that it was because the whole show had become a farce.

“The events of ... more than two weeks resembled a muppet show,” he conceded. “As I said in the parliament ... All Australians were very disappointed about that and they have every right to be.” The new PM gave a similar answer on the Nine Network’s Today. Apparently this disparaging view of his colleagues was neither appreciated nor endorsed. As this paper reported last week, ministers and MPs are in no mood to let Morrison appear to be above the fray and the bloodletting.

One conservative Liberal and former minister, Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, went on ABC TV to say it was obvious Morrison’s backers had been “plotting for some time” to have him take over as prime minister. The senator, who is understood to have sought the foreign minister’s job in return for her support of Peter Dutton, said an analysis of the Friday spill vote and subsequent leadership numbers show Morrison supporters joined in politically knifing Turnbull. They voted for the spill only to switch to their man in the subsequent round.

But Morrison still pleads clean hands. “I supported the prime minister, as people know,” he told Channel Seven, an answer that prompted the retort: “Right up until you didn’t.” As he did in the vote that brought down Tony Abbott, Morrison left it to his allies to do the job. “The leadership was spilled and I voted against it being spilled.”

It is clear this disingenuous tactic infuriated Tony Abbott back in 2015 and it has prompted a similar response from the Dutton–Abbott and Turnbull camps this time. How else to explain the high-powered leaks stealing Morrison’s thunder in the past two weeks?

On Monday, the Herald Sun revealed Turnbull’s entire infrastructure plans that would have splashed out $7.6 billion for projects in marginal electorates across the country. The toppled PM intended to unveil the largesse closer to or during the election campaign.

Then, on Tuesday, the same paper reported that Turnbull was within a whisker of buying off the disgruntled Catholic schools sector, upping his funding offer by $4.4 billion over a decade.

On Wednesday The Australian Financial Review had leaked the Turnbull government’s homework on how it planned to turn its rejected corporate tax cuts into a $3.6 billion accelerated relief for small and medium businesses. Clearly sensing that his days were numbered, Turnbull hinted at just such a plan the week he was dispatched. In what amounted to political gallows humour, he was flanked by Finance Minister Mathias Cormann and Morrison.

The leaks intensified midweek when The Sydney Morning Herald obtained Liberal Party polling warning ministers against a rash response to the Longman byelection and its implications for Turnbull’s leadership. According to research commissioned by federal director Andrew Hirst, the party’s poor ground campaigning and the scandal over its candidate’s military honours were much more relevant.

These leaks are motivated by revenge and payback – emotions that are overshadowing any serious efforts to regroup in the run-up to the pending election. They betray a fatalism gripping many Liberals.

Some are now digging into Morrison’s past. Conservatives in his home state of New South Wales still haven’t forgiven him for the way he engineered his preselection at the expense of one of their own in 2007. His record as managing director of Tourism Australia is controversial, to say the least. The Liberals themselves have set the precedent, setting up a royal commission to probe Bill Shorten’s time as a union leader 10 years ago.

Twelve years ago, Morrison was sacked from Tourism Australia – two years into his term as boss there. The then Liberal minister for tourism, Fran Bailey, in 2006 said the board could no longer work with him. He was “incapable of being a team player” and faced a revolt from state and territory tourism executives.

An Australian National Audit Office report released a scathing report into Tourism Australia’s management of “perceived conflicts of interest” while Morrison was at the helm and quoted industry observers who had “expressed the view that the perceived conflicts of interests of board members are a major risk to Tourism Australia’s reputation”.

Morrison’s reported half-a-million dollar payout was questioned as excessive and not in accordance with regulations according to then Remuneration Tribunal president John Conde.

Morrison’s ability to listen to others was questioned during his time as treasurer. Sydney Liberal John Alexander, who headed a group of parliamentary colleagues worried about housing affordability, was incensed by Morrison’s dismissive attitude to him. The task of holding his badly fractured government together will make Morrison’s time at Tourism Australia seem like a walk in the park.

Karl Stefanovic put it bluntly on the Nine Network: “You are the boss but you have little or no control over the party … Your party is an absolute dog’s breakfast.” Amazingly, Morrison said he was “not fussed” about all that. “We are focused on the job ahead.” But in a giveaway that it’s getting to him, the PM leaked one of his own pending announcements: that his five-year commitment to raise the pension age to 70 was being ditched. Labor’s Jim Chalmers quipped the PM was getting in first.

The recriminations do not stop there. Liberal senator Lucy Gichuhi, who boosted the government’s numbers in the senate by joining it after the demise of her conservative Family First Party, joined Victorian MP Julia Banks in lashing out against bullying and intimidation. She told ABC Radio she believed the conservative-led putsch against Turnbull began as early as June at least.

Gichuhi said, “I had senators and ministers in tears. That’s how bad it was. One of my colleagues was in tears the whole day.” She is now weighing up whether to use her parliamentary privilege to name the culprits in parliament next week. She is under heavy pressure to refrain from embarrassing the party further but will not be brushed aside by glib assurances from the prime minister that he “is working with that internally”.

The minister for women, Victorian moderate Kelly O’Dwyer, infuriated powerbrokers in her own state division by endorsing her female colleagues’ complaints on 7.30. She said she had “conversations with many members of parliament, both male and female, and it is clear to me that people were subject to threats and intimidation and bullying. But that isn’t just over the course of the last week. There are some people who have raised concerns about elements within the party organisation.”

Speculation is rife now that Banks may name these elements in parliament. She has been detailing the skulduggery in off-the-record conversations with journalists. Speaking at The Australian Women’s Weekly Women of the Future awards on Wednesday night, former foreign minister Julie Bishop issued her own sharp criticism of the treatment of women in Australian politics. “I have seen and witnessed and experienced some appalling behaviour in parliament, the kind of behaviour that 20 years ago, when I was managing partner of a law firm of 200 employees, I would never have accepted,” she said. “Yet, in parliament, it’s the norm.”

Waiting in the wings for Morrison to fail is Tony Abbott. He claims “the era of the political assassin is over”, but he is still counting on the voters to consign Morrison to the dustbin of history. He still hasn’t forgiven Morrison for the 2015 coup and has told media executives he will make a bid after the election to lead the party again.

Also wishing for Morrison to fail is Alex Turnbull, the son of the ousted PM. He has taken to Twitter, urging people to support Labor’s candidate, Tim Murray, in the byelection for his father’s old seat of Wentworth. Young Turnbull tweeted that his “father fought the stupid and the stupid won”. He is critical of the Liberals’ failure on energy and climate policy. He says, “The extreme right of Australian politics doesn’t really seem to have coherent objectives at all.”

His support has already paid big dividends for Murray, with donations coming from all over Australia. Some on social media say Alex’s support of Labor reveals the family’s true political leanings. This was dismissed by his father who told reporters in New York that his son is “36 years old and entitled to his own political opinions”.

It doesn’t strike Morrison as odd. He says Alex Turnbull’s interventions “strike him as democracy”. How the voters of Wentworth strike him is now the big question.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 8, 2018 as "The enemies within".

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