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Mike Seccombe on the real reason Scott Morrison wanted to enlist Gladys Berejiklian, and what it reveals about the Prime Minister’s weakening authority in his home state.

Scott Morrison vs. the Liberal Party

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When Gladys Berejiklian spectacularly resigned as Premier of NSW, most people expected that would be the end of her political career.

But then she was publicly encouraged by Prime Minister Scott Morrison to make a comeback - to run for federal parliament.

Today, national correspondent for The Saturday Paper Mike Seccombe on the real reason Scott Morrison wanted to enlist Gladys Berejiklian, and what it reveals about the Prime Minister’s weakening authority in his home state.

 

Guest: National Correspondent for The Saturday Paper, Mike Seccombe.

 
Read Transcript

[Theme Music Starts]

RUBY:
From Schwartz Media I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.

When Gladys Berejiklian spectacularly resigned as Premier of NSW, most people expected that would be the end of her political career.

But then - she was publicly encouraged by the Prime Minister Scott Morrison to make a comeback - to run for federal parliament.

Today, national correspondent for The Saturday Paper Mike Seccombe… on the real reason Scott Morrison wanted to enlist Gladys Berejiklian, and what it reveals about the Prime Minister’s weakening authority in his home state.

It’s Wednesday, Dec 15. 

[Theme Music Ends]  

 

RUBY:

Mike, a couple of weeks ago, these stories started to pop up that suggested that the former New South Wales Premier, Gladys Berejiklian, was considering a tilt at federal politics that she would potentially run as a candidate at the upcoming federal election. It's only been a few months since she shocked everyone by resigning, and that was ahead of a corruption hearing. So, what's going on?

 

MIKE:

Well, well, yeah, it's pretty extraordinary stuff. So the background is, as you will remember that in September, the Independent Commission against Corruption revealed that it was investigating Gladys Berejiklian over whether or not she had failed to report a reasonable suspicion of corruption on the part of her secret ex-lover, the former Wagga Wagga MP Daryl Maguire. 

She resigned shortly afterwards, but protested her innocence. That investigation is still ongoing and no findings have been made. But it wasn't long after that, that stories started to circulate that she might run for politics again, this time - federally. 

Archival tape – News reporter: 

Two months ago, her political career ended abruptly under a corruption cloud. But now Gladys Berejiklian is being offered a path back to public life…

 

MIKE:

So it was actually back in October, it appears, when senior liberals in New South Wales first approached Berejiklian to have a run for the federal seat of Warringah. But things really heated up in the past couple of weeks when the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, personally intervened very publicly to try and press her, I guess you would say, to run. 

 

Archival tape – News reporter: 

Scott Morrison is pushing hard to revive Gladys Berejiklian's career. 

 

Archival tape – News reporter: 

Scott Morrison is encouraging former New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian to run for Federal Parliament. 

 

Archival tape – Scott Morrison: 

She's a person I've always found to be of great integrity. If she wished to join our team, she would be very welcome. 

 

MIKE:

And that the prime minister very publicly courting a former premier who stood down due to corruption allegations to run in the next federal election really, I think, points to a number of problems Morrison has as he heads into this coming election. 

 

Archival tape – Scott Morrison: 

And if she wants to have a crack at Warringah for the Liberal Party, I suspect the people in Warringah would welcome that. 

 

RUBY:

And it does seem pretty extraordinary, Mike, that Gladys Berejiklian, while she's actively being investigated for corruption, was being considered as a viable candidate for the upcoming election. Why was her name even in contention?

 

MIKE:

Well, despite being caught up in the ICAC investigation, a number of federal liberals were of the view that Berejiklian was still their best chance of unseating Zali Steggall, who's a very high profile independent, who defeated the former prime minister Tony Abbott in the 2019 election and won what was formerly a blue ribbon liberal seat Warringah on Sydney's northern beaches. 

 

Archival tape – Zali:

Wow. Thank you, everyone. I know I'm going to sound croaky but what a day! 

 

MIKE:

So that defeat of Tony Abbott was a big blow for the Liberals, Warringah had been held by the party continuously since its inception, but it's one of those interesting sort of wealthy liberal seats where people tend to be economically conservative but socially progressive, which, you know, obviously Tony Abbott wasn't. And over time, the seat's voters drifted away from their deeply conservative MP Tony Abbott, and especially, they were concerned about social and environmental issues. And then, of course, along comes Zali Steggall. 

 

Archival tape – Speaker: 

I call the member for Warringah


Archival tape – Zali: 

Thankyou Mr. Speaker

 

MIKE:

Running on a platform of taking strong action against climate change. 

 

Archival tape – Zali: 

It’s simply not good enough to continue our current trajectory with weak targets, Kyoto loopholes, rising emissions and no plans to get to net zero emissions.

 

MIKE:

And she just swept Abbott aside. 

So, now of course, we have another raft of climate focussed independents seeking to replicate that result across the country, particularly in those blue ribbon, socially progressive liberal seats in Sydney and Melbourne in particular. 

So the Liberals are really under pressure here, and they're desperate to stem this tide. And so it was thought that a candidate like Gladys Berejiklian, who is pretty moderate, could win the seat back for them. Polling that's both public and internal party polling shows that she is still popular despite the ICAC hearings, and a number of senior figures in the party started to back her, including Abbott, the former prime minister John Howard, and then, of course, Scott Morrison added his voice, publicly campaigning on her behalf. 

RUBY:

OK. And so what exactly was their argument, though, Mike? How did they position running a candidate who's still being investigated by a corruption commission? 

 

MIKE:

Well, Morrison in particular pretty explicitly targeted ICAC.

 

Archival tape – Scott Morrison: 

As I've said before, the way that Gladys Berejiklian has been treated over these events, I think has been shameful. I've been very clear about that. 

 

MIKE:

He described it as a kangaroo court. He said that it had tried to publicly humiliate the former premier. 

 

Archival tape – Scott Morrison: 

We've seen recordings of private conversations, detailed, intimate things that were paraded around in the media. What was that about? Was that trying to… was that about shaming Gladys Berejiklian? I thought that was awful. 

 

MIKE:

He said that a number of times that Berejiklian hadn't been accused of anything criminal… which is technically correct. But in New South Wales, the definition of corrupt conduct is much broader than just criminality.

 

Archival tape – Scott Morrison: 

Gladys was put in a position of actually having to stand down. And there were no findings of anything. Now, I don’t call that justice. 

So, all of this served, really, two purposes for him. One, he hoped to get his preferred candidate up. But secondly, by criticising the New South Wales ICAC, it gave him cover. It deflected attention from his failure to implement his own promise of a National Integrity Commission, something which I might add is being pushed very strongly by Zali Steggall and other independents. So it served a couple of purposes just but in the end, of course, it was all for nothing.

RUBY:

Mm-Hmm. Because Gladys Berejiklian decided not to run. 

 

MIKE:

Yeah, right. And there's a couple of strange aspects to that. For one, we never had any real indication from Berejiklian that she was interested. We heard a lot from the PM and other senior liberals talking about how great a candidate she would be. But even as they were saying that, you know, some very senior people in the New South Wales branch that I spoke to said she wasn't going to do it.  

 

Archival tape – Ben Fordham: 

We've got some news about to unfold, I feel, because Gladys Berejiklian has just phoned into the programme. Now is this Gladys in Willoughby or Gladys in Warringah? Good morning, Gladys. 

 

Archival tape – Gladys: 

Hey, Ben, how are you? I just want to say…

 

MIKE:

Last Friday, she told Sydney's 2GB radio that she didn't have any appetite to contest the seat 

 

Archival tape – Gladys: 

I'm looking forward to a much less public life. I won't be contesting the Federal seat of Orndorff or any other state, for that matter. 

 

MIKE:

She said that her immediate future at least was going to be in the private sector. She was looking at other jobs there. 

 

Archival tape – Gladys: 

I'm going in a different direction and I'm looking forward to the opportunities the next year brings.

 

MIKE:

Not interested in politics at the moment, which means that she said all the right things. 

But you know, the fact of the matter is she clearly wasn't interested in trying to bail out Scott Morrison, who I might add, she doesn't have any great regard for anyway. 

RUBY:

The whole thing does seem, as you say, strange… Mike. And potentially embarrassing for Scott Morrison to have openly courted Gladys Berejiklian in this way, only to be rebuffed. 

 

MIKE:

Yeah, I think it was quite embarrassing for him. But more significant, of course, is the fact that without Berejiklian, the chances of the Liberals retaking Warringah have dramatically receded. 

And that goes to the fact that Scott Morrison has real reason to be worried about the election and the Berejiklian for Warringah saga is only part of it. 

You know, it highlights something much deeper, which is that Morrison, despite being prime minister, seems to be losing control of his own party in New South Wales, which is the state he desperately needs to perform strongly if he's to have any chance of winning the next election. 

RUBY:

We'll be back after this. 

 

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RUBY:

Mike, why is the state of New South Wales so critical to the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison's election strategy?

 

MIKE:

Well, first point, the Coalition is going into this election with a majority of just one seat in the House of Representatives. So they're on a razor's edge. They're under threat not only from the Labour Party and of course, the Greens, but also this swag of well-funded independents who are targeting their traditionally safe seats. So they really need to try to win a couple of extra seats where they can. And all the numbers of people that I've been speaking with say that New South Wales is key to that. 

I mean if you go around the country, in Western Australia, the Liberal Party was all but wiped out at the state election earlier this year, and there are fears that they could lose maybe three seats over there. So, that puts them behind the eight ball to start with. They're also concerned about South Australia, the potential losses there, some very knife edge seats in Tasmania, and I'm told there are a couple in Queensland that they are worried about. And Victoria, they don't seem to be confident of winning anything much at all there. 

So that leaves New South Wales as their best, if very narrow path to victory. And one liberal source, numbers man, having gone around the country much as I just did then, said that the party probably needed to pick up as many as five seats in New South Wales, including Warringah, which now without Berejiklian, has become a whole lot harder.

RUBY:

OK, so New South Wales is where the Liberal Party has the best chance of winning more seats and of holding on to power. It's a critical battleground then. But Mike, you also said that it's the state where the Prime Minister has lost control of the party. So, what's going on there? 

 

MIKE:

Well, factional warfare essentially. 

There are three factions in New South Wales. The two big ones are the right, which is the faction of Premier Dominic Perrottet and the moderate or left faction, which is led by the Treasurer and Environment Minister Matt Kean. And Berejiklian, incidentally, was also a member of the moderate faction. The third faction calls itself the centre right, and it's the faction of Morrison and his consiglieri, I guess you'd say, is Alex Hawke, and it's smaller than the other two. Great deal smaller. And there's also a great deal of hostility to the Morrison Hawke faction, among the other two - to the left and the right. 

So the Gladys Berejiklian episode was indicative of a couple of things. One of those being that the prime minister's attempts to try and pick and choose his preferred candidates for key seats in New South Wales wasn't going so well. 

The left and the right have been complaining that the Morrison Hawke faction has been deliberately delaying preselections so that it gets to the point where it's all too hard to have it done in the normal way. And then the Prime Minister can intervene, parachute in his own preferred people in a number of seats, and both the left and the right see this as an attempt to ride roughshod over the will of the local branches. So Perrotet, the Premier, has told Morrison he will strongly resist any intervention by the Feds. There have been threats of legal action should he try. 

Not only is this a challenge to Morrison's authority, it's also a logistical nightmare obviously for the party. Because preselections, some of the most important seats for the Liberals in New South Wales will probably run until February, which means that candidates won't have a lot of time on the ground to campaign for an election that is being predicted for May, but could be as early as March. 

RUBY:

Right, so it sounds like - in a bigger picture sense - this could all harm the Liberals, because they’re running out of time to give the candidates who emerge out of these kinds of behind the scenes contests a fighting chance at the next election. So, if that’s the case then why are these backroom battles happening Mike? What is this all really about? 

 

MIKE:

Well, in some cases, as in the Gladys Berejiklian case, it is about trying to get the strongest possible candidate. In others, not so much. I mean, the centre-right hoped, or hope still I guess, to parachute in a neophyte Pentecostal preacher called Jemima Gleeson in Dobell, which is a potentially winnable seat for them, and that is not going down well at the grassroots level. So it's a bit of each. It's a bit of… a bit about looking for the best candidate. It's a bit about factional loyalty.

 

But, at a deeper level, it's also about, I suppose you could say, autocracy versus democracy, 

i.e. the right of the rank and file to determine candidates versus the right of head office to impose them. 

And what we're seeing here is an attempt by Morrison and Co. to impose candidates and push back. Admittedly, you know, factional mediated pushback, but nonetheless pushback on behalf of the rank and file to let them decide who the candidate should be. 

Anyway, we'll see how it plays out, it's got a way to go yet. 

I think some of the Morrisson candidates will get up simply because they are the best.

In other places, they'll just have to live with the democratic outcome of preselections.

But, the bottom line here is that things are looking pretty messy for Morrison and his party in what is shaping to be the most important state for them in the coming election. 

RUBY:

Mike, thank you so much for your time today. 

 

MIKE:

My pleasure. Thank you.

 

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[Theme Music Starts]

RUBY:

Also in the news today,

The Prime Minister Scott Morrison has announced a deal between pharmaceutical company Moderna and the Victorian government, which could see Moderna’s Covid-19 vaccine manufactured in Australia as early as 2024. 

The mRNA manufacturing facility will be built in Melbourne, and will be capable of producing up to 100 million shots a year.

And Covid-19 restrictions in NSW are set to ease, including for unvaccinated people.

The number of new daily infections in the state rose to a 10-week high yesterday - with 804 new cases - 21 of which were the Omicron variant. 

The NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard said that the government had no plans to start “backflipping” on the roadmap that’s been promised to NSW residents. 

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am. See you tomorrow.

[Theme Music Ends]

 
 

Host

Ruby Jones is an investigative journalist and host of 7am.

Guest

Mike Seccombe is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.

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