Accused of inflaming racism, Scott Morrison insists people have the wrong idea about him. Jane Cadzow meets the Liberals’ immigration spokesman. This article was published in the Sun Herald on 3 November 2012 .
In his maiden speech in 2008 Scott Morrison said ‘From my faith, I derive the values of loving kindness, justice and righteousness’
Scott Morrison was in the car when the call came. It was December 2009 and Tony Abbott, the new federal Opposition leader, was offering him a position in his shadow ministry. Morrison’s wife, Jenny, who was driving, listened to his end of the conversation. Then she said, “Anything, as long as it’s not immigration. Tell me it’s not immigration.” Morrison looked at her. “It’s immigration,” he said.
He smiles about that now. The Liberal front-bencher at the centre of Australia’s most rancourous political debate is a confident, leave-it-to-me sort of bloke, solidly built, with broad shoulders, a thick neck and a firm handshake. For close to three years, it has been his responsibility to lead the Liberal-National Coalition’s hardline campaign on asylum seekers – an unenviable task, perhaps, but one that appears to agree with him. When we meet at his electoral office in Cronulla, in southern Sydney, he has the chipper air of a man on a mission, the clear eyes and smooth visage of one who sleeps soundly at night. “What you have to do in this portfolio is just be very comfortable in your own skin about the decisions you’re taking and why you are taking them,” he says. “And I am.”
“Everything I think and say now is what I’ve always thought and said” … controversial Liberal MP Scott Morrison.
The federal Labor government’s recent switch to processing refugee applications on islands in the Pacific Ocean – more or less adopting the so-called “Pacific solution” of John Howard’s Coalition government – has been greeted by some as a victory for Morrison. “He’s a very effective operator,” says Liberal Party federal vice-president and former foreign minister, Alexander Downer. “He’s an excellent communicator in that he develops a simple, clear message and has a great capacity to articulate it. He’s won this debate with the Labor Party hands down.” Downer thinks Morrison’s performance has been sufficiently impressive to put him in contention to eventually succeed Abbott: “He’s got the intelligence and the enthusiasm and the focus to be the leader.”
Morrison’s critics say no one has done more to harden Australian hearts to the plight of people who risk their lives trying to reach these shores in leaky, overcrowded boats. The Sydney Morning Herald political editor Peter Hartcher has called him “the greatest grub in the federal parliament”, accusing him of scoring political points by deliberately inflaming racism and resentment. A former Liberal leader, John Hewson, has described some of his remarks about asylum seekers as “insensitive, lacking appropriate compassion, even inhumane”.
Morrison, 44, takes all this in his stride. “It goes with the gig,” he says, with the equanimity that comes from knowing you have God on your side.
A devout Christian who worships at Shirelive, an American-style Pentecostal church in his constituency, he doesn’t claim that his religion makes him a better politician – only that it inspires him to be a good person. “From my faith, I derive the values of loving kindness, justice and righteousness,” he said in his first speech in the House of Representatives in 2008.
Morrison’s electorate of Cook is in Sutherland Shire, a peninsula that is officially part of greater Sydney but in many ways is a world of its own. “The Shire”, as it is known, is less ethnically diverse than other areas of Sydney: fewer than 10 per cent of residents come from non-English-speaking backgrounds, and just 3 per cent belong to a non-Christian religion. The enclave has been stereotyped as insular and xenophobic – particularly since the 2005 Cronulla riots, triggered by a clash between local surf lifesavers and a group of visiting youths of Middle Eastern descent. But to people who live here, this is “God’s Country”, a piece of sunlit suburbia-by-the-sea where kids still fish from jetties and play backyard cricket.
“It’s quite different to other parts of waterside Sydney,” says Morrison, driving me through leafy streets lined by comfortable but unpretentious houses. Certainly there is money here. “But it’s not showy, it’s not flashy, it’s very quiet.” At his place, a pleasant bungalow with a pool out the back, we find Jenny making pikelets from a recipe handed down by her great-grandmother. Morrison met his wife at a church youth camp when he was 12, invited her on their first date when he was 16 and married her at 21. They have two blonde daughters, Abbey, 5, and Lily, 3, who are playing happily in the sunroom. From the kitchen, Jenny asks, “Scott, are you having coffee, love?” Morrison, ensconced on a sofa, replies, “Yeah, love, thanks.”
The idyllic domestic scene brings to mind his declaration on the home page of his website: “The Shire is a great place to live and raise a family. I want to keep it that way.” The next line says, “Scott is working hard to protect the way of life we enjoy in our community.” As if that way of life were somehow under threat.
Morrison has nothing against Muslims. He would like to make that clear. Those reports last year that he urged his Opposition colleagues to exploit community disquiet about Muslim immigration? Inaccurate, he says. “I was very upset about it. Devastated by it, actually. But look, that sort of stuff happens in politics.”
According to leaks from a shadow cabinet meeting, Morrison suggested the Coalition ramp up its questioning of multiculturalism and capitalise on anti-Muslim sentiment. Morrison maintains he meant only that unease about Muslims should be acknowledged. “There are real tensions out there,” he says. “My comments were more about, ‘Let’s not just write people off because they have strong views about this. We’ve got to listen to what their concerns are.’ ”
At the time, Tony Abbott sprang to Morrison’s defence, saying, “There’s no one who is a more decent and a more compassionate and a more sensitive person in public life.” Political commentator and former Labor powerbroker Graham Richardson is another who thinks Morrison is misunderstood. “I was with some friends the other day when he was being bitterly criticised as some sort of racist ogre,” Richardson says. “I don’t believe him to be that. I think, by and large, he’s a pretty decent fellow.”
In his own defence, Morrison points out that he and Labor’s now Home Affairs Minister, Jason Clare, led a group of surf lifesavers from Morrison’s electorate and young Muslim Australians from Clare’s western Sydney constituency on a “mateship trek” on the Kokoda Track in 2009, four years after the Cronulla riots. A similar exercise in Borneo in 2011 continued his and Clare’s efforts to build friendships between young people from different backgrounds, as will a trek in northern Papua New Guinea next year. So why do people get the wrong idea about Morrison? He wishes he knew. Earlier this year, he announced that two cases of typhoid had been confirmed among recent arrivals at Christmas Island, the Australian territory in the Indian Ocean that is traditionally the first port of call for asylum seekers. “When illegal boats turn up in our waters, there will always be the risk that people on these boats will carry serious communicable diseases,” he said in a media release, adding that 56 such cases – “everything from tuberculosis and hepatitis C to chlamydia and syphilis” – had been detected in less than a year.
Queensland infectious-diseases physician Trent Yarwood responded with an open letter accusing Morrison of stoking anxieties about asylum seekers. Yarwood said the shadow minister had vastly exaggerated the risk of transmission of the diseases, most of which were endemic in Australia anyway. “It was a crass piece of political opportunism,” the doctor wrote.
Morrison says he wasn’t scaremongering. “I simply said that people turned up who had these conditions,” he protests. “I made no statement about the broader impact or risk.” On this occasion, his memory is faulty: he in fact warned explicitly of the possibility of “an outbreak on Christmas Island or the transfer of these diseases to the mainland”. But, in any case, he argues that he was merely acknowledging a reality. “I mean, let’s have all the facts on the table.”
A frequent guest on right-wing Sydney talkback radio station 2GB, Morrison has told audiences of seeing “wads of cash” and “large displays of jewellery” among asylum seekers’ possessions at the detention camp on Christmas Island. He has also spoken of “the guns that are coming into this country under Labor’s failed border-protection policies”. It seems to John Menadue, a former head of the immigration department, that such remarks are calculated to generate ill will. “It’s all designed to demonise asylum seekers – people who are in a desperate situation, fleeing to Australia and other places for safety from war and persecution,” Menadue says.
Again, Morrison wonders how his motives can be so misconstrued. Demonise asylum seekers? Why would he want to do that? “My argument isn’t with them,” he says. “My argument is with the government, and with government policy, which I think is creating abuse of the system.” Mind you, he is baffled by the behaviour of some of those rescued from sinking craft. “I’ve been told by naval officers that they’ve had faeces smeared on them by people they’ve taken onto their boats,” he tells me. “On their faces. That’s happened.”
Another thing: as a father himself, he will never understand how people can take children on such perilous voyages. “I’m not judging,” he says. “I just don’t understand.”
Cruising through Brisbane in a Commonwealth car, Morrison mentions that his favourite novels are David Malouf’s The Great World and Kate Grenville’s The Secret River – both critically acclaimed Australian works. “I don’t read international fiction,” he adds. “I just don’t relate to it. I’m interested in our stories.”
Morrison grew up in the eastern Sydney suburb of Bronte, in a religious family dedicated to community service. His father, a police commander, won a seat as an independent on Waverley Council, eventually becoming mayor. Scott, the younger of two children, handed out how-to-vote cards from the age of nine and decided while still at school that politics was his calling. “Dad didn’t get home till late and Mum was at work,” he says, “so I’d be at home with my brother in the afternoons. That’s when the constituents used to ring. My brother would give me the phone because he knew I’d talk to them.”
After graduating from Sydney Boys’ High, Morrison majored in economics and geography at the University of NSW. He worked in research and policy at the Property Council of Australia, then embarked on a series of jobs with tourism industry associations. Bruce Baird, his boss at Tourism Council Australia, saw his potential. “Very competent, hard-working, bright,” says Baird, who became a friend and mentor, and preceded him as the Liberal member for Cook.
In 1998, aged 30, Morrison went to New Zealand to run that country’s national Office of Tourism and Sport, answering directly to the then tourism minister, Murray McCully. He became known as “Murray’s Rottweiler”, so enthusiastically did he throw himself into a battle between the minister and the national tourism board. When the dust settled, the casualties included the board’s chairman and chief executive, as well as McCully himself. A Wellington newspaper reported that in the ensuing inquiry, Morrison emerged as “a cross between Rasputin and Crocodile Dundee”.
Back in Sydney, where few knew or cared about the drama across the Tasman, he landed the job of director of the Liberal Party’s NSW division. He was at the helm for the federal election campaign of 2001, fought in the jittery aftermath of the September 11 attacks when fear of terrorists heightened suspicion of asylum seekers. Lawyer Irfan Yusuf, who stood for the Liberals in the western Sydney electorate of Reid, says he wrote a sympathetic article about a refugee whose two nieces had drowned en route to this country, but that Morrison denied him permission to publish it, saying, “If you, as a Liberal candidate, talk about refugees in that way, it compromises our stand on security and terrorism.”
As Yusuf remembers it, “He was basically saying, ‘Look, if you want to have a future in the party, you shut up on this one.’ And, you know, I took it seriously, because he was the state director.” Morrison denies this conversation took place.
Five-year-old Abbey offers her father a plate of round objects made of pink play dough. “Are these green eggs and ham?” Morrison asks. “No? They’re pikelets?” The little girl glances at him. “These are my rose petal cookies,” she says patiently.
To spend any time with Morrison is to understand that he is besotted with his daughters. “They were a long time coming,” he says, explaining that Jenny had 10 cycles of IVF treatment, all of them unsuccessful. “Ultimately, we conceived naturally. Who knows how these things happen?” In his maiden speech, paying tribute to his wife, he explained it like this: “After 14 years of bitter disappointments, God remembered her faithfulness and blessed us with our miracle child, Abbey Rose.”
He wasn’t talking figuratively – Morrison is convinced his daughter was born as a result of divine intervention. “I totally believe that’s what happened,” he says. Lily Alice came along a couple of years later. Morrison, who played front-row forward on the rugby field, now finds himself living in a house full of Barbies and ballet gear: “Everything is pink. Everything is frilly. Which is sort of, not me. But I’ve become quite accustomed to it.”
The joy of parenthood hasn’t erased painful memories of the IVF experience. To Morrison and his wife, each failed attempt at establishing a pregnancy represented a baby that would not be born to them. Eventually they decided to give a name to each of these might-have-been offspring. “And that was really helpful,” he says. “Because we’d sort of tried to pretend that we hadn’t lost children, but with IVF, actually that’s what it feels like.” He has written of the consolation of knowing that, “one day, we’ll be reunited with our unborn beyond this life”.
Raised in the Uniting Church, Morrison tends to play down the rapturous, arm-waving aspect of Pentecostalism. Shirelive’s website says its members believe the Bible is the “accurate, authoritative” word of God and that “the Holy Spirit enables us to use spiritual gifts, including speaking in tongues”. Yet Morrison describes its brand of religion to me as “sort of mainstream Protestant”.
Before moving to the Shire, he belonged to another Pentecostal mega-church, Hillsong. One of his friends from that congregation, Louise Markus, stood for the Liberals in the western Sydney electorate of Greenway in the 2004 federal election. Markus won the seat from Labor, whose candidate’s chances may have been damaged by a bogus ALP leaflet distributed on the eve of the poll. “Ed Husic is a devout Muslim,” the leaflet said. “Ed is working hard to get a better deal for Islam.” Husic reported hearing Liberal workers urging voters to support Markus because she was “a good Christian”.
Morrison was the Liberals’ state director, but he (and Markus) have always denied any connection with the smear campaign against Husic. “I had absolutely no knowledge of it whatsoever,” Morrison says now.
Husic, who became the first Muslim member of federal parliament when he won the western Sydney seat of Chifley for Labor in 2010, refuses to be interviewed about Morrison. “He doesn’t want to fuel it in any way,” says his media spokesman, David Field.
Scott Morrison’s catch-cry these days is “stop the boats” but, not so long ago, he was begging people to come to this country. As managing director of Tourism Australia – a $350,000 a year job handed to him by John Howard’s government after the 2004 election – he launched the controversial advertising campaign that asked the rest of the world: “Where the bloody hell are you?”
The slogan was ridiculed at home. “It fell foul of the latte elite,” says Morrison. Overseas, it created confusion in some markets – the Japanese, in particular, were said to be flummoxed – but it generated interest in others. “We increased tourism revenues by $4 billion a year,” says Morrison, who nevertheless got the sack in 2006, just two years into his contract.
News stories blamed his early exit on a falling-out with Fran Bailey, then the federal tourism minister in the Howard government. “I think now is probably quite a good time to say it was not a personal clash between Scott and me,” says Bailey, who has since retired from politics. By her account, Morrison lost the confidence of the statutory authority’s nine-member board. “They were unanimous in thinking they needed someone else to fill that role,” she says. “It was deemed to be better that someone replace Scott who actually worked co-operatively with the board and the minister.”
Former deputy prime minister Tim Fischer, who was the authority’s chairman, distances himself from criticism of Morrison, as does Ian Macfarlane, then senior minister responsible for tourism. Both say they thought he did a good job. Bailey’s version of events is backed by a former board member, who says Morrison was arrogant and headstrong, seemingly unaware that, “when you’re given a request or directive, you have to take heed of it. You can’t just be dismissive and do what you bloody well like.”
Whatever the reason for his departure, the managing director didn’t leave empty-handed: Remuneration Tribunal president John Conde reportedly wrote to Fischer to complain that Morrison’s $330,000 payout was $200,000 higher than it should have been. Morrison says the sum included a performance bonus. At any rate, he quickly put the episode behind him and turned his attention back to politics. After a brutal pre-selection battle, he emerged as the Liberal candidate for Cook and held the seat for the party in the 2007 federal election.
In Canberra, the first impression was of a high-minded humanitarian: in his maiden speech, Morrison not only called for increased aid to Africa but endorsed anti-apartheid activist Desmond Tutu’s view that it was the duty of Christians to “stand on the side of the poor and the hungry, the homeless and the naked”. He told the House his dream was of a generous Australia, willing “to share our good fortune with others, both at home and overseas, out of compassion and a desire for justice”.
This is the same Morrison who early last year complained about the cost of holding funerals in Sydney for asylum seekers killed in a shipwreck off Christmas Island. An eight-year-old boy whose parents had both died in the wreck was one of the 21 people flown from the island detention centre to attend the ceremonies. A man whose wife and two children had perished was another. Yet Morrison suggested these were government-funded junkets, claiming on 2GB that, after the funerals, the relatives would be “taking sightseeing trips and those sorts of things”. He later apologised for the timing, but not the content, of his remarks.
Some attribute Morrison’s new steely persona to a desire to advance his career, bleeding-heart moderates being little in demand in Tony Abbott’s inner circle. “I think there are different parts to Scott,” says a senior Liberal. “One is a genuine, nice guy, a good family man with good instincts. And then there’s another part, which is pure ambition.”
Morrison is the first to agree that he hopes for a big future in politics (“Look, ambition is fairly ubiquitous in Canberra”) but he denies that he has compromised his principles. “Everything I think and say now is what I’ve always thought and said,” he says. If he sounds tough, it is because he is sending a don’t-mess-with-me message to people smugglers. Should the Coalition win the next election, “they’re not going to be dealing with a mug. They’re dealing with someone who will hound them until they don’t exist.”
But surely, by Bishop Tutu’s definition, Morrison is failing in his Christian duty: turning back boats is hardly taking a stand on the side of the poor and the homeless. “How I reconcile that with my faith is, frankly, a matter for me,” he says crisply. He can assure me, though, that he examines his conscience every day. And it is clear.
When Philip Ruddock was immigration minister in the Howard government, he seemed to slowly shrivel and turn grey, as if the moral dilemmas he faced were poisoning his body and destroying his soul. The pressure of the job doesn’t gnaw at Morrison? “I don’t know why you assume that,” he says. “Of course it does. I’m just not one to wear my heart on my sleeve.”
Since the term “boat people” entered the vernacular with the arrival of refugees from Vietnam in the mid-1970s, fewer than 60,000 people seeking asylum have come to this country by sea. In the same period, our population has grown by more than nine million. Yet to read the media releases that pour out of Morrison’s office (“Boat flow continues … More boats … Another boat as people smugglers thumb their noses at Labor …”), you would be forgiven for thinking asylum seekers have mounted an invasion. Morrison tells me that is not at all the message he has intended to convey. “I have never said, ‘We’re being overrun by refugees’, ” he says. “Never, ever said it. I don’t think we are going to be. I’m not concerned about that at all.”
No, what troubles Morrison, he says, is not the number of arrivals but the number of deaths at sea (more than 700 in the past three years). “And the corruption of the refugee humanitarian program, which is seeing people displaced and not able to access our program offshore. And the costs.”
Is Morrison popular in the party room? Ian Macfarlane hesitates. “There’ll be people who won’t like Scott,” the shadow energy minister says. “I think some people are probably frightened of his ability and ambition.” Still, Labor’s legendary numbers man Graham Richardson tips that Morrison will continue his inexorable rise and get the Liberals’ top job. “In the modern era, you need a spotless personal life, which he has,” Richardson says. “He speaks well. He’s tough enough. And frankly, the Liberal Party doesn’t have that many contenders. I would expect him to lead them at some point.”
Richardson, who called his memoirs Whatever It Takes, feels sure that Morrison is a person of integrity. Deep down. “He’s a politician – he’ll exploit any situation to his advantage, as he should,” Richardson says. “But at the core of it all, I think he believes in what he’s doing. I don’t think he’s an act. And I don’t think he hates Muslims.”
One afternoon, I ask Morrison if he prays for asylum seekers. “Of course I do,” he says. “I think that’s part of any Christian’s practice.” A pause. “I’m not saying I do it every day. I’m not saying I do it every month.” But occasionally, yes, he includes them in his prayers.
Jane Cadzow is a regular contributor to the Sun Herald