Scott Morrison is not an ‘accidental’ Prime Minister. ‘He was in it right up to his neck’ in the overthrow of Malcolm Turnbull(Peter Hartcher, SMH 26.3.2019)May 10, 2019
The first vote of the week, on August 21,was a two man contest between Turnbull and Dutton. Morrison was not in the contest. His numbers men organised for five Morrison supporters to vote for Dutton in the first spill ballot. It was a ruse-those five votes were not aiming to instal Dutton as leader. They were ‘parked ‘temporarily as votes for Dutton in a bid to slam Turnbull. Then, when Turnbull’s position became hopeless, the way would be open for Morrison to enter the contest. The five would then switch to Morrison. It worked..
Joyce told Turnbull. ‘But Morrison is a schemer.Watch out for him. He’s going to come for you’
The following is the text of Peter Hartcher’s account.
[Note how often Morrison says he cannot recall in the same way that he could not recall urging Liberal Party parliamentarians to beat the anti Muslim drum . John Menadue]
When a reporter asked Scott Morrison if he had ambitions for Malcolm Turnbull’s job at a joint press conference, he responded by throwing a friendly arm around his prime minister’s shoulder.
“This is my leader and I’m ambitious for him!” he declared exuberantly.
That was on August 22, 2018. Two days later, Turnbull was gone. Morrison had taken his place.
Morrison has been careful to cultivate the appearance of the “accidental prime minister”, a loyal member of the Turnbull team who only stepped up to contest the position once his prime minister gave him his blessing to do so.
Yet today stories circulate in the Liberal party that suggest Morrison was already quietly preparing to contest the leadership should it come into play.
Only two days before his public declaration of loyalty, Morrison had spoken to Health Minister Greg Hunt in a phone call about shoring up support for Turnbull. Yet Hunt told colleagues at the time that the then treasurer had also subtly sounded him out to see if he was interested in joining a possible Morrison leadership bid as his deputy. It was the day before Turnbull brought on the initial spill motion of that fateful week
Morrison dismisses this version of events as false.
And the day before his public declaration of loyalty, a member of Peter Dutton’s conservative support group approached Morrison to see if he was interested in running as deputy to Dutton in a widely expected second spill.
Morrison turned down the suggestion. As the conservative envoy later recounted to colleagues, the treasurer refused because he believed he was better qualified than Dutton to be prime minister.
“I’ve been immigration minister (a component of Dutton’s job as Home Affairs Minister) and I’ve been treasurer, and I know it’s too much of a leap for an immigration minister to become prime minister,” Morrison said, according to the envoy.
“It’s a much smaller leap for a treasurer to become prime minister.”
Morrison has since said he has no recollection of this conversation in a long night of many conversations.
Because of these – and other – accounts circulating in the party, Dutton has told colleagues that “Scott was in it from the word go”.
Morrison has consistently denied plotting against Turnbull, or any other colleague. As he puts it publicly, “I was not part of the movement” to dispatch Turnbull. But, in retrospect, the evidence suggests that he was positioning himself to take advantage of any such upheaval. Even as he did, he was also defending Turnbull in public and even to some of his colleagues in private.
“Plausible deniability was very important to Morrison,” says a senior Liberal who supported Turnbull. He wanted to come to the prime ministership with clean hands so he could unite the party and avoid recriminations. “But he was in it right up to his neck.”
And Morrison’s acolytes within the Liberal caucus were very much part of the movement to get rid of Turnbull. They employed a devious tactic in the balloting for the leadership.
The first vote of the week, on August 21, was a two-man contest between Turnbull and Dutton. Morrison was not in the contest. His numbers men organised for five Morrison supporters to vote for Dutton in the first spill ballot.
It was a ruse – those five were not aiming to install Dutton as leader. They were “parked” temporarily as votes for Dutton in a bid to slam Turnbull. Then, when Turnbull’s position became hopeless, the way would be open for Morrison to enter the contest. The five would then switch support to Morrison. It worked.
So while Morrison himself was vowing support for the prime minister, his organisers acted to inflict maximum damage on Turnbull’s prime ministership.
Morrison’s inner group has taken a pledge not to divulge any of their machinations. “We pulled off the miraculous,” one boasted, and miracles are beyond explanation. No briefing of journalists, no writing of books, they all agreed.
But it was too late. Because Morrison’s people spelled it out for one of Turnbull’s, face-to-face, during the week of the leadership contest.
Here’s how. Once Turnbull had realised he probably couldn’t survive, his key numbers man, Craig Laundy, the workplace minister at the time, agreed to talk to Morrison’s backers about the situation. They were now openly doing the numbers for Morrison. The Turnbull and Morrison camps were united in seeking to block Dutton.
Laundy sat down in the office of one of Morrison’s key organisers, Alex Hawke, on Thursday afternoon, two days after the first ballot.
He found himself in a meeting with Morrison’s core support crew – Hawke, Stuart Robert, Ben Morton, Lucy Wicks and Bert van Manen. It was the Morrison prayer group that met on Tuesday nights in parliamentary sitting weeks.
They asked Laundy for a rundown on Turnbull’s numbers and compared notes. As the group worked through the names of MPs and senators and how they lined up behind the contenders, the ruse of the five parked votes emerged.
Laundy took his news immediately to the prime minister’s office. He walked in on a huddle of senior Turnbull staffers. They were struck by how shocked Laundy seemed. Laundy laid out the story. He advised the staff not to tell their boss – the depth of the double-dealing would break him. The staff informed Turnbull nonetheless.
Was Morrison personally involved? Did he know what his numbers men were up to? Turnbull’s supporters and staff didn’t know.
Barnaby Joyce had warned Turnbull against Morrison’s intentions. While Joyce was still leader of the Nationals and deputy prime minister, the pair met weekly in private. Joyce called them “the state of the union” sessions. More than once, he ran through the three top contenders for the Liberal leadership and dismissed two of them.
“You don’t have to worry about Julie Bishop because her colleagues don’t take her seriously, and Peter Dutton is too right-wing,” Joyce told Turnbull. “But Morrison is a schemer. Watch out for him. He’s going to come for you.”
To be noted as a schemer in a profession of schemers is a professional compliment. Such was Morrison’s reputation in the Coalition. It’s not entirely without foundation.
A striking feature of Morrsion’s ascent to the prime ministership is that it has never been explained. Australia is baffled. Why was Turnbull struck down? Who is Scott Morrison? And why is he prime minister?
Before becoming PM, only around half of Australians – 54 per cent – polled had even heard of Morrison, according to a ministerial recognition survey by the Australia Institute. He was hardly the people’s choice.
Even now, after nearly seven months as the nation’s leader, one in four Australians do not recognise him, according to an update of the same poll this month.
And today the leadership churn remains a live irritant among the people. Internal Liberal party research shows that it is one of the two biggest reservations that Australians have about voting Liberal at the forthcoming election – the fecklessness that has installed three leaders in three years, and the government’s approach to climate change.
Labor exploits this by routinely asking Morrison at the beginning of Parliament’s question time: “Can the Prime Minister please explain why Malcolm Turnbull is no longer prime minister?”
One compelling reason that has proved unspeakable is personal ambition. It was the personal ambition of Dutton that helped throw the leadership into chaos, and it was Morrison’s personal ambition that saw him emerge triumphant from the chaos as Australia’s 30th prime minister.
Dutton was open about his ambition. But Morrison kept his carefully cloaked, feigning disinterest in promotion even as he worked towards it.
To Morrison’s senior colleagues, however, it’s long been plain. Tony Abbott regaled colleagues with an account of one hotly disputed episode, one which Morrison emphatically denies ever happened.
In Abbott’s telling, when he was prime minister he had a visit from his then immigration minister. Scott Morrison had come with a specific mission. He wanted to be appointed treasurer. An obstacle: the job wasn’t vacant. Australia already had a treasurer, Joe Hockey. It was early in 2015.
“Joe is completely hopeless, he’s ballsed up the budget,” Morrison told his leader, according to the account Abbott gave his colleagues at that time. “You have to get rid of him and put me in.” Hockey was under immense pressure over the 2014-15 budget, an unpopular set of proposals to cut federal spending. The standing of the entire government was suffering.
In Abbott’s account, he responded: “Scott, I’m at least as much the author of the budget as Joe is,” he told Morrison. “So I couldn’t sack Joe without sacking myself.” Abbott told colleagues this account, including Hockey, at the time. Morrison declares it utter fiction. This is a hotly disputed episode that has been in circulation for some time. Clearly, it remains a hotly disputed episode.
Abbott has told colleagues that, from that moment, it was clear to him that Morrison was “in cahoots with Turnbull”, determined to bring Abbott down.
Abbott soon found himself facing an insurrection. A petition to spill the Liberal leadership circulated in February, 2015. It was to become famous as the “empty chair challenge”. Abbott survived. But 39 of 100 Liberal MPs and senators had voted for the spill even though there was no declared challenger.
It was farcical. It was also a striking vote of no confidence in the prime minister and the beginning of the end for Abbott. “Morrison was the prime architect of the ’empty chair challenge'”, Turnbull told colleagues after the event.
This seems to be an overstatement. The MP who moved the spill motion was Luke Simpkins, no longer in Parliament. He’d been beside himself with frustration over Abbott’s leadership and wanted him replaced. He says that it was entirely his own initiative. “No one called me or asked me to do it,” he says.
“I called Morrison and asked him to run. He wasn’t interested.” In Morrison’s memory, that was the end of the call. But Simpkins’ version of the conversation continues: “I told him I was going to move the spill anyway.”
Morrison’s alleged response was to say: “It’s a big step but if you’ve thought about it and you feel strongly about it then you should do it.”
So Morrison was hardly the instigator. But on Simpkins’ account, he said nothing to discourage him.
What was in it for Morrison? If Abbott would not give Morrison what he wanted, he found someone else who would. Turnbull promised him the job that Abbott denied him – the treasury. He gave it to him the moment they succeeded in destroying Abbott.
Hockey also suspected an element of Morrison “getting square” in his demand for Hockey’s head. The two men had clashed in the early months of the Liberals’ return to power under Abbott.
It was not a well known collision. It took place in the secrecy of the Cabinet’s budget sub-grouping, the Expenditure Review Committee, in early 2014 as the Abbott government prepared its first budget.
As the new immigration minister, Morrison brought forward a proposal to start detaining asylum seekers who were living in Australia on bridging visas awaiting the outcome of applications for permanent visas, according to multiple former and current ministers and officials.
These were people living in the community. Morrison asked for $9 billion to $10 billion over the four-year forward estimates to pay for a mass detention program. There were some 30,000 people in this category in Australia at that time. Not all would necessarily be detained at once, according to people familiar with the proposal.
One argument in its favour was that this policy would serve as a deterrent to asylum seeker boats arrivals.
Hockey, the treasurer, “hit the roof”, in the words of one participant at the meeting. His main objection was not budgetary but humane. He said that the government was not about to start rounding people up off the streets and putting them in mass detention centres, according to a participant.
A spokesman for the Prime Minister said that Morrison said he had no recollection of such a proposal.
It is understood that the proposal survived the initial meeting but that Abbott later vetoed it. It did not go to a full cabinet meeting as a result.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull says he awaits a letter with signatures of a majority before convening a party room meeting.In August 2018, as the Turnbull government reeled from one spill motion to another in its final week, the president of the Liberal Party, Nick Greiner, tried to snap his parliamentary colleagues out of their self-destructive behaviour. As the factions and aspirants clashed in the name of a “struggle for the soul” of the party, Greiner went on TV and said: “It’s not about the soul of the Liberal Party. It’s about the soul of the nation.”
As personal ambition and enmity acted as an accelerant on the fire of factional frustrations to bring the Turnbull government to a premature end, the nation was only an afterthought.