CHRISTIAN. CONSERVATIVE. ORDINARY …. CUNNING TOO. SCOMO’s PLAN TO BECOME PM

Morrison’s ascension to The Lodge was anything but accidental …

AUSTRALIA … is this the best we can do?

CHRISTIAN. Conservative. Ordinary. CUNNING too. Scott Morrison’s plan to become PM

Scott Morrison came out of the leadership spill against Malcolm Turnbull presenting a clean pair of hands.

But his ascension to The Lodge was anything but accidental.

David Crowe
By David Crowe

Updated August 17, 2019

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The Canberra air was falling towards freezing when Scott Morrison walked to the apartment he shared with his closest allies for a Sunday night meeting that would define his future. It was late on August 19, 2018, and Morrison had left Parliament House moments earlier with his federal cabinet colleagues struggling to contain a crisis. He entered the modern flat, his home away from home when Parliament was sitting, to find his friends already preparing for an upheaval that would remake the government.

Morrison shut the door on the Canberra winter to join his two flatmates and fellow Liberal MPs, Steve Irons and Stuart Robert, and their tactical whiz Alex Hawke, the man they considered their “spear-thrower” because he was so brutally effective at marshalling numbers for a ballot.

They talked past midnight as they considered the deadly manoeuvres against the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, and the brazen claim, spreading through the media, that Peter Dutton, the Home Affairs Minister, already had the numbers to secure the ultimate prize in Australian politics.

Scott Morrison, Peter Dutton, Greg Hunt and Josh Frydenberg listen as Malcolm Turnbull speaks during question time.
Scott Morrison, Peter Dutton, Greg Hunt and Josh Frydenberg listen as Malcolm Turnbull speaks during question time.CREDIT:ALEX ELLINGHAUSEN

*Hawke, a former army reservist who deployed his conservative Liberal Party faction like a battalion, vented his frustration at the way Dutton and his followers were dictating the terms of an imminent leadership spill. “They’re ahead of us,” he said. “We should have been expecting this.” He was anxious at the speed with which Dutton and his allies were briefing journalists and courting backbenchers. Hawke felt he should have been alive to the manoeuvring earlier.

*Robert, who had come to politics after careers as an army officer and recruitment executive, believed the divisions within the government had become so great that a leadership spill was inevitableMalcolm is a dead man walking, he thought. Robert had initially prospered under Turnbull’s leadership, rising to Minister for Human Services, only to be dumped after a scandal over his private visit to China to attend a mining deal in Beijing involving a Liberal Party donor.

Cast out of the ministry, he had everything to gain from a leadership change. Robert calculated Dutton would move that week, most likely on Tuesday morning when the Liberals held their weekly gathering in their party room, and Australia would have a new prime minister. The implications were obvious. Morrison had to be ready to move.

The Morrison Government was born at this moment. Within days, Turnbull was holding a ballot on his own job, Dutton was bulldozing his way towards power and the Parliament was adjourned to allow the Liberal Party to wage its civil war.

The week would end with Morrison being declared the “accidental” prime minister. Except he wasn’t. Every step in his ascension could be traced to this Sunday night conference with the allies who would corral the numbers to make him leader.

Morrison would distance himself from their handiwork, even as he shared his victory with them.

What really happened the week Malcolm Turnbull was knifed

Play video2:51 What really happened the week Malcolm Turnbull was knifed

Political correspondent David Crowe’s new book Venom reveals more details about the 2018 leadership spill and the role Scott Morrison played in bringing down a PM.

Australians were left to wonder just how this new leader had climbed through the rubble of that chaotic week, when Liberals tore down their own government and unleashed fury on themselves, and emerged to claim he had clean hands.

It was political mastery of a kind unseen in Canberra for more than a decade, and it explains why some Liberals see Morrison, 51, as the natural successor to John Howard. Christian. Conservative. Ordinary, perhaps. But crafty, too. And cunning. That is why the leadership convulsion that brought Morrison to power, one year ago this week, will have a lasting fascination in Australian politics.

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Those who triumphed with Morrison are loath to speak publicly about how they did it, while those who tasted defeat with Dutton are reluctant to admit their incompetence.

In writing my book on these times, Venom: Vendettas, Betrayals and the Price of Power, I found the events littered with false storylines. The biggest was that the Dutton and Morrison camps only launched their campaigns for power after Turnbull stunned them with a sudden ballot on his own position, the critical point on the morning of Tuesday, August 21. Yet both camps were preparing long beforehand.

The four men who met that Sunday night were and remain one of the tightest groups in the Liberal Party.

Morrison and his friends had all entered Parliament in the same year, 2007, and attended Bible study and prayers every Tuesday night when in Canberra. There was no uneasiness here with Morrison’s Pentecostal faith. Their shared belief bound the four together in a world where so many politicians could change their allegiances with the weather or the polls. They were a small group but totally loyal to each other – and absolutely disciplined in a crisis.

Morrison, Robert, Hawke and Irons had worked together through the schisms of their party over more than a decade.

Morrison had climbed steadily to become immigration minister and later social services minister, but his final goal was never in doubt.

Robert had spoken of his friend as a future prime minister as far back as 2013, according to ministers who had watched the Morrison crew with suspicion.

Some of Morrison’s biggest supporters had asked him to replace Tony Abbott in 2015, when the knighthood for Prince Philip had shaken their confidence in him and triggered a desperate search for an alternative, but Morrison had played a longer game. Sure in the knowledge he would be treasurer in a Turnbull government, Morrison left Abbott to his fate when the leadership ballot came in September 2015. He had turned down Abbott’s invitation to run for the deputy’s position. He had voted for Abbott, in a public show of loyalty, while his friends threw all their force behind Turnbull. Now, not even three years later, the same ambiguity emerged over Morrison’s loyalties – only this time he would not leave the leadership for others.

As morning broke after their Sunday night conference, Morrison and his friends watched for any manoeuvre that would bring on a challenge. It did not take long for one to emerge. One of Dutton’s longstanding friends, fellow Queenslander Luke Howarth, spoke to colleagues on Monday night and again on Tuesday morning about his intention to call on Turnbull to resign.

Robert thought of this as what the army called a “feint” – a ploy to weaken Turnbull without needing Dutton to declare his hand and mount a challenge.

Scott Morrison displayed public support for Malcolm Turnbull two days before replacing him.
Scott Morrison displayed public support for Malcolm Turnbull two days before replacing him.CREDIT:ALEX ELLINGHAUSEN

Meanwhile, Turnbull studied the options to corner his opponents. He knew Howarth would try to provoke him in the party room and had no intention of allowing it. Turnbull would not sit meekly while backbenchers turned to Dutton. He was awake before dawn that Tuesday to put his plan to those he could trust. He sent a message to his principal private secretary, Sally Cray, at 5.34am: Are you up? They spoke soon afterwards about a plan Turnbull had already put to his wife, Lucy, to force his opponent into the open.

Turnbull wanted to call a leadership ballot on his own terms. He would use the Liberal meeting at nine o’clock that morning to tell colleagues the time had come to settle the doubts over his position.

This meant declaring the leadership open and allowing a call for candidates. One option for the entire parliamentary party was to show loyalty and confirm Turnbull in his position.

But Turnbull was also inviting danger. A vote would be held if an alternative candidate rose.

Turnbull had only a few hours before the meeting to call his colleagues and test their views. Telling them of his plan would go too far because the word would reach Dutton and his supporters. The conversations, in about 20 phone calls, were general but the question was obvious. Would you support me? Turnbull seemed confident he had a majority.

“I believe you are with Dutton,” Turnbull told Robert when he called him at 7.13am. Robert rubbished the idea. He told Turnbull the Morrison group was behind him. “We’re all supporting you,” he said.

The reality was not so simple – some members of the wider Morrison bloc were quietly prepared to vote for Dutton. They were giving up on Turnbull after his long slump in the opinion polls, his inability to unify the party on policies such as climate change and his failed campaign to win the Longman byelection in Queensland weeks earlier. But Robert’s assurance eased Turnbull’s mind.

In another call, Turnbull told Hawke he believed he had support from more than 50 of the 85 members of the Liberal party room. Hawke told him this was wrong and his support was only in the high 40s – dangerously close to failure. How could Hawke be so sure? The PM and his team were not the only ones counting the numbers.

At 9am, Turnbull stood at the front of the party room in his position as leader and chair of the meeting. He spoke briefly – so briefly, in fact, that MPs had trouble remembering his words.

Then came the thunderbolt: he wanted a vote on the leadership to stop the speculation. Howarth began to stand to make the speech he had been preparing all night, but he was too late. Turnbull had started the formal process for a ballot. There were no speeches at a time like this: party tradition dictated a vote with few words. In a symbolic demonstration that the leadership was vacant, Turnbull left his place at the front of the room, his traditional location facing the assembled MPs, and walked to a seat in the front row.

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There was a call for nominations. Turnbull stood. There was a pause. Dutton rose from his chair. There was a groan from some in the room. This moment shattered the fragile concord that kept the government together. Watching this without saying a word, some cabinet ministers were utterly shocked despite the long period of speculation and positioning toward exactly this decision.

Liberals waited with a sense of dread until the numbers came: 48 votes for Turnbull, 35 for Dutton. A murmur seemed to go around the room, as if a collective thought was given voice. Only eight votes in it. There were 85 Liberals in the party room but one had abstained and another was absent.

A second challenge was almost certain now that Dutton had made his fateful decision and the numbers were so close. Everyone knew it. History showed that challengers who failed at first could retreat to the backbench and strike again, just as Paul Keating had done against Bob Hawke decades earlier.

For Dutton, there was no turning back. He would look weak to his conservative colleagues, and his barrackers in the media, if he gave up now. Liberals dispersed quickly and the opposing camps weighed up their options in this dangerous new dynamic.

The Morrison camp gathered immediately in Alex Hawke’s office. Into the room came Robert, Irons and others, all of them knowing this ballot settled nothing. Hawke suspected at first that Dutton would challenge again in a fortnight, but he soon thought again. Hawke began to war game a second ballot to be held within days. He formalised his preparations with a WhatsApp messaging group, called The Project, with a membership that included Morrison, Hawke, Robert, Irons, and others over time.

There was no doubt some of Morrison’s supporters helped bring on this crisis. Members of the group estimated five of their 15 had deserted Turnbull and sided with Dutton in the Tuesday vote.

The Morrison camp portrayed the votes for Dutton that morning as spontaneous. To others they looked strategic – and devastating for Turnbull.

“Votes were split and spread and there was nothing co-ordinated,” Robert said later. “It was more shock than anything. When you spring it on people, they don’t have time to think. Nobody had planned anything because nobody thought he would be so stupid as to call a spill.

Robert was able to send a text message to Morrison during the meeting but he denied trying to add to the numbers for Dutton. His account, long after the events, was that he had been waiting for Howarth to launch a denunciation of the leader and did not expect the leader to call a vote. “Malcolm established a crisis,” Robert said. “Dutton was trying to establish one. Malcolm established it for him. It wasn’t just a mistake. It was a horrendous mistake.”

Morrison’s group had the opportunity to encourage the Dutton challenge, weaken Turnbull and clear the way for their preferred leader to emerge.

Turnbull had arranged by 8.30am to tell the chief whip to prepare for a ballot, a piece of strategic information of immense value that morning.

The fact that one of Morrison’s allies, Bert van Manen, was a deputy whip, and therefore had access to more information than others, only deepened the suspicions that Morrison’s allies came to the ballot with an intent to force change. This required a level of co-ordination they all dismissed. Yet there was no question that about five of them – the precise number was conjecture – had helped tip the party room over the edge.

One Liberal encountered Irons in a Parliament House corridor in the hours after the vote. The Morrison ally did not look unhappy at the day’s events. “You know this is just the start. It’s not over,” he said.

One man had more power than most to control this agitated party room. The Finance Minister, Mathias Cormann, was shocked and angry at Turnbull’s tactics. Cormann, a man who had arrived from Belgium decades earlier and worked his way to the top of Australian politics, was one of the government’s most senior and reliable ministers, yet he struggled now to choose between stability or revolt.

Cormann and Dutton were so close they walked every morning at dawn when Parliament was sitting so they could keep fit and talk politics on their way up Canberra’s Red Hill. This made Cormann the natural intermediary to broker a peace agreement between the two leadership contenders, but the negotiations ended in an impasse over whether Dutton might serve as Turnbull’s deputy. It was an idea that appealed to Cormann but led to recriminations later when Dutton and Turnbull each accused the other of suggesting it first.

Sally Cray implored Cormann to steady the ship. As a confidante who had worked for Turnbull for years, in government or not, she was loyal to him at every stage. She and her fellow adviser, David Bold, made a crucial visit to Cormann to try to keep the government together.

This meeting, never before disclosed, was the final effort to prevent Cormann abandoning Turnbull and supporting a second challenge. It came at a critical stage when Morrison’s allies were persuading their colleagues to support him as an alternative leader.

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Cray sent a message to Cormann to argue against the idea that Turnbull should resign to allow an orderly transition to the declared challengerYou do know if MT resigns that ScoMo will win, she wrote to Cormann at 10.56am on Wednesday.

The Prime Minister’s allies were still confident he had enough support to see off another challenge from Dutton in a second ballot that week, but they also calculated the party room would elect Morrison over Dutton if given the choice. The Home Affairs Minister was the hard face of controversial policies, not least offshore detention for asylum seekers, and considered too divisive for many Liberals outside his home state of Queensland.

Cray and Bold visited Cormann in his office that Wednesday to urge him to be more sceptical of Dutton’s claims. Cormann offered a simple message: I can’t hold back the tide. Cormann thought Turnbull was finished because the party was riven – and because Dutton would not stop.

It was 11.11am. Within the hour Cormann would visit Turnbull to tell him he should resign and allow Dutton to take his place. This was the vital moment when the energy and discipline of the Morrison camp put the leadership within reach. Morrison’s allies were moving more quickly than the Dutton camp had calculated. Robert told Morrison he could not stand on the sidelines. “The national interest requires you to run,” he said. “They’re coming after Malcolm. It doesn’t stop.”

Morrison did not want to authorise an open attempt to gain votes. He did not give “permission” for a recruitment drive, but his closest friends in Parliament did not need to wait for his blessing.

The leadership rivals circled each other while a media debate raged over the government’s chaos. The idea of a combined ticket, with Dutton and Morrison joining forces, came up briefly on Thursday morning when the two men met in the office of Christopher Pyne, the leader of the moderate wing.

Dutton put the question: “Is there an agreement to be struck here or not?” The numbers gave Dutton an advantage, given his conservative bloc numbered at least twice that of Morrison’s personal following, but neither man was interested in serving as the other’s deputy. There was no bond between them. Morrison had kept his distance from Dutton for years.

United, they could claim an easy victory. As rivals, they could not be sure of their chances.

Their conversation ended and they went their separate ways. Dutton had to find more supporters while preventing anyone deserting his cause.

Morrison could only succeed if he had the moderate wing of the party by his side, an unlikely prospect when so many moderates recoiled from his conservative social views – like the fact he’d not voted for same-sex marriage even when it was approved by the Australian public in a postal survey, while more pragmatic ministers like Dutton voted in Parliament to put the national “Yes” vote into effect.

Again, though, Morrison confounded his rivals. He not only secured support from Pyne and the moderates, but convinced one of Turnbull’s own allies to help.

Alex Hawke (left) and Stuart Robert were among Scott Morrison’s closest allies.
Alex Hawke (left) and Stuart Robert were among Scott Morrison’s closest allies.CREDIT:ALEX ELLINGHAUSEN

Craig Laundy, heir to a pub empire stretching from Sydney to country NSW, felt wretched as he watched his colleagues desert their Prime Minister.

Laundy had helped elevate Turnbull in 2015 and would support him to the end, but he also wanted to ensure Dutton did not prevail. That meant helping Morrison.

Laundy joined a war council in Hawke’s office on the afternoon of Thursday, August 23. In the room were Robert, Irons, van Manen and other Morrison supporters.

Name by name, Hawke and Robert read out a list of MPs and discussed how they thought they had voted in the secret ballot on Tuesday and how they might vote in a second challenge.

Laundy found himself disagreeing over the names they claimed had voted for Dutton but would switch to Morrison. He told the group that one MP they mentioned was “100 per cent” with Turnbull on Tuesday.

Robert disagreed with a smile. “You’ve now worked out we haven’t always been on the same team,” he said, in Laundy’s account of this exchange.

Laundy fell silent. He pondered how this group could be so sure they had a cohort of MPs who would vote for Dutton in one ballot and move to Morrison a few days later.

“I felt sick in the guts,” he said later. “It would be fair to say I was in shock.”

He walked back to the Prime Minister’s suite, entered Cray’s office, shut the door behind him and spoke: “We’ve been played.” Laundy believed the Morrison lieutenants were not just speculating on names but knew with precision that a group of MPs had backed Dutton when they were loyal to Morrison.

This explained why the support for Turnbull was softer on Tuesday than Laundy had expected and why Dutton had gained 35 votes when his opponents thought he could not secure more than 30.

From this sprang the suspicion that Morrison had given his supporters approval, either tacit or explicit, to abandon the PM.

“I wasn’t shocked,” Cray said of this moment when asked about it later. “It was just confirmation of something I already sensed.” Bold, who was also in the office when Laundy returned from the meeting, had the same response. “It wasn’t like it came as a complete surprise,” he said later. They had all seen Morrison profess loyalty to Abbott as leader in 2015 when his supporters voted for the challenger.

*Why would he not do it again?

Robert denied trying to co-ordinate votes on Tuesday to build up Dutton’s numbers and make a second challenge inevitable. “The idea that you could inflate the numbers on a snap call is nuts,” he said. Even so, Morrison’s lieutenants had planned carefully to build their numbers while Turnbull was still leader.

Robert saw this as seeking the best outcome for the party: Morrison as prime minister.

To others it looked like treachery – and they claimed more proof of it when some of Morrison’s supporters, those who claimed to be with Turnbull, signed a petition to force the second ballot once it was clear Morrison was running.

The second ballot, held at lunchtime on Friday, shattered Laundy and other Turnbull allies.

The motion to remove the Prime Minister was carried by 45 to 40 votes.

*Turnbull had lost by a margin so narrow it shocked many of those in the room. Three votes were enough to make the difference. The big lie of the week, that Turnbull had lost his majority days earlier, was exposed. He would have kept his majority if Cormann and other ministers, such as Mitch Fifield and Michaelia Cash, had stood by him.

It would have been a narrow majority, not enough to prevent another battering from Dutton, but it might have given Turnbull time.

The second round was over within minutes. There were 40 votes for Dutton and 45 for Morrison.

The Liberals walked from their party room in a state of exhaustion, some of them gutted by the infighting, while others were relieved at the rise of their new leader.

Dutton and Cormann were stony-faced as they left the room. Cormann was diminished. The Liberals who had trusted his judgment wondered how he had misread the support for Dutton and brought on a stampede. Was he really the safe pair of hands they had thought?

Steve Irons described the initial ballot on Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership as “just a start”.
Steve Irons described the initial ballot on Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership as “just a start”. CREDIT:ALEX ELLINGHAUSEN

The Morrison allies who outsmarted the Dutton camp now assumed positions of influence in the new regime.

Hawke became Special Minister of State, Robert became Assistant Treasurer and Irons was named an assistant minister.

There were smiles as the new ministers were sworn in, but most Liberals braced for an election disaster. Morrison alone conveyed total confidence in his capacity to win. Voters flayed the government in the published polls but the Liberal Party’s polling showed a slim chance of success: a narrow path to victory to be studied in dozens of meetings over months.

Like a goat track to a summit, the path was so difficult it could only be traversed in the best weather. The Coalition would need to win at least two seats from Labor, stem its losses in Melbourne and hold ground in Queensland and Western Australia. All this seemed unlikely, even outlandish, when the research was so dire, but there was only one way forward. The climb began.

Josh Frydenberg, declared the deputy leader with a thumping majority, chose the Treasury portfolio and tried to calm a rattled party room. He invited Morrison and his wife, Jenny, to dinner at his Melbourne home with his wife, Amy. Even small things like a home-cooked meal meant something after the hostilities of August.

Political leaders and their deputies are not always close but the two new leaders worked at it, to the point where Morrison asked Frydenberg to stay in a spare room in Kirribilli House when in Sydney for work.

The election victory led by Morrison, when it came in May, was unbelievable for so many Liberals.

Yet the words that defined the outcome were those of Morrison himself. The difference was not in the number of seats won but in the expectations for each leader.

Morrison appeared before a cheering crowd at midnight to declare the result was a win for the “quiet Australians” who aspired to work hard and do better in life.

Nobody could be sure who these quiet Australians were – by income, suburb, profession or belief – because they could be anybody and everybody.

Morrison, the cunning politician and suburban everyman, claimed the victory for a group of supporters only he could define.

This was a victory to savour for Morrison and the tight group of friends who had put him on his path to the prime ministership on that Sunday night the previous winter. They had shown themselves to be a political unit that could outmanoeuvre any opponent.

*Abbott was voted out of Parliament, while Turnbull left to write his memoirs. Dutton and Cormann kept their positions but lost power and prestige. All had fallen or failed, while the Morrison crew had prospered at every stage.

Robert rose to cabinet, Irons moved on to the frontbench’s lower rungs and Hawke gained a ministry with responsibilities in defence and the Pacific.

Morrison himself cemented his hold on power by amending the Liberal rules for spills. Any leader who wins an election can only be removed by a “super majority” of 66 per cent of the party room, up from a simple majority.

Former prime ministers Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull, and current Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

Perhaps this will end the cycle. Perhaps it will give dissenters a more challenging target when fostering unrest. No rule can stop a subterranean conflict. Given a higher threshold, those intent on their own advancement might resort to more vicious tactics, more public disloyalty, more briefing to the media, more aggression to achieve their ends. The rules adjust the price of power, not the hunger for it.

David Crowe is chief political correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. His book Venom: Vendettas, Betrayals and the Price of Power (HarperCollins, $35) is out August 19. Click here for more information.

To read more from Good Weekend magazine, visit our page at The Sydney Morning HeraldThe Age and Brisbane Times.

David Crowe

David Crowe is chief political correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

"This is my leader and I'm ambitious for him!"

Then-Treasurer Scott Morrison and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull during question time on August 21, 2018.

SOURCE: https://www.smh.com.au/politics/federal/christian-conservative-ordinary-cunning-too-scott-morrison-s-plan-to-become-pm-20190813-p52gqr.html

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