The new generation at the top is aligned to the Prime Minister and … These are people who will literally shape the Australian story for the foreseeable future.” … senior policy manager at the Property Council of Australia, Tourism … “There was a definite shift in donations and support after Morrison took over
Morrison worked as national policy and research manager for the Property Council of Australia from 1989 to 1995. He then moved into tourism, serving as Deputy Chief Executive of the Australian Tourism Task Force
BSc(Hons) (University of New South Wales). National Manager, Policy and Research Property Council of Australia 1989-95. Deputy Chief Executive, Australian .
Morrison drains the swamp his own way
A hard-nosed clique of reformers has been deployed by the PM to underwrite a new set of credentials for the Coalition.
Scott Morrison is building a new power bloc around his leadership, dismantling the old “Canberra club” with a network of friends, confidants, bureaucrats and trusted allies tasked with reshaping Australia’s political, cultural and policy direction.
The shake-up marks a generational shift in the power base of the mandarins and political class who have ruled over economic, environmental and social policy, national security and the role of business in government decision making.
It has been deliberate, methodical and politically nonpartisan but purposefully calibrated to serve a dual purpose.
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The new generation at the top is aligned to the Prime Minister and his agenda in a way not seen since the early days of the Howard government, and has been instructed to design and build new foundations for how the country is run. Morrison’s hard-nosed clique of reformers has been deployed to underwrite a new set of credentials for the Coalition’s 2022 election agenda by delivering real outcomes.
“These are people who can deliver, they are about action, not theory,” a senior government insider told The Weekend Australian. “It has been deliberately set up, and in a nonpartisan way … not Labor or Liberal but rather action versus inaction. These are people who will literally shape the Australian story for the foreseeable future.”
A tight-knit group of newly minted department heads, senior staff and friends has been anointed as part of Morrison’s inner and outer sanctums of power.
The Weekend Australian was provided a rare glimpse into the workings of the new power circle on Thursday morning. The Prime Minister had called a meeting of his leadership group ahead of axing five department heads and establishing four new super departments.
Sitting around the table were Josh Frydenberg, to whom he is closest, Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, Trade Minister Simon Birmingham, Attorney-General Christian Porter, Nationals leader Michael McCormack and his deputy Bridget McKenzie, Liberal Party federal director Andrew Hirst and new addition, Health Minister Greg Hunt.
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Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne, the most senior woman in government, has a broader role in the leadership group. Morrison has known her for more than 25 years, establishing a close friendship. She is Morrison’s eyes and ears on the factional warring within the moderate wing of the NSW branch of the Liberal Party. Frydenberg, McCormack and Cormann are also more than advisers. They are the first voices he relies on for wisdom and counsel.
Sitting on the sidelines of the meeting were key players in Morrison’s inner sanctum. His closest political advisers are chief of staff John Kunkel, a former Rio Tinto executive and Howard staff member; principal private secretary Yaron Finkelstein; and Andrew Shearer, a former national security adviser to John Howard and Tony Abbott, brought back by Morrison from a Washington think tank to become one of the most influential figures in government. Other inner-sanctum figures include communications director Andrew Carswell, a former chief of staff at The Daily Telegraph; Nico Louw, who as Morrison’s executive officer is the Prime Minister’s “link to everything and everyone” and barely leaves his side; and national security adviser Michelle Chan.
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With the exception of the Treasurer, West Australian MP Ben Morton, the Assistant Minister to the Prime Minister, is considered the closest to the PM. Morton, who like Morrison was a former Liberal Party state director, acts as a conduit to the business community and is a key figure in the Australian Public Service shake-up.
While not publicly visible or involved in the day-to-day running of the Prime Minister’s office, Morrison’s two close friends outside of politics, David Gazard and Scott Briggs, are perhaps as influential as anyone.
Central to Morrison’s strategy has been the purge of the public service — a clean-out that is far from over but designed, according to insiders, to not impose “a night of the long knives”. There is now a handful of new bureaucratic clusters, led by people with whom Morrison has forged tight relationships through the crucible of policy and political hardships during his days as treasurer, social services and immigration minister.
Leading the reform agenda across the whole of government is the new Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet head Phil Gaetjens, Home Affairs secretary Mike Pezzullo, Treasury secretary Steven Kennedy, Infrastructure and Transport tsar Simon Atkinson, Social Services chief Kathryn Campbell, and David Fredericks, tapped to head the new Department of Industry, Energy, Science and Resources. The links to Morrison are as stark as some of the links these new mandarins have to each other.
Gaetjens was installed as Treasury secretary from his role as then-treasurer Morrison’s chief of staff, the same job he held in Peter Costello’s office. The two would speak regularly and became close. Gaetjens represented the first move in the changing of the guard when he was installed as DPMC head after it became clear Martin Parkinson was unlikely to be part of Morrison’s long-term team. As part of this week’s APS clean-out, Parkinson’s wife Heather was one of the five secretaries told their services were no longer required.
Gaetjens’s replacement as Treasury boss is Kennedy, who had driven the infrastructure portfolio for the past two years after rising through the ranks of multiple departments and considered by insiders as a pragmatic “doer”. Kennedy, who held senior roles under the Rudd government, also worked with Pezzullo in Defence.
Pezzullo, the former defence adviser to Kim Beazley who has become a controversial “hard man” in charge of national security, came to Morrison’s attention early on and was hand-picked to roll out Operation Sovereign Borders in 2014 as the new head of immigration and border protection. The public service veteran, who joined the Department of Defence as a graduate in 1987, was recently reappointed by Morrison and wields significant power across the APS as head of Home Affairs, a mega-agency he was crucial in setting up. As a former Labor staff member, Pezzullo had risen through the ranks with Fredericks, who had been a former senior adviser to Beazley, Kevin Rudd and Penny Wong.
Atkinson, a former chief of staff to Cormann instrumental in shaping the budget, and then cabinet secretary under Malcolm Turnbull, was promoted last month from his Treasury deputy secretary role to take charge of an expanded infrastructure department. The new job, which now includes responsibility for the national broadband network rollout, is viewed as key in delivering major infrastructure projects, a key plank of Morrison’s economic stimulus plan. The qualified barrister, who worked with Pezzullo on the 2009 defence white paper, is close friends with Shearer.
Orbiting this group are Campbell, the Army Reserve commander, Defence secretary Greg Moriarty and Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade secretary Frances Adamson, a former ambassador to China whom Morrison rates despite rumours she was also for the chopping block.
Moriarty, a former defence intelligence officer, had forged a relationship with the PM as ambassador to Indonesia when Morrison was working on the regional architecture for Operation Sovereign Borders. Campbell had led the welfare reforms that Morrison implemented during his stint as social services minister and is considered one of the most effective public service chiefs.
Morrison’s nonpartisan approach to a more subtle version of Donald Trump’s draining of the Washington swamp has retained key people from the Turnbull administration, resurrected some from the Abbott era and empowered mandarins who worked under Labor. A surprising move came this week, when Morrison resurrected the APS career of Andrew Metcalfe, who was removed following Abbott’s election victory in 2013. He now leads Agriculture, Water and Environment, a new super department set up to streamline government delivery on drought and water policy.
A member of Morrison’s inner sanctum described it as a “focused” group.
“Scott comes to the job with a very clear idea of what he wants to do … a clear judgment, and an instinct of what the politics are,” they said. “It is a very tight-knit group … and it’s not a chinwag and a chat. It intelligently deals with issues as they arise … like drought … and while Morrison gives ministers autonomy he also gives them very clear expectations that ministers have to deliver. That’s how the Westminster systems are meant to work, right?”
Morrison has moved to reshape Australia’s national security architecture led by Pezzullo. The retirement of long-time ASIO chief Duncan Lewis and Australian Federal Police commissioner Andrew Colvin, and speculation over powerful National Intelligence director-general Nick Warner’s future, has provided an opportunity for Morrison to inject new blood into the security community.
Angus Campbell — who had worked with Morrison in establishing OSB — had been appointed chief of the Defence Force only a month before Turnbull’s demise. In addition to General Campbell, Morrison has appointed Mike Burgess as ASIO director-general and Reece Kershaw as AFP commissioner. The Australian Signals Directorate will also have new leadership in the coming months.
Morrison’s assault against Labor’s obsession with the “big end of town” contrasts his own dealings with business chiefs. As a former treasurer, Morrison naturally retains a wide pool of contacts and networks across corporate Australia. But unlike some of his predecessors, Morrison doesn’t chase their approval or support. He has a laser-like focus on the interests of suburban families and aspirational Australians and knows — like Trump — there is little appetite for the bad behaviour of big banks and financial institutions or tax-dodging multinationals. This approach shapes his contact with corporate high-flyers. Morrison’s key advisers are not the usual millionaires and high-achievers. They are executives and business leaders who have unique backstories, are leaders in their field or with whom he has forged ties throughout his career.
Former colleagues and contacts from his time as NSW Liberal Party state director, senior policy manager at the Property Council of Australia, Tourism Australia managing director — and more recently in parliament — act as sounding boards for Morrison.
The contact may not be frequent but Morrison will reach seeking practical advice to assist in the implementation of his economic and social vision.
Mark Bouris — the founder of Wizard Home Loans who later launched Yellow Brick Road — is one of Morrison’s mates. His is an extraordinary tale, the self-made entrepreneur who took on the big banks and became Australia’s Trump on The Apprentice. The pair — who were photographed at the footy after Morrison became PM — speak about small business and housing reforms and Bouris backed-in Morrison hard against Bill Shorten’s big taxing agenda.
Macquarie Group’s trailblazing Shemara Wikramanayake is another who has crashed through barriers. The Macquarie Group executive is the only female chief executive among Australia’s 20 biggest companies by market value and the first Asian-Australian woman to head an ASX 200 listed company.
Another friend, Adrian Harrington, was tapped to join the government’s National Housing Finance and Investment Corporation board, illustrating a Morrison tendency to recruit contemporaries and promote allies into key roles. Harrington and Morrison remain close after working together at the Property Council of Australia in the early 1990s.
A common theme sprinkled across Morrison’s inner and outer sanctums is the Prime Minister’s faith. Friends and advisers including Stuart Robert, his former flatmate who won a promotion to lead Morrison’s government services overhaul, and former NSW police commissioner Andrew Scipione, are devout Christians.
Briggs — chairman of Morrison’s Cook federal electoral council and factional backer who helped engineer the numbers to deliver his close mate the leadership by five votes — remains a key adviser. Visibility around Morrison’s closeness to Briggs — a board director at the Cronulla Sharks — has been limited due to Briggs’s role in a consortium bid aiming to secure a government visa-processing contract estimated to be worth $1bn.
Morrison’s inner sanctum is considered more consultative and nimble than the offices of Abbott and Turnbull, which were dominated by smaller spheres of influence. Unlike his predecessors, Morrison remains the dominant figure in his office, with staff making recommendations or offering advice.
Reactive press conferences and daily announcements that dominated the first six years of Coalition rule have been dumped by Morrison in favour of controlling government messaging through social media, personalised videos and a targeted policy agenda. Hirst and Carswell have developed and implemented Morrison’s digital communications strategy, directly connecting the PM with voters.
Insiders told The Weekend Australian that Kunkel — who ran Howard’s cabinet policy unit before shifting to the private sector — acted as the “gatekeeper” and “decision maker” while Finkelstein took charge of “networking, speaking to stakeholders and keeping in touch with backbenchers and minister’s offices”.
The other post-Turnbull bounce, which has continued following the election, was a surge in donations.
“There was a definite shift in donations and support after Morrison took over. Post-election the party has done well. There’s lots of people who have come back with tails between their legs,” a senior party source said.
Turnbull’s demise triggered a procession of high-profile retirements, handing Morrison a rare opportunity for leadership and cabinet renewal. He continues to face pressure from Queenslanders and ambitious backbenchers for promotion but like Howard, he won’t be cornered.
The Coalition ministerial team has been revamped with new blood, moving on from the divisive Abbott-Turnbull era. Morrison is positioning his new leadership group and public service chiefs to focus on the next three years, with an eye firmly on the 2022 election.