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Morrison’s inner circle

Jul 1, 2019 • 14m59s

Scott Morrison’s inner circle is a group linked by faith and friendship – and now, the front bench. Their ties were confirmed during the leadership spill last year.

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Morrison’s inner circle

25 • Jul 1, 2019

Morrison’s inner circle

[Theme music]

ELIZABETH:

From Schwartz Media. I’m Elizabeth Kulas. This is 7am.

Scott Morrison’s inner circle is a group linked by faith and friendship – and now, by the front bench. Some in this group trace their connections back to his preselection and even before. Karen Middleton on who is close to Morrison and why.

[Theme ends]

[Telephone rings]

KAREN:

Hello

ELIZABETH:

Hi Karen. How are you?

KAREN:

Good. How are you?

ELIZABETH:

Good. It's really nice to hear your voice.

KAREN:

Likewise.

ELIZABETH:

So Karen, Morrison presented himself at this election almost as a man alone. I mean, he didn't have party elders with him at the campaign launch. He was almost exclusively campaigning with his voice and his voice alone. Why was that?

KAREN:

Well, he needed to not be connected too much to the party's recent history

ELIZABETH:

Karen Middleton is Chief Political Correspondent at The Saturday Paper.

KAREN:

Because of course we'd seen that terrible leadership churn that had Tony Abbott as prime minister, then Malcolm Turnbull as prime minister, then Scott Morrison became prime minister. And he was very conscious looking back at not only that history but the leadership churn on the Labor side of politics that voters tend to punish political parties for changing leaders and he didn't want to be seen as the person responsible for that. So he firstly had to separate himself from the leadership change directly, and then secondly wanted to present the fresh face, not an old government seeking another term, but a whole new government with a whole new leader.

ELIZABETH:

And tell me more about how Morrison was positioned in that spill? How did he position himself?

KAREN:

Scott Morrison's always said that he didn't start canvassing for votes until Malcolm Turnbull decided that he would give his blessing to other candidates. It's emerged though that his supporters were canvassing around that time, if not a little before that time, and certainly gathering votes for Scott Morrison and they were working before Julie Bishop was working. I think it was Lucy Turnbull who finally confirmed to Julie Bishop that Malcolm had decided that he wasn't going to be a candidate. Scott Morrison and his supporters were out way in front of her, locking people in for their support.

ELIZABETH:

And that essentially meant that the people around Morrison had enough support to leapfrog Julie Bishop.

KAREN:

Yes I think at that stage it wasn't really clear where the numbers lay.

Peter Dutton's camp was still furiously canvassing too, because of course it was he who brought this on by indicating that he would challenge. And when Malcolm Turnbull first walked into the party room on Tuesday morning of that week and blindsided everybody, or all but a couple of people, with this declaration that he was spilling his position and Julie Bishop's position and there would be a vote, it was Peter Dutton who put his hand up then. The vote he got then was surprisingly high: 48 votes to 35. And that was the reason that this thing kept on going because if that had been a more decisive win for Malcolm Turnbull with very few votes for Peter Dutton, he could have perhaps at least stalled it, if not put it down altogether. But that was a high vote and that kept it rolling.

ELIZABETH:

Understood. So if we leave the spill itself behind for a second. Can we talk a little bit more about the circle of people around Scott Morrison, because of course this spill does roll on. He does eventually leapfrog Dutton. So who are the people in the circle that are close to Morrison?

KAREN:

Yes well he has a… He obviously has a circle outside of politics. Inside the parliament there's a small group of people who are close to Scott Morrison and meet regularly with him. At the top of that list probably Alex Hawke from New South Wales, Stuart Robert from Queensland, Ben Morton from Western Australia. Then there are people like Steve Irons, also from Western Australia. Lucy Wicks from New South Wales and Bert van Manen from Queensland and then Paul Fletcher who is not in the same category as those others but is certainly a strong supporter.

ELIZABETH:

And what is it that binds them together, is there anything that brings them together as a group?

KAREN:

Primarily it's their faith. They're all committed Christians. They meet regularly as committed Christians, often in Alex Hawke's office and Christianity and the faith practice is the primary thing that links all of them, but there are other things that link them together too .

ELIZABETH:

So let's go through a few of them more closely. Tell me more about Morrison's relationship with Ben Morton.

KAREN:

Well, Ben Morton is 38 years old. He is the former state director of the Liberal Party in Western Australia and that links him to Scott Morrison in the sense of shared experience because Scott Morrison was a former state director of the Liberal Party in New South Wales. Ben Morton had also come from NSW before he moved west. He actually grew up and went to university in Canberra but had been involved in New South Wales politics like Scott Morrison. And had also worked in Canberra for the federal government in the Government Members Secretariat, which was kind of a centralised Information Unit that operated during the era when John Howard was prime minister. They have become, Scott Morrison and Ben Morton, close personal friends, confidants of sorts. Ben Morton travelled quite extensively with Scott Morrison as a sort of sounding board and support during the election campaign.

ELIZABETH:

Where has Morton ended up in this new government?

KAREN:

He's the Assistant Minister working direct to the prime minister and the cabinet, which is quite a sensitive position even though it's technically a junior one and it's the sort of position that you as prime minister reserve for people very close to you who are trusted because they'll be having a lot of engagement directly with the cabinet, and with the prime minister.

ELIZABETH:

Okay. All right let's talk a bit more about Stuart Robert then. Tell me about him.

KAREN:

Stuart Robert and Scott Morrison share Christian faith, but particularly associations with the Pentecostal Church. Stuart Robert belongs to I think the Metro City Church on the Gold Coast in Queensland and the prime minister is involved with the Horizon Church in New South Wales, but they were also flatmates together in Canberra. When politicians come to Canberra for parliamentary sitting periods, some of them buy houses or flats some of them rent them and often they'll share flats or houses together, because they're not here full time. So Scott Morrison shared a flat with Stuart Robert and their other flatmate was Steve Irons.

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Stuart Robert has had a bit of a controversial time in politics. He was dropped from the ministry under Malcolm Turnbull, because he'd become involved in some controversy for helping a friend who was a Liberal Party donor sign a private business deal in China when Stuart Robert was there on holiday, but was alleged to have been using his ministerial position to open some doors and help his friend. Scott Morrison has returned him to the ministry. But even in the last year or so there's been some controversy because Stuart Robert got into trouble for having a very hefty internet bill that he had charged the taxpayer, and he had to return some of the money and apologise.

ELIZABETH:

Hm, and what's his position now?

KAREN:

Well, Scott Morrison brought him in to the ministry again as assistant treasurer back in August and he's now been promoted into cabinet. He's responsible for the National Disability Insurance Scheme and for government services. And that puts him up against Bill Shorten on the other side.

[Music ends]

ELIZABETH:

We'll be right back.

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ELIZABETH:

Scott Morrison has positioned himself as a lone figure in the Liberal Party. But every politician has a network around them. Karen, we're talking through some of his inner circle. The next person I want to ask you about is Alex Hawke.

KAREN:

Yes, well Alex Hawke is a very powerful figure in the New South Wales Liberal Party. He's a key factional player involved with what we loosely call the centre right or the soft right. That's the faction where Scott Morrison has his power base. Now in the Liberal Party they don't like to call them factions that's for the Labor Party. They tend to call them groups, or deny that they exist at all. But really these are ideological groupings and the centre right is the one that Alex Hawke really controls.

He's also been the architect of a number of preselection wins. He's credited with getting Paul Fletcher up in the seat of Bradfield in New South Wales. And he was also in the background in Scott Morrison's preselection in Cook in 2007. So he was very much a key backer of Scott Morrison during last year's leadership challenge. Doing the numbers for the man who eventually won.

ELIZABETH:

And he's also been promoted by Morrison. Where is he now?

KAREN:

Yes, he's still in the outer ministry. He was in the outer ministry late last year but he's moved to a new portfolio, or twin portfolios really. He's got the portfolio of International Development and the Pacific, which is important because the Prime Minister has put a lot of attention on Australia's relationship with the Pacific because of the growing influence of China there. But he's also the Assistant Minister for Defence. Australia is at the moment embarking on a massive buy up of defence hardware worth tens of billions of dollars. Ships and planes and all kinds of things. So that is also an important job, albeit in the junior ministry. If he ever wants to be Defence Minister or Foreign Minister those two jobs are a good place to start.

ELIZABETH:

And so Karen what about Paul Fletcher. He's a little bit different to the others we've talked about. What is he to Morrison?

KAREN:

Yes, he falls into a slightly different category. He's not in the close circle of personal friends necessarily. He's in the category of mutual benefit. He was a one time rival of Scott Morrison's. In fact he ran for preselection for the seat of Cook when Morrison did and he lost it on that occasion. And he's become a supporter, he was instrumental in swinging some votes
Scott Morrison's way in the leadership ballot late last year and he's now a senior minister.

He's in the Communications portfolio. In fact it’s Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts. Arts is a nice portfolio for a minister to have, you get to go to lots of shows and it’s creative and interesting. So he has that and he also has communications which involves media companies.

ELIZABETH:

He's been handed this because Fifield is off to the UN?

KAREN:

Yes. One of the things you can do and you need to free up ministerial positions is give diplomatic jobs to people. So Mitch Fifield is off to the United Nations in New York as Australia's representative. And there's another job that's been given out as well, Arthur Sinodinos will become the next Australian ambassador to Washington when Joe Hockey finishes up early next year.

ELIZABETH:

Karen is there any difference though between the favours that are owed and the friendships that are shared by Morrison and anyone else who makes their way into the prime ministerial office?

KAREN:

Well this sort of thing always does happen. When people win the leadership they sometimes have to make promises to secure support or they think they have to and they do. In fact, we did hear in the Sky News documentary this week that went to air that Craig Laundy who was a close associate of Malcolm Turnbull, one of his key supporters right to the end, he confessed that Malcolm Turnbull had given him the authority in those crazy few days when they were all trying to canvass support to offer promotions to people in return for their support. So this is a currency that's common in politics.

I think it's interesting though with Scott Morrison that what we are seeing is some of these relationships and favours and mutual assistance stretches right back to preselection. He was involved in quite a controversial preselection for his seat of Cook. And it's interesting that some of the people who were defeated at that preselection and are being elevated by Scott Morrison. So there is a trackable path I guess of people who've had an association with him over a long period of time, who are now in some senior positions. And he does have this small group of close friends who are bound, not only by political interests, but by a shared personal interest,
and as we've said, by faith.

[Music starts]

ELIZABETH:

And has the character of Morrison's leadership, at least in his first weeks of his new government… Has it challenged the way that factions operate in the Liberal Party?

KAREN:

I'm not sure that we've seen the full character of Scott Morrison's leadership just yet. He was trying to make sure when he first took the leadership that he was not the one held responsible for the leadership upheaval in August. That he kind of came through the middle, Steven Bradbury like, and that he's not the person to blame and then he really had to introduce himself to people, so that those first few months we haven't seen him free to be the leader that he perhaps can be now. Now he has great authority in the Liberal Party and it will be interesting to see what that authority means for the power structures within the party. It means certainly in the first instance that people like Alex Hawke are increasingly influential and Stuart Robert and so that centre group that has swung behind the left and the right at various times in New South Wales in particular when it needed to is now a very significant and influential group politically within the wider Liberal Party.

ELIZABETH:

Thank you Karen. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

KAREN:

Thanks Elizabeth.

[Music ends]

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[Music starts]

ELIZABETH:

Elsewhere in the news:

Jodi McKay has won the NSW Labor leadership, after Michael Daley stood aside. McKay, who has most recently held the shadow transport portfolio, won the caucus vote and the rank-and-file. She served as a junior minister in the Rees and Keneally governments.

And Scott Morrison has denied reports that US President Donald Trump pressured him to weaken commitments to climate action at the G20. Politico quoted senior US officials saying Trump was working to enlist Australia, Brazil, Saudi Arabia and Turkey to remove the Paris targets commitment from the G20 communique. It remained in the final document.

This is 7am. I’m Elizabeth Kulas. See you Tuesday.

[Music ends]

Scott Morrison’s inner circle is a group linked by faith and friendship – and now, the front bench. Some in this group trace their connections back to his preselection and even before. Their ties were confirmed during the leadership spill last year. Karen Middleton on who is close to Morrison and why.

Guest: Chief political correspondent for The Saturday Paper Karen Middleton.

Background reading:

Scott Morrison's inner circle in The Saturday Paper
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is hosted by Elizabeth Kulas. The show is produced by Emile Klein, Ruby Schwartz and Atticus Bastow. Our editor is Erik Jensen. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Equate Studio.

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25: Morrison’s inner circle