Considering how smug Scott Morrison is looking lately, it is somewhat ironic that it was Joe Hockey that gifted him his first government “snout in the trough” job.
Hockey was tourism minister and Morrison was the state director of the NSW Liberal Party. In 2004, in an act of blatant croneyism, Hockey gave Morrison the $350,000 a year job as chief executive of Tourism Australia where he was responsible for the “Where the bloody hell are you?” campaign.
The nine members of the board complained that Morrison did not heed advice, withheld important research data about the controversial campaign, was aggressive and intimidating, and ran the government agency as if it were a one-man show.
Fran Bailey, Hockey’s successor as tourism minister, apparently despised him but Morrison was confident that John Howard would ultimately back him. He reportedly boasted that if Fran Bailey got in his way, he would bring her down. When board members called for him to go, however, Bailey agreed, and it was Morrison who was sent packing. An industry insider said “[Fran’s] one big win was ousting Scott. His ego went too far.” The “agreed separation” was said to have pocketed him at least a $300,000 payout.
When Bruce Baird decided to step down from the seat of Cook, Morrison ran for preselection but was not backed by either faction in the Liberal Party and received just eight votes. Michael Towke, a Lebanese Christian from the right faction, won. Four days later, amid allegations of branch stacking, Towke became the victim of a smear campaign, with a series of damaging personal stories leaked to the Daily Telegraph who, after a legal challenge, later offered an out of court settlement for their defamatory slander.
The upshot of the smear campaign was that the NSW state executive refused to endorse Towke’s nomination, and demanded a second ballot. The beneficiary was Scott Morrison, a cleanskin in the factional fight, who was parachuted in as a unity candidate even though local party members initially rejected him, partly because he was considered insufficiently right wing.
In the 2007 election, Scott Morrison was duly elected as the member for the safe Liberal seat of Cook and, when the party lurched to the right under the leadership of Abbott, Morrison cast himself as a central figure in the Liberal fight-back, much to the annoyance of longtimers in the party who grumbled that he was a first-termer in too much of a hurry.
Leaks to the Daily Telegraph said that Morrison argued in shadow cabinet that the Liberals should exploit community concerns about Muslim immigrants. What better way for a first-termer to shore up support in Cronulla than to champion the issue of border protection? One senior Liberal described the one-time moderate’s confrontational approach on asylum seekers as “Supreme opportunism.”
As Nick Bryant put it, “He has become a creature of the capital’s hyper-adversarialism and also of his Cronulla constituents’ parochialism.”
The more publicity that came Scott Morrison’s way, the more hardline he became. So much so that, on the morning when victims of the Christmas Island boat people tragedy were due to be buried in Sydney, he launched an ill-tempered attack on the government for paying for family members to make the long journey from Christmas Island.
Abbott’s lukewarm response was “It does seem a bit unusual that the government is flying people to funerals.” Instead, it was left to Joe Hockey to condemn the remarks: “I would never seek to deny a parent or a child from saying goodbye to their relative.” Then came an acid shower of criticism from party elders. John Hewson called his comments “inhumane”. Malcolm Fraser was scornful: “I hope Scott Morrison is just a fringe element in the party.” More woundingly, Bruce Baird also slapped down his one-time protégé: “I’m very disappointed that Scott would make those comments. It is lacking in compassion at the very time when these people have been through such a traumatic event.”
There is no doubting Morrison’s ambition but will he be content with Joe’s job? Will Tony see the writing on the wall and pass the chalice? Morrison is 11 years younger than Abbott and three years younger than Hockey. His past tends to indicate an arrogant self-belief, and a willingness to exploit any means, that makes him a man that we should all regard with a great deal of caution.
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