Leave No Trace

The story of Scott Mor­ri­son

The Monthly (Australia) - - CONTENTS - by Sean Kelly

The new prime min­is­ter as­sures us he has be­liefs, but he can­not be held to them – be­cause he has not told us what they are. In place of firm po­si­tions, he of­fers us “au­then­tic­ity”.

Al­most 20 years ago, a pro­file of Scott Mor­ri­son, tourism of­fi­cial, de­scribed him like this: “Hun­kered be­hind his desk with a cof­fee mug clutched in two hands, he looks like al­most any other bu­reau­crat con­fronted by a re­porter armed with a tape recorder and a notebook – ner­vous. A for­mer front-row for­ward, he is solidly built, has short brown hair, wears metal-frame glasses and looks young. How young, he will not say, own­ing only to be­ing ‘in my 30s’.”

Mor­ri­son was 30, and his dis­cre­tion was not lim­ited to mat­ters of age. Three years ear­lier, work­ing in tourism but not yet for govern­ment, he had been equally cagey when asked about the just-tele­vised clos­ing cer­e­mony for the At­lanta Games and its al­lu­sions to the next Olympic host city, Syd­ney. He praised the de­pic­tion of the Opera House. Then: “Asked about the giant kan­ga­roos on bi­cy­cles, Mr Mor­ri­son paused be­fore re­spond­ing. ‘Kan­ga­roos, they are al­ways pop­u­lar,’ he fi­nally said.”

A few years later, he had moved closer to the cen­tre of power, as NSW Lib­eral Party state di­rec­tor. Dur­ing the 2003 state elec­tion, it fell to Lisa Carty, of the Illawarra Mer­cury, to in­form him that a poster, in­tended to pro­mote the Lib­eral can­di­date for Keira, had the “i” and the “e” in the wrong places. Mor­ri­son “greeted the news with stunned si­lence”, wrote Carty. “Af­ter sev­eral sec­onds, when prompted to speak, he said: ‘I am not about to say any­thing. I am not say­ing any­thing on the record.’ Clearly, he was not speak­ing off the record ei­ther, be­cause he lapsed into an­other si­lence.” Fi­nally, Mor­ri­son told Carty he’d call her back.

Dur­ing the same cam­paign, The Aus­tralian re­ported that he had “dis­played an al­most para­noid con­cern about an­swer­ing even ba­sic ques­tions”.

Later, as im­mi­gra­tion min­is­ter un­der Tony Ab­bott, this ten­dency would be seen as a tac­tic to pre­serve se­crecy around a con­tro­ver­sial area of govern­ment pol­icy. But the habit has been there all along – in govern­ment, it sim­ply per­sisted.

Mor­ri­son scrapped the prac­tice of his de­part­ment an­nounc­ing the ar­rival of each boat car­ry­ing asy­lum seek­ers. He re­placed it with a weekly brief­ing. Then he scrapped the weekly brief­ing in favour of a weekly press release, de­priv­ing jour­nal­ists of the chance to ask ques­tions. But even when he had been in the habit of ap­pear­ing, his re­fusal to an­swer ques­tions about what he dubbed “on-wa­ter mat­ters” had been no­to­ri­ous. Ab­sur­dist ex­changes be­came ex­pected:

JOUR­NAL­IST: But in terms of mak­ing a judge­ment, if those asy­lum seek­ers do come to Aus­tralia doesn’t that mean your “turn back the boats” pol­icy is kind of …

MOR­RI­SON: Well, you’ve made a whole bunch of pre­sump­tions there which I’m not about to spec­u­late on.

JOUR­NAL­IST: Well, maybe you can clear them up for us?

MOR­RI­SON: Well, you’re the one mak­ing the pre­sump­tions, not me. The Nine Net­work’s po­lit­i­cal edi­tor at the time, Lau­rie Oakes, de­scribed this “dis­gust­ing” at­ti­tude as Mor­ri­son giv­ing jour­nal­ists “the fin­ger”, and said, “By do­ing that, you’re say­ing that you don’t care if the vot­ers are in­formed or not.”

But “don’t care” im­plies in­dif­fer­ence.

We may live in sec­u­lar times, but there is a rem­nant of anoint­ment in the as­cen­sion of prime min­is­ters, the era­sure of the past and the chance to start anew. Be­fore, you were mor­tal; now, you are divine. What you did be­fore hardly mat­ters in these new, im­mor­tal days. Ab­bott had been in pol­i­tics for 20 years and still there came the hope that he might be re­born as a states­man­like prime min­is­ter, pos­sessed of graces never pre­vi­ously glimpsed.

This is more true for Scott Mor­ri­son than for any re­cent leader. John Howard had also been in par­lia­ment two decades by the time he be­came prime min­is­ter. Kevin Rudd had been there only one, but had – like both Ab­bott and Howard – been Op­po­si­tion leader, the sec­ond-most scru­ti­nised job in the land. Ju­lia Gil­lard, as deputy prime min­is­ter, had at­tained a se­nior­ity de­nied to ev­ery wo­man be­fore her.

But it is not only in com­par­i­son that Mor­ri­son is un­known. In Au­gust, the day af­ter he be­came prime min­is­ter, the Sun­day Mail ap­proached vot­ers in Bris­bane’s most mar­ginal seat. Just four had heard of him. In Septem­ber, Mor­ri­son, cam­eras trail­ing, stopped to shake the hand of a Gee­long sup­porter out­side the MCG. The man was con­fused: “What’s your name then?”

By the time our na­tion ac­quired this anony­mous prime min­is­ter, he had been trea­surer for three years. Most of us are un­known by omis­sion: why would any­body out­side our cir­cles of friends, fam­ily and col­leagues bother to find out who we are? Scott Mor­ri­son’s mys­tery is the re­sult of as­sid­u­ous work, achieved across a life­time. If we do not know who Mor­ri­son is, it is not be­cause he hasn’t been asked. It is be­cause he has worked hard not to tell us.

Of course, the de­ter­mi­na­tion to avoid leav­ing traces is a trace it­self. It tells ob­servers that you are self­con­scious, am­bi­tious and care­ful. It sug­gests you are more aware than most about the sto­ries that might be con­structed around your pub­lic ut­ter­ances, both now and in the fu­ture – and of the power those sto­ries might have. It be­trays an in­ter­est in do­ing what you can to con­trol those con­struc­tions.

This is not an un­usual in­stinct in a politi­cian – but not all of them pos­sess it so early or dis­play it so con­sis­tently. The ex­am­ples from be­fore Mor­ri­son be­came im­mi­gra­tion min­is­ter are mi­nor, and could be eas­ily over­looked – ex­cept that they re­main, now, as early hints of the re­mark­ably weight­less ca­reer our prime min­is­ter has had.

If you have to leave traces – and no politi­cian can avoid it, not al­to­gether, not in these over-doc­u­mented days – there is an­other op­tion. You can sweep them away, then pre­tend they were never there.

If you are Scott Mor­ri­son, it is even pos­si­ble to be­come prime min­is­ter with­out any agency on your part.

Jour­nal­ist Jane Cad­zow once asked Mor­ri­son, then shadow min­is­ter for im­mi­gra­tion, about ac­cu­sa­tions of scare­mon­ger­ing, fol­low­ing com­ments he had made about asy­lum seek­ers sick with ty­phoid and other com­mu­ni­ca­ble dis­eases. His an­swer was de­fin­i­tive: “I sim­ply said that peo­ple turned up who had these con­di­tions … I made no state­ment about the broader im­pact or risk.” But, as Cad­zow pointed out, that was in­cor­rect: he had ex­plic­itly warned of the risk of “an out­break on Christ­mas Is­land or the trans­fer of these dis­eases to the main­land”.

In 2014, Greens se­na­tor Sarah Han­son-Young wrote to Mor­ri­son, by now the min­is­ter, with al­le­ga­tions that un­der­age asy­lum seek­ers on Nauru had been forced to have sex in front of a guard, and that women were be­ing told to strip in ex­change for show­ers of longer than two min­utes. A few days later he an­nounced an in­de­pen­dent in­quiry, with a twist: the re­view would also look into ac­cu­sa­tions that the al­le­ga­tions had been con­cocted. Ten staff from Save the Chil­dren, he said, would be re­moved from Nauru. They were “em­ployed to do a job, not to be po­lit­i­cal ac­tivists”, said Mor­ri­son in a writ­ten state­ment, re­peated al­most ver­ba­tim at his press con­fer­ence. “Mak­ing false claims, and worse al­legedly coach­ing self­harm and us­ing chil­dren in protests is un­ac­cept­able.”

The later back­down by the de­part­ment was com­pre­hen­sive. As a re­sult of the re­view process, com­pen­sa­tion was paid. The staff should not have been re­moved. The de­part­ment con­ceded that there had been “no rea­son to cause doubt to be cast” on Save the Chil­dren’s rep­u­ta­tion.

When Mor­ri­son, by then trea­surer, was asked about this damn­ing re­ver­sal by the host of ABC’s In­sid­ers, Barrie Cas­sidy, he was as de­fin­i­tive as he had been about ty­phoid: “I drew no con­clu­sions on the ma­te­rial that had been pre­sented to me at the time.”

Cas­sidy, in re­sponse, was just as clear: “Well, yes, you did.” Mor­ri­son said, “No, I didn’t, Barrie.” He told Cas­sidy to go back and check the tran­script. Cas­sidy: “I have.” Mor­ri­son’s fi­nal line of de­fence was this: “I did the job that I had to do in that sit­u­a­tion, just as I am do­ing the job now as trea­surer …”

At first glance, this seems a bland state­ment of the sort to which we have be­come used to hear­ing from politi­cians. In fact, the rhetor­i­cal strat­egy is re­mark­able. As cleanly as with an axe, it cleaves the man from the job. We knew what the min­is­ter had done, but, we were told, that had noth­ing to do with the man who bore that ti­tle at the time.

Mor­ri­son has other tech­niques to re­move him­self from the frame. In De­cem­ber 2010, 48 asy­lum seek­ers died when their boat smashed into the rocks near

Christ­mas Is­land. Two months later, on the day of the fu­ner­als, Mor­ri­son crit­i­cised the Gil­lard govern­ment for spend­ing money fly­ing sur­vivors to Syd­ney, where their rel­a­tives were to be buried.

Mor­ri­son was at­tacked from all sides. He was quickly forced to ad­mit that he had got it wrong – though he lim­ited his re­grets to the tim­ing, which had been “in­sen­si­tive”. He also said that he “didn’t seek to say that peo­ple should not be able to at­tend a fu­neral for their fam­i­lies”, though he clearly had.

Fi­nally, six months later, he alighted on an­other ex­pla­na­tion. The most im­por­tant fact was that he had been chan­nelling the sen­ti­ments of oth­ers, par­tic­u­larly two pen­sion­ers who had ap­proached him in Cronulla Mall, the week­end be­fore the fu­ner­als, to ex­press their frus­tra­tion that the govern­ment was spend­ing money on asy­lum seek­ers, and not on them.

Emo­tions – other peo­ple’s – are cen­tral to grasp­ing the way that Scott Mor­ri­son un­der­stands his job. He re­cently con­ceded he had been wrong to refuse a royal com­mis­sion into banks. As with his com­ments on fu­ner­als, the prob­lem was not one of sub­stance, but of sen­si­tiv­ity. “Where I failed was to prop­erly un­der­stand the real pain peo­ple had been feel­ing … What I didn’t do – and this is where I do re­gret – is that Aus­tralians needed to work through the deep hurt they’ve had on this.” On fu­ner­als, he erred in too ea­gerly ex­press­ing oth­ers’ sen­ti­ments. On bank­ing, he erred in not ex­press­ing those sen­ti­ments ea­gerly enough.

Scott Mor­ri­son, in his own telling, is so of­ten a mere observer. When reck­less and false ac­cu­sa­tions have been made, it turns out Mor­ri­son has only pre­sented the facts as pre­sented to him; when of­fen­sive com­ments have been made, he has been only the du­ti­ful mes­sen­ger of the sen­ti­ments of oth­ers; in the rare cases he has made mis­takes, they have been mi­nor er­rors of tim­ing. Events oc­cur, but Mor­ri­son’s in­volve­ment is pas­sive, tan­gen­tial, al­most ac­ci­den­tal. He may be the min­is­ter, but he is not an in­sti­ga­tor, only a ves­sel through which oth­ers’ bid­ding is done.

If you are Scott Mor­ri­son, it is even pos­si­ble to be­come prime min­is­ter with­out any agency on your part.

Scott Mor­ri­son was not in­volved, he says, in tak­ing down Tony Ab­bott in 2015. He voted for Ab­bott in the bal­lot; he even showed his bal­lot pa­per to oth­ers. But Ab­bott’s sup­port­ers ac­cused Mor­ri­son of de­lib­er­ately fail­ing to di­rect his sup­port­ers to vote for Ab­bott. Mor­ri­son ab­solved him­self: “They’re their own peo­ple and they make their own de­ci­sions.”

Turn­bull won the vote, and made Mor­ri­son his trea­surer. The new trea­surer in­sisted the only per­son who had of­fered him the job be­fore the bal­lot was Ab­bott, in a last-ditch act to save him­self. But two months later Peter Hartcher re­ported in Fair­fax pa­pers that Turn­bull had also of­fered Mor­ri­son the job, on the phone, months be­fore­hand. Mor­ri­son con­firmed the phone call, but de­nied that any of­fer had been made.

Scott Mor­ri­son was also not in­volved, he says, in tak­ing down Mal­colm Turn­bull this year. On the day that he took over as prime min­is­ter, there were two bal­lots. The first was on whether to spill the Lib­eral lead­er­ship and open it to chal­lengers. The vote suc­ceeded, with 45 vot­ing to spill and 40 vot­ing against, and Turn­bull stood down. The sec­ond vote was be­tween Mor­ri­son, Peter Dut­ton – who had pushed for the spill – and Julie Bishop. In the fi­nal count, with Bishop elim­i­nated early, Mor­ri­son won with 45 votes, with 40 for Dut­ton.

The ques­tion some are ask­ing re­volves around the two vote counts. If only 40 peo­ple were in Dut­ton’s cor­ner, why did 45 peo­ple vote to spill the lead­er­ship?

The ar­gu­ment is that Mor­ri­son’s sup­port­ers must have voted with Dut­ton’s sup­port­ers to re­move Turn­bull, know­ing they could then switch sides and com­bine with mod­er­ates to win the next vote for Mor­ri­son. One Mor­ri­son sup­porter tells me that’s ex­actly what hap­pened, but sees no con­spir­acy: some MPs were done with Turn­bull, but pre­ferred Mor­ri­son over Dut­ton. I ask a con­ser­va­tive MP how long they be­lieve Mor­ri­son him­self had been in­volved in plans to un­seat Turn­bull. “Scott Mor­ri­son was in­volved for a long pe­riod of time.” The MP de­scribes the mo­ment that the vote num­bers were read out in the party room. “The look on Mal­colm Turn­bull’s face said it all: ‘I’ve been played.’” But oth­ers in­sist Mor­ri­son was loyal. Craig Laundy, one of Turn­bull’s strong­est sup­port­ers, who is also close to Mor­ri­son, told me Mor­ri­son was “fight­ing the fight to make sure that Mal­colm stayed right up un­til the fight was lost”. Mor­ri­son de­clined the op­por­tu­nity to talk to The Monthly for this ar­ti­cle.

Scott Mor­ri­son says he was also not in­volved in the ef­forts that led to his even­tual pre­s­e­lec­tion for the seat of Cook in 2007. The bal­lot orig­i­nally went against him. Michael Towke re­ceived 82 votes. Mor­ri­son re­ceived a pal­try 8. Al­most im­me­di­ately, sto­ries be­gan to ap­pear in the press den­i­grat­ing Towke, al­leg­ing he had lied on his nom­i­na­tion forms and paid mem­ber­ship fees in or­der to stack branches with sup­port­ers. Soon, Towke was dis­endorsed. A sec­ond pre­s­e­lec­tion was held – an ex­ceed­ingly rare event. Towke’s num­bers went to Mor­ri­son, who this time emerged as the win­ner.

For­mer La­bor se­na­tor Sam Dast­yari says Lib­eral fig­ures ap­proached the NSW ALP at the time, look­ing for dirt on Towke. Dast­yari says he helped pro­vide ma­te­rial, which the Lib­eral fig­ures then “weaponised”. He tells me, “They had to make it such a prob­lem for Howard that Howard in­ter­vene[d]”. Dast­yari is clear that the as­sis­tance was sought in or­der to get Mor­ri­son pre­s­e­lected.

Later, Towke be­gan defama­tion pro­ceed­ings against News Lim­ited. The mat­ter was set­tled out of court for $50,000 plus costs. One se­nior Lib­eral with con­nec­tions to the area tells me there are some lo­cal party mem­bers who still vote in­for­mally at elec­tions, be­cause they can­not bring them­selves to vote for Mor­ri­son. But no­body can pro­duce ev­i­dence of his di­rect knowl­edge or in­volve­ment.

In the three most sig­nif­i­cant po­lit­i­cal mo­ments of his life – Towke’s re­moval, Ab­bott’s re­moval and Turn­bull’s re­moval – Scott Mor­ri­son says his in­volve­ment has been zero. Those who have claimed oth­er­wise – and in each case there are those who claim oth­er­wise – must be mis­taken.

Scott Mor­ri­son looks a lit­tle like a friendly ogre. Like that young, ner­vous tourism of­fi­cial, he re­mains solidly built, but now his hair has thinned. Once brown, it is grey, and white. But he does not look old. He looks cheer­fully in­de­struc­tible.

He de­liv­ered his first speech as prime min­is­ter in Al­bury, from hand­writ­ten notes, with a hand­held mi­cro­phone. It was de­scribed by sev­eral jour­nal­ists as preacher­like, in an al­lu­sion to his evan­gel­i­cal faith. To me, there is some­thing of the kinder­garten teacher in Mor­ri­son’s man­ner. He is con­stantly ges­tur­ing. “I’ve come to talk to you to­day about what’s in here” (points to his heart). “I don’t think that, for some­one to get ahead in life, you’ve got to pull oth­ers down” (arm held straight out, palm an­gled down and slightly cupped, then swept down­wards). “I be­lieve that we should be try­ing to lift ev­ery­body up at once” (bends his knees a lit­tle and then raises his hand, palm up). One of his favourite Ques­tion Time rou­tines is ask­ing his MPs to put their hands up, like school­child­ren. Most do. Some seem too em­bar­rassed.

It is there in his lan­guage. In that first speech he de­liv­ered the singsong “Who loves Aus­tralia? Ev­ery­one. We all love Aus­tralia. Of course we do. But do we love all Aus­tralians? That’s a dif­fer­ent ques­tion, isn’t it? Do we love all Aus­tralians? We’ve got to.” He talked about

In the three most sig­nif­i­cant po­lit­i­cal mo­ments of his life – Towke’s re­moval, Ab­bott’s re­moval and Turn­bull’s re­moval – Scott Mor­ri­son says his in­volve­ment has been zero.

We can all be win­ners, if we just agree not to talk about the losers.

non-La­bor MPs be­ing “in the grumps and the mopes” af­ter an elec­tion loss in 1943. Propos­ing a day for In­dige­nous Aus­tralians, he said it was “not a day for be­ing down in the mouth”. Aus­tralia Day should still be cel­e­brated on Jan­uary 26, while recog­nis­ing “a few scars from some mis­takes and things that you could have done bet­ter”. As a de­scrip­tion of mas­sacres it has been bet­tered.

This de­sire to wish away pain can be seen in Mor­ri­son’s ap­par­ent be­lief that it is pos­si­ble to gov­ern with­out cre­at­ing con­flict. “Why do you have to tax peo­ple more to tax oth­ers less? That’s not how you bring Aus­tralians to­gether.” Asked about La­bor’s plan for com­pa­nies to pub­lish the pay gap be­tween men and women, Mor­ri­son said he would take a closer look, but “I want poli­cies that bring Aus­tralians to­gether, I don’t want to cre­ate ten­sions and anger and anx­i­ety in the work­place.” He has in the past de­scribed the dev­as­ta­tion of In­dige­nous peo­ple by coloni­sa­tion – and yet, in de­fence of keep­ing Aus­tralia Day on Jan­uary 26, he said, “We don’t have to have a fight about it, you can bring peo­ple to­gether.” Like much of Mor­ri­son’s ca­reer, the move de­pends on era­sure. We can all be win­ners, if we just agree not to talk about the losers.

Much fuss was cre­ated by the re­cent rev­e­la­tion that a metal­lic tro­phy is kept on dis­play in the new prime min­is­ter’s of­fice. It is in the shape of a boat and en­graved with the words “I stopped these”. Mor­ri­son force­fully makes the case that his poli­cies have saved lives. He is re­ported to have wept at news of the Christ­mas Is­land tragedy, and is proud of his suc­cess in pre­vent­ing more deaths. But he is not blind to the con­se­quences of his de­ci­sions: he has spo­ken of the “moral bur­dens” that at­tain to ev­ery op­tion – in­clud­ing, pre­sum­ably, the abuse of chil­dren and the sui­cides of long-term de­tainees. If he were obliv­i­ous, that would be of con­cern. But in its own way it is Mor­ri­son’s aware­ness that makes the tro­phy more dis­turb­ing. He pos­sesses the abil­ity to see the com­plex­ity – and then for­get about it. This is why the tro­phy struck so many as grace­less: it sliced away the sor­rows of those our coun­try had im­pris­oned, so that only one man’s sharp and glit­ter­ing achieve­ment re­mained.

One MP told me the party room had re­cently be­come a foot­ball change room, full of nick­names: “Lammo”, “Ste­vie”, “Stuey”. That re­minded me of two other, sep­a­rate com­ments. The first was from Mor­ri­son, who, in his own telling, re­cently said to the coach of the Cronulla Sharks, “Mate, I think I’ll take you down to Can­berra and let you give the boys a bit of a rev-up …” The other was from some­one in the NGO sec­tor, who de­scribed to me their im­pres­sion that Mor­ri­son lacked a sense of the se­ri­ous­ness of his ac­tions, the feel­ing they got that “be­hind the scenes it’s all a game – we’re all just in a game”. There was an im­plied in­vi­ta­tion to those who in­ter­acted with Mor­ri­son to join him in that ap­proach, with no sense they might feel dif­fer­ently. This was the anal­ogy the per­son used, tak­ing care to make sure I did not think it was lit­eral: “You know the old locker-room men­tal­ity where you’re all meant to be [in] on the misog­y­nis­tic joke and you stand there go­ing, ‘Well, fuck, I’m not like that’? … It’s like that.”

Both Turn­bull and Gil­lard were forced to de­fend the idea they could un­der­stand the or­di­nary Aus­tralian – Turn­bull be­cause of his wealth, Gil­lard be­cause she had no chil­dren. Both pointed out that no cit­i­zen could claim to have ex­pe­ri­enced the lives of ev­ery other cit­i­zen.

It is hard to imag­ine Mor­ri­son be­ing asked the same ques­tion, so fully does he em­body a tra­di­tional idea of what it is to be Aus­tralian. The Daily Tele­graph de­scribed him as the “epit­ome of mid­dle-Aus­tralia”. Bruce Baird, his sec­ond boss in tourism and his pre­de­ces­sor in the seat of Cook, de­scribes to me Mor­ri­son’s as­cent as an “Every­man-makes-it-to-PM type of deal”.

Fam­ily is im­por­tant to him. He was brought up in Bronte, in a Pres­by­te­rian house­hold, with his father, a po­lice of­fi­cer who also served as the mayor of Waver­ley, his mother, who worked in ad­min­is­tra­tion, his brother, and his great-aunt. His wife, Jenny, is sev­eral times de­scribed to me as “lovely”. He has two daugh­ters, for whom he is im­mensely grate­ful, hav­ing spent more than a decade try­ing to con­ceive through IVF.

Both Jenny and Scott have spo­ken mov­ingly about this. Jenny said it was “a re­ally gru­elling, aw­ful time … Scott was al­ways su­per busy so I think he filled his life with a lot of busi­ness be­cause he re­ally didn’t want to think about that at all.” Mor­ri­son has de­scribed the calls in­form­ing him an­other round had been un­suc­cess­ful: “the floor falls away”. Even­tu­ally, their “two beau­ti­ful, mir­a­cle chil­dren” were con­ceived nat­u­rally.

He is at­tached to his lo­cal area, Syd­ney’s Suther­land Shire, and, ac­cord­ing to a 2016 Good Week­end ar­ti­cle, has done a good job of keep­ing week­ends for shop­ping, cook­ing, church, net­ball, foot­ball and fam­ily. He has been given, and ac­cepted, tick­ets to see Keith Ur­ban, Tay­lor Swift and Tina Arena. Some­one who has known Mor­ri­son since his early ca­reer says, “That is Scott. He’s sub­ur­ban. He’s proudly sub­ur­ban … Ag­gres­sively sub­ur­ban.”

He is pas­sion­ate about the Cronulla Sharks. He watches most games, many of them at Shark Park, and is, the team’s chair­man re­cently told The Syd­ney Morn­ing Her­ald, fo­cused and con­cen­trated when he does. Re­cently, The Footy Show showed footage of the new PM eas­ily sink­ing a field goal at his favourite ground.

None of these facts is in any doubt. Nor are we ever left in any doubt about them. Two years ago he talked about his at­tach­ment to the Shire: “Bronte wouldn’t feel like home to me to­day.” That may be true, but he was not talk­ing about a dis­tant mem­ory: he and Jenny bought a bun­ga­low in Bronte in 1995, and sold it in 2009.

In the hours be­fore the Sharks were elim­i­nated in this year’s NRL fi­nals, Mor­ri­son tweeted a short video of 20 times he had pro­fessed his sup­port for the team. He some­times ends press ap­pear­ances with “Go Sharks!” But the Sharks and the sport they play are also re­cent pas­sions. Ear­lier he was a rugby union fan. He once de­scribed New Zealand as a “bit of a nir­vana – in Syd­ney, rugby usu­ally takes sec­ond place to the league”.

Mor­ri­son is open about these be­lated em­braces. “I’ve been a fan for 10 years since I moved down here.” What stands out is not any at­tempt at trick­ery, but the slightly overea­ger need to con­vince oth­ers, the strained em­pha­sis on these re­cently adopted traits as em­blem­atic of his char­ac­ter. It is as though, with an elec­tion in sight, hav­ing done his best over a ca­reer to keep the out­line of Scott Mor­ri­son free from clut­ter, the task of fill­ing it in with clear, broad brush­strokes has now be­come ur­gent.

There is no doubt Mor­ri­son would be aware of this. He has spent much of his ca­reer in tourism, a job based around mar­ket­ing. Be­fore pol­i­tics, he was best known for an ad cam­paign: “Where the bloody hell are you?” star­ring Lara Bin­gle. When Mor­ri­son was asked last month about plans to ad­ver­tise a horse race on the sails of the Syd­ney Opera House, he said he didn’t see what the prob­lem was: it was the big­gest bill­board in town. He is a per­former from way back: as a child he ap­peared in tele­vi­sion com­mer­cials and acted in a pro­duc­tion of Oliver! with his father. One per­son who has known Mor­ri­son since the early days of his ca­reer says he is a “quin­tes­sen­tial lob­by­ist, now lob­by­ing on a wider stage … A pro­fes­sional cam­paigner, now cam­paign­ing for him­self.”

The per­for­mance may be con­scious, but that doesn’t mean it is con­fected. The same per­son con­cedes that when Mor­ri­son adopts a stance “he makes him­self gen­uinely be­lieve it … Be­cause he can seem­ingly con­vince him­self of things ag­gres­sively.”

If ac­cu­rate, this might make sense of Mor­ri­son’s blunt as­ser­tions that he has not said things he has said and that he has played no role at all in events in which oth­ers be­lieve he was cen­tral. The prime min­is­ter is “not su­per­sti­tious, but the fact that [my daugh­ter] was born on the sev­enth of the sev­enth, 2007, I be­lieve was not an ac­ci­dent. [I be­lieve] that was a mes­sage to me about who’s in charge.”

The prime min­is­ter is clear that “the Bi­ble is not a pol­icy hand­book”. But in his maiden speech to par­lia­ment he said that while his faith was per­sonal “the im­pli­ca­tions are so­cial”. He praised Wil­liam Wil­ber­force and Des­mond Tutu for “fol­low­ing the con­vic­tions of their faith”.

This re­fusal to pick a side and stick with it, and the in­sis­tence that it is pos­si­ble to firmly be­lieve two con­tra­dic­tory things at once, is ev­ery­where in Mor­ri­son’s ca­reer. A few weeks ago he spoke proudly of his father’s suc­cess in op­pos­ing high-rises in Bronte. His first job was for the Prop­erty Coun­cil of Aus­tralia, which lob­bies for de­vel­op­ers. Af­ter a year work­ing for one tourism or­gan­i­sa­tion that was in fierce con­test with an­other, he ap­proached the head of the com­pe­ti­tion and asked for a job. Hav­ing spent a few years pro­mot­ing Aus­tralian tourism, he moved to New Zealand to lure tourists there.

Bruce Baird was there on the fa­mous night when Mor­ri­son ap­peared in the mid­dle of a din­ner for mod­er­ate Lib­er­als. Ge­orge Bran­dis was speak­ing. “Ge­orge point­edly said, ‘So which din­ner have you just come from?’ And ev­ery­one laughed, and most peo­ple guessed.” Ac­cord­ing to Lib­eral Party leg­end, Mor­ri­son had come straight from the con­ser­va­tives’ din­ner. One per­son who has known him for a long time, not an MP, says of the story that it’s “very Scott”.

I ask Baird about sug­ges­tions Mor­ri­son is a chameleon. “I’ve met chameleons, and he’s not one of those.” He also tells me that Mor­ri­son’s re­fusal to align him­self with a fac­tion is “ob­vi­ously work­ing for him quite well”.

This, surely, is the les­son of Mor­ri­son’s ca­reer. By avoid­ing tak­ing a side, by in­sist­ing that op­tion is open to oth­ers, too, by de­ter­minedly avoid­ing the sense you are re­spon­si­ble and the risk of fall­out that ac­crues when you are, you can come out on top. And per­haps Mor­ri­son is just put­ting into prac­tice the lessons from prime min­is­ters who have come be­fore him: don’t de­clare an is­sue “the great moral chal­lenge of our gen­er­a­tion”, don’t rule out a tax, don’t prom­ise you won’t lead a party that isn’t as com­mit­ted to some­thing as you are. In­stead, come up the mid­dle, and tread lightly as you do.

He has spo­ken reg­u­larly about his Chris­tian­ity, but when Jane Cad­zow asked how this fit with his treat­ment of asy­lum seek­ers he told her, “How I rec­on­cile that with

This re­fusal to pick a side and stick with it, and the in­sis­tence that it is pos­si­ble to firmly be­lieve two con­tra­dic­tory things at once, is ev­ery­where in Mor­ri­son’s ca­reer.

my faith is, frankly, a mat­ter for me.” What do we know of his po­lit­i­cal pri­or­i­ties? He says he is a “prag­matic” politi­cian. His page on the Lib­eral Party web­site boasts he is “a proven fixer for dif­fi­cult pol­icy prob­lems”, as prag­matic a con­cep­tion of pol­i­tics as can be imag­ined. Talk­ing about racial di­vi­sion in 2014, he said, “I know that Aus­tralia, as an idea – as an ide­ol­ogy even – and as an ex­pe­ri­ence, will over­whelm these di­vi­sions.” Aus­tralia as an ide­ol­ogy. As though the bat­tle over that ide­ol­ogy is not what pol­i­tics is so of­ten about.

Is this, then, what Aus­tralians have al­ways wanted? We are sus­pi­cious of all kinds of fun­da­men­tal­ists. We would not want a prime min­is­ter to act on all of their re­li­gious be­liefs. Ide­ol­ogy makes us uneasy. But at the same time we ex­pect our leaders to have con­vic­tions, and to carry them through. Give us a leader with firm be­liefs, we cry. Only tem­per them a lit­tle, so as not to up­set us. Which leads us to Scott Mor­ri­son: a prime min­is­ter who as­sures us he has be­liefs, but who can­not be held to them, be­cause he has not told us what they are. A con­vic­tion politi­cian, con­ve­niently free – at least pub­licly – from up­set­ting con­vic­tions.

In place of firm po­si­tions, Mor­ri­son of­fers us “au­then­tic­ity”. A few weeks ago, the new prime min­is­ter told the par­lia­ment he needed to “demon­strate to Aus­tralians my au­then­tic­ity”. His col­leagues be­lieve he is suc­ceed­ing. Asked if the rea­sons for chang­ing from Turn­bull to Mor­ri­son were be­com­ing clearer with time, front­bencher Alan Tudge told Sky News, “I just think that Scott is a very au­then­tic in­di­vid­ual.”

This is an odd, free-float­ing au­then­tic­ity we are be­ing asked to sign up to. What is Mor­ri­son au­then­tic about? Which of his be­liefs, pre­cisely – given we have heard about so few – can we count on? Re­li­gion, cer­tainly – and al­most ev­ery­body I speak to stresses the sin­cer­ity of his faith – but he in­sists this does not de­ter­mine his pol­i­tics. So … the Shire and the Sharks?

And sud­denly the be­labour­ing of these two el­e­ments of his life comes into sharper fo­cus. Lead­er­ship, as Mor­ri­son presents it to us, is not about be­lief but about sen­si­bil­ity. We don’t have to know what Mor­ri­son be­lieves, be­cause we know (be­cause we have been told, again and again) who he is: a man who likes his footy and his sub­urb.

It is pos­si­ble this will be enough. The MP Craig Laundy tells me Mor­ri­son is ex­tremely com­fort­able in a pub­lic bar – and, as a for­mer pub­li­can, Laundy says he would know. “If the peo­ple of West­ern Syd­ney in that pub­lic bar think you’re a fake, they’re go­ing to work you out in 30 sec­onds.”

Still, this em­pha­sis on the per­son, sep­a­rate from be­lief – as though such a sep­a­ra­tion were pos­si­ble – leaves an im­por­tant ques­tion unan­swered: what is the hill that Scott Mor­ri­son would die on?

His maiden speech – like most maiden speeches – con­tained few spe­cific com­mit­ments. One stood out for the strong rhetoric the new MP used to make his case. Say­ing that over­seas aid must be in­creased, he quoted Bono, lead singer of U2, on Africa: “when the his­tory books are writ­ten, our age will be re­mem­bered for … what we did – or did not do to put the fire out …” In Mor­ri­son’s first bud­get, for­eign aid was cut by $200 mil­lion. Mor­ri­son said it was La­bor’s fault for blow­ing the sur­plus.

A later back­down at­tracted more at­ten­tion. In 2017 he an­nounced the Medi­care levy would be in­creased to fund the Na­tional Dis­abil­ity In­sur­ance Scheme. Ex­plain­ing the rise on the day af­ter the bud­get, he warned his au­di­ence he might be­come emo­tional: “For­give me as I try to get through this.” He went on to talk about Jenny’s brother, Gary, who suf­fers from mul­ti­ple scle­ro­sis: “I’m not say­ing no to Gary and the 500,000 Aus­tralians count­ing on this.”

A year later – af­ter La­bor had blocked ef­forts to im­pose the levy on peo­ple earn­ing less than $87,000 – Mor­ri­son changed his mind. Now, he said, the strong econ­omy meant the levy hike was no longer needed. His brother-in-law was happy about the change, he said. “I spoke to him last night and he is very pleased – Gary did not want to see peo­ple pay more taxes ei­ther.”

Of course, be­liefs creep out.

For­mer High Court jus­tice Michael Kirby re­cently won­dered aloud whether Mor­ri­son’s in­junc­tion to “love all Aus­tralians” in­cluded LGBTIQ peo­ple. Asked about the dis­cred­ited prac­tice of “gay con­ver­sion ther­apy”, the prime min­is­ter said sim­ply that it wasn’t an is­sue for him. But when a story ap­peared in The Daily Tele­graph on teach­ers be­ing trained to spot stu­dents who may be trans­gen­der, he de­cided that was an is­sue for him, tweet­ing about it, ap­par­ently seek­ing to pro­voke a na­tional de­bate. Asked by Alan Jones whether a pro­gram teach­ing teens about dif­fer­ent sex­u­al­i­ties made his “skin curl”, he said, “It does, Alan,” be­fore say­ing that was one of the rea­sons he sent his kids to an in­de­pen­dent re­li­gious school.

Many politi­cians pro­fess their be­lief in “the fair go”. Mor­ri­son has added a caveat: “A fair go for those who have a go.” Mak­ing the case for a tax cut, he told Neil Mitchell that small-busi­ness own­ers “de­serve to get a

Asked by Alan Jones whether a pro­gram teach­ing teens about dif­fer­ent sex­u­al­i­ties made his “skin curl”, he said, “It does, Alan.”

go be­cause they’re hav­ing a go”. This split be­tween the de­serv­ing and the un­de­serv­ing pops up reg­u­larly. In 2016 he di­vided the world into “the taxed and the taxed-nots”. This year he de­fended his de­ci­sion to leave the New­start Al­lowance where it was: “My pri­or­ity is to give tax re­lief to peo­ple who are work­ing and pay­ing taxes.”

Ac­cu­sa­tions of a will­ing­ness to use race have dogged Mor­ri­son, but it is not at all clear-cut. He strongly de­nied, as did oth­ers, a re­port that he had urged fel­low mem­bers of shadow cab­i­net to “ap­peal to deep voter con­cerns about Mus­lim im­mi­gra­tion and ‘in­abil­ity’ to in­te­grate”. He has de­nied ac­counts of Ir­fan Yusuf, a Lib­eral can­di­date in 2001, who told me that Mor­ri­son had said, “We both hate Pauline Han­son … the best way to de­stroy some­one like Pauline Han­son is to ex­press poli­cies that make us look like her.” He has de­nied any knowl­edge of race be­ing used against his op­po­nent in Cook, Michael Towke. Mor­ri­son’s friend Ja­mal Rifi, a Le­banese-born Aus­tralian doc­tor and com­mu­nity leader who has pub­licly dis­agreed with him at times, told Fair­fax he be­lieves “there is no racist bone in that man”. Mor­ri­son has trekked the Kokoda Track with La­bor front­bencher Ja­son Clare and chil­dren of dif­fer­ent re­li­gions as a “heal­ing ex­er­cise”. At the height of the Adam Goodes racist boo­ing con­tro­versy, Mor­ri­son backed the In­dige­nous AFL player, tweet­ing: “To para­phrase a great rugby phrase ‘go you Goodes thing’ and to quote War­ren Mun­dine ‘stop the boos’.”

Scott Mor­ri­son has al­ways been am­bi­tious. His habit has been to take a new job and then quickly push for more ter­ri­tory. In his first term in par­lia­ment he told Lib­eral leader Bren­dan Nel­son he wanted a front­bench job. “He’s al­ways been a man in a hurry is my opin­ion of him, and he doesn’t re­ally care who gets in his way,” says some­one who knew him in his tourism days. These land-grabs some­times end badly. Within a year of hav­ing ar­rived in New Zealand, Mor­ri­son had urged the tourism min­is­ter to take steps to­wards sack­ing mem­bers of his ad­vi­sory board. Soon, the mem­bers were gone. Not long af­ter that, so was the tourism min­is­ter. A few years on, in Aus­tralia, the karmic bal­ance was re­stored when the board of Tourism Aus­tralia agreed to sack Mor­ri­son, af­ter he clashed with the tourism min­is­ter, Fran Bai­ley.

Now that Mor­ri­son has all the ter­ri­tory he could want, does any of this mat­ter? It is put to me that he might strug­gle to bring out the best in his team. Cer­tainly Mor­ri­son is aware he can be head­strong: “I would say I am pretty de­ter­mined if there is some­thing I be­lieve we need to do … One of the things I re­ally hate is be­ing proven right later.”

He has time on his side, in the op­po­site of the usual sense. Prox­im­ity to the elec­tion will fo­cus minds. He is smart and ca­pa­ble. That is some­thing on which most peo­ple agree, even those who are oth­er­wise crit­i­cal. It is clear that some find him pushy, even bel­liger­ent, but the word “per­son­able” also keeps com­ing up. When I put these de­scrip­tions to a Mor­ri­son sup­porter, he says both

are true. Unit­ing a di­vided party will be cru­cial. Lib­eral se­na­tor Eric Abetz, a con­ser­va­tive who backed Dut­ton for prime min­is­ter, de­scribed Mor­ri­son to me as “a gen­uine team leader who wants to em­brace ev­ery­one in the par­lia­men­tary party”, who makes him­self avail­able to be seen and who “re­sponds to text mes­sages very quickly”.

How­ever tal­ented Mor­ri­son may be, a cen­tral ques­tion re­mains: can he – can any­one – sus­tain the even-handed, all-win­ners-no-losers ap­proach all the way to the elec­tion?

So far, that ap­pears to be his aim. The an­nounce­ments he has made – mostly small-bore and prac­ti­cal – match ex­actly his pre­sen­ta­tion as a “fixer” with no clear ide­ol­ogy. He an­nounced drought-re­lief mea­sures, and in­creased penal­ties to ward off those tempted to put nee­dles in straw­ber­ries. He has pro­moted an­nounce­ments that of­ten would be left to min­is­ters: money for MRI scan­ners, the ap­proval of a new medicine. His fa­mous prag­ma­tism has been on dis­play. When a re­port into re­li­gious free­dom leaked, Mor­ri­son failed to rule out new laws ce­ment­ing the right of re­li­gious schools to ex­pel gay kids. Un­der pres­sure, he then said he per­son­ally hated the idea that kids could be ex­pelled un­der ex­ist­ing laws. Fi­nally he said he’d stop any new laws, and change the ex­ist­ing laws as well.

The strat­egy might suc­ceed. But what works on the way to be­com­ing prime min­is­ter does not al­ways help in do­ing the job it­self.

The great risk for Mor­ri­son is that his fric­tion­less ap­proach is im­pos­si­ble for a prime min­is­ter to sus­tain. A min­is­ter may be able to find ways of avoid­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity, for a time. Soon, the na­tion’s at­ten­tion moves on. But a prime min­is­ter can­not blame oth­ers for long. Nor can he please ev­ery­body, all of the time. Po­si­tions must be taken, sides cho­sen. Rev­er­sals can be per­son­ally dam­ag­ing in a way they rarely are for those fur­ther down the peck­ing or­der. State­ments are foren­si­cally checked. To take just one ex­am­ple: in a party that has re­cently torn it­self apart on cli­mate change, is it good enough for Mor­ri­son to sim­ply de­clare, “I’m not a cli­mate war­rior one way or the other”? Mor­ri­son’s par­tic­u­lar tal­ent for avoid­ing traces might have helped him reach the prime min­is­ter­ship. It might not help him keep it.

In a few months, Scott Mor­ri­son will face an elec­tion. There is some chance he will win. If he loses, though, no­body will see it as his fault. He was handed a dif­fi­cult job, ap­par­ently against his will, at al­most the last minute. He has, in other words, man­aged to take the role at per­haps the only time that the for­tunes of the party can­not be pinned on the per­son lead­ing it. To be­come prime min­is­ter is a rare achieve­ment – but to gain the prime min­is­ter­ship, and then lose it, with scarce in­volve­ment of your own? Im­pres­sive in­deed – and very Scott. M

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