Scott John Morrison: Where the bloody hell did he come from?

by Michael Sainsbury | Feb 13, 2019 | Comment & Analysis, Government

It’s not every Prime Minister who loses a vote on his government’s own legislation. The man who ended an 80-year run not only definitely deserves a special mention in Australia’s political history but a closer look at just where the hell he came from. Michael Sainsbury unpacks the peripatetic pre-parliamentary adventures of Scott John Morrison.

WHEN SCOTT Morrison either accidentally – or more likely with great skullduggery – emerged as the successor to Malcolm Turnbull in August 2018, the congratulations naturally enough flooded in. But for most Australians, it was unclear just exactly who had become their new leader.

Clues could be found in those heaping praise on the new, then-invisible PM that in itself, is no mean feat for a man who had been Treasurer for three years. Prominent in their praise were gushing notes from the Property Council of Australia (PCA), the PMs first employer and the tourism sector.

Morrison has not forgotten his old mates – he is, after all, a successful politician – and has launched a full frontal attack on Labor policies that threaten the property sector (in the name of good management of course, we would never suggest anything else) and loves to mention growing numbers of Chinese tourists whenever he can. But we need to go back.

By 1995, Morrison felt he had a good grip on the basics and skipped out of the Bligh St offices of the Property Council of Australia where he had spent six years cutting his teeth as a spinner, lobbyist and propagandist. He landed in the tourism sector, specifically, the Tourism Task Force (now the Tourism and Transport Forum) — a lobby group that in many ways mirrored the PCA.

For the next 12 years, he would switch between various roles in peak and government-run tourism bodies – and a brief unsuccessful stint in private practice – and the Liberal Party of Australia.

In among a string of election campaign failures, Morrison had a regular habit of leaving or being pushed out of jobs before his contracts were finished. There were two stints that have, perhaps understandably, been scrubbed from his Wikipedia page.

The first was a period at big four consulting group KPMG in 2000, where he was attempting to start up a tourism practice. The second was an ill-fated turn as the strategic director for the campaign of New South Wales Liberal leader Peter Debnam during his failed 2007 election bid.

A self-styled “marketer” (he actually has a Bachelor of Science in applied economic geography from UNSW) Morrison instead hired others to do the marketing work, according to a number of people that worked with him in his various tourism jobs, while he focused largely on the networking. This networking brought him into contact with Liberal grandees who promoted him ever higher, until he landed in — or rather was parachuted into — federal parliament in 2007.

Morrison’s first role in the tourism sector was as deputy chief executive of the Australian Tourism Task Force, then-chaired by former Labor tourism minister John Brown. Showing his talent for ruthlessness, Morrison jumped ship to rival group Tourism Council of Australia (TCA) to became the general manager. The TCA was run by Bruce Baird, the former transport minister in the Nick Greiner and John Fahey NSW Liberal governments (1989-2005).

Morrison left the TCA in 1998 at the same time Baird entered federal parliament. By December 1999, the TCA was technically insolvent, despite a questionable “start-up” loan of $2.3 million by the Howard government. It was eventually tipped into administration under Grant Thornton in December 2001 and disbanded. “The damage was done by Bruce and Scott,” a former staffer noted.

In 1998, Morrison moved to New Zealand as the the inaugural director of the newly created Office of Tourism and Sport, reporting directly to NZ tourism minister Murray McCully. The two entered a widely reported power struggle with the independent NZ Tourism Board. In a 1999 report, NZ auditor-general criticised Morrison’s role, particularly his commissioning and handling of a report critical of the board. These events have been detailed in The Saturday Paper.

Returning to Australia, a year before his contract was up, Morrison took up a what appears to have been a short-lived stint at KPMG Consulting, where people in the industry said he was “knocking on doors trying to drum up work”.

The common thread here appears to be Tony Clark, former New South Wales MD for KPMG (he stepped down in 1998). Clark was famously John Howard’s golfing partner and was subsequently also a supporter of Tony Abbott when prime minister and was an attendee at Abbott’s post-budget “Jesuit old boys” dinner. Clark was at the same time serving as a long-time deputy chairman at Tourism Australia and its predecessor body the Australian Tourist Commission.

Clark did not respond to a request for comment. Requests to both Morrison’s office and KPMG to detail his time there, went unanswered.

By late 2000, Morrison had been installed as the NSW director of the Liberal Party. He would get his first taste of the political power of “the boats” when the Tampa incident flipped the 2001 federal election the Howard government’s way. But the Liberal campaign for office under leader John Brogden in 2003 was a flop. The party lost a single seat on a flat vote percentage, compared to the previous poll, to the third-term Bob Carr-led Labor government.

But in the 2004 federal election, where Morrison apparently impressed then-PM John Howard, the Liberals picked up a handful of NSW seats. And after leaving his first stint at the Liberal Party, Morrison appears to have been handed the job of MD at Tourism Australia from 2004 — replete with a photo of John Howard in his office.

Morrison immediately brought in South African Ian McFarlane, who had worked with him in NZ and engaged M&C Saatchi to do the “100% Pure New Zealand” campaign, something McFarlane takes clear credit for on his LinkedIn page.

“It was clear that they wanted Saatchi again,” said one staffer, once McFarlane had arrived at TA. This time it was to develop the controversial “Where the Bloody Hell Are You” campaign.

Meanwhile in the office, it was case of where the bloody hell was Morrison? “He was an invisible MD, he wasn’t present, he wasn’t around, he wouldn’t know anyone’s names,” one long-time staffer said, who also said McFarlane showed disdain for group processes. The Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) would have similar concerns in its 2008 report on the group.

Morrison’s three-year contract was cut short as he clashed with tourism minister Fran Bailey. “Two ‘A’ type personalities,” a TA staffer at the time, told Crikey. He was sacked in 2006 in a unanimous decision of the board led by former Nationals leader and deputy PM Tim Fischer, which has never been fully explained. It’s noteworthy, again, that Clark was the deputy chairman of TA. There also remain unanswered questions about tenders from the ANAO report that have still not been made public. Interestingly, McFarlane – who would continue on at TA for two years after Morrison’s ousting – omits any reference to the controversial Lara Bingle-starring campaign from his own public CV.

After dodging questions about his departure from TS for years, Morrison finally spilled the beans in an interview with The Women’s Weekly in October 2018: “There were different constructions of words put together at the time, but that’s what it boiled down to,” Morrison said. “It was quite an event. There’s the humiliation and embarrassment.” In some views, this may breach the $500,000 payout he reportedly received for agreeing not to talk publicly about the termination and says a lot about the ever-creeping lack of transparency in taxpayer-funded institutions in Australia.

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Morrison had fixed his eye on the federal seat of Cook, where his old boss Bruce Baird decided to step down rather than engage in a pre-selection battle, after an unfairly ignominious nine years in federal parliament where he was ignored for higher office by Howard.

In December 2006, as he was prepping for a tilt at Liberal pre-selection for Cook, Morrison made a return to politics as strategy director for the 2007 election campaign of NSW opposition leader Peter Debnam who had taken over from Brogden after he resigned following a series of events that began with revelations he had described Carr’s wife Helena, a successful businesswoman who immigrated to Australia from Malaysia, as a “mail-order bride”.

An early piece of Morrison’s strategy would be the appearance, in February 2007, of Debnam in Speedos creating much derision. Debnam would lose the March 2007 election to Carr’s successor, Morris Iemma, by 17 seats.

Following the second NSW state Liberal defeat in which Morrison had played a senior role, he quickly turned his attention to the seat of Cook. Despite references from senior Liberal figures including Howard, Morrison did not even make the final ballot in pre-selection, gaining only eight votes and losing to Michael Towke.

Morrison was only anointed as candidate when Towke ran into problems with the party’s state executive after a damaging series of stories alleging branch-stacking. Towke was dumped as candidate but would later win a defamation settlement against The Daily Telegraph, which had been prosecuting the case against him. Morrison was effectively parachuted in, endorsed without pre-selection.

Morrison won the seat with 56.9 per cent of the vote but the Liberal vote went backwards in 2007, losing 6.9 per cent in the two-party preferred vote. Morrison would regain 6.3 per cent of that vote in 2010. In the 2013 Abbott landslide, he would pick up a further 3.7 per cent, firmly establishing Cook as a safe Liberal seat. In 2017, his vote only edged back 0.3 per cent.

So, Cook at least appears safe for Morrison but his pre-2007 career casts plenty of questions over his strategic campaigning abilities, his management and a distinct tendency towards a lack of transparency.

Perhaps this is unsurprising as all these things are hallmarks of the one through line of his career: spin-doctoring — for property and tourism lobby groups and for the Liberal Party in its backrooms and in parliament. It’s a decidedly tactical rather than strategic game operated by guns for hire rather than true believers — and Morrison has already handed the electorate ample evidence of his willingness to change his mind for votes.

Finally, its worth noting that spin doctors are rarely elected to lead countries although in recent years two examples have come to the fore: Britain’s David Cameron and the Bronx spinner par-excellence, Donald Trump. Enough said. shorter version of this article also appeared in Crikey

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Michael Sainsbury is a former China correspondent who has lived and worked across North, Southeast and South Asia for 11 years. Now based in regional Australia, he has more than 25 years’ experience writing about business, politics and human rights in Australia and the Indo-Pacific. He has worked for News Corp, Fairfax, Nikkei and a range of independent media outlets and has won multiple awards in Australia and Asia for his reporting. He is a fierce believer in the importance of independent media.

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