If any further proof was needed that Scott Morrison had lost touch with reality, not only while he was prime minister, but that his malady had lingered for months after, it came during his first conversation with Josh Frydenberg after Anthony Albanese revealed that Treasury was one of the former prime minister’s secret ministries.
Almost immediately after Albanese’s stunning announcement, Morrison tried to contact Frydenberg, ostensibly to apologise to his former deputy. Frydenberg ignored Morrison’s first few attempts, not trusting himself to speak to him, then finally responded. Frydenberg can’t actually remember Morrison using the ‘s’ word – sorry.
What really stuck in Frydenberg’s mind, and his craw, was Morrison’s response in that initial conversation when a profoundly disappointed Frydenberg put it to him that: ‘You wouldn’t do it again if you had your time over!’ Morrison replied: ‘Yes I would.’
Frydenberg was staggered. When he asked him why he had done it, Morrison had no coherent explanation, except to say that ‘No one understands what it was like’ – a theme he would reprise at his press conference afterwards, the one where he also insisted that he and Frydenberg remained ‘the best of friends’.
Frydenberg was incredulous. After a few days, Morrison rang Frydenberg again. He told him he had been thinking about their conversation. On reflection, he said, no, he would probably not take Treasury if he had his time over. Note, he only referred to Treasury. And there was still no apology.
When I asked Frydenberg if he still regarded Morrison as a friend, he replied instinctively: ‘Yes.’ When I asked him if the friendship had been damaged, the answer was the same: ‘Yes.’ Despite Frydenberg’s positive reflex response, that is one relationship that will never be the same again.
Morrison began in politics with few friends, and ended with even fewer. People who had stuck by him for decades, fought all his battles, gathered his numbers, prayed with him, and defended him – often at some cost to their own reputations and careers – felt used, wounded, and deceived.
When we spoke in late August 2022, after Frydenberg had spent a week in Queensland with his family, it was the first time he had agreed to speak publicly about Morrison’s actions.
Frydenberg found out what Morrison had done on social media after Albanese announced it. Friends and journalists bombarded him with messages, mostly featuring the googly-eyed emoji that doubles for OMG and WTF, which is exactly what he felt.
We had a brief conversation then. He was angry, hurt, confused, dumbstruck. It was such a betrayal of trust. He debated whether or not to respond publicly. After he decided he would, and to do it first for this book, he took a few days after the family holiday to compose a response. And to compose himself.
“It’s impossible properly to evaluate the decision-making during the pandemic without understanding the context in which decisions were made,” Frydenberg told me.
“We faced a once-in-a-century pandemic, an evolving crisis, laden with uncertainty as to what each day would bring. This meant we had to take and live with decisions on both the health and economic front that in normal times would never have been contemplated.
“That being said, I don’t think there was any reason for Scott to take on the additional Treasury portfolio. The fact he did take it, and it was not made transparent to me and others, was wrong and profoundly disappointing.
“It was extreme overreach.”
It was a measured, carefully calibrated response from Frydenberg as he sought to convey both empathy and anger, part personal separation from Morrison – essential if he is to resume his political career – part endorsement of their decision-making during Covid, and part occupation of the high moral ground. To which he was entitled. Frydenberg, in his own words, had been ‘loyal to a fault’ to Morrison. And this was how he was repaid.
Although he knew that Morrison had acquired health, he did not know he had taken on finance, and did not know he had moved on to other portfolios, including his own. Frydenberg was struggling to come to terms with it all.
During our conversation, he was still racking his brain trying to think what, if anything, could have prompted Morrison to acquire Treasury. The leadership chatter hadn’t revved up until much later in 2021, so Frydenberg did not think it was that – although, if, as Morrison revealed, he was medicating to sleep, who knows what he was thinking.
And, as written earlier, Alex Hawke reckons Morrison was convinced that MPs were plotting against him. Former Labor cabinet minister Gerry Hand was fond of saying that all prime ministers go mad after a while, even in supposedly normal times, and these were extraordinary times.
There were, however, two events in late April, weeks before the 2021 budget and only days before Morrison’s secret takeover, which Frydenberg thinks may have contributed to Morrison’s decision to acquire Treasury. One was a news story asserting that Frydenberg was pushing back against a levy to fund aged care that Morrison was backing.
Frydenberg was concerned the story was an attempt to split them, and said so to Morrison. Morrison told him that wouldn’t happen because: ‘I trust you, Josh.’
The second, difficult to comprehend given the desertion of women from the Liberal Party, was in the lead-up to that year’s budget on 11 May, when Morrison was fiercely resisting a push from Frydenberg to provide extra funding for childcare. The government was already spending around $10 billion on childcare, Morrison argued, and he wasn’t convinced of its ‘efficacy’.
Frydenberg, working with Jane Hume, Anne Ruston, Marise Payne, and Alan Tudge, had put together a package worth $1.8 billion that would particularly help those with two or more children. Kelly O’Dwyer had used polling a few years before to convince Morrison to fund a women’s package. Frydenberg twisted his arm on childcare, using implied threats.
“I am telling you as treasurer I want this, you need it, you have ministers who support it,” Frydenberg told Morrison. It was a rare win. Frydenberg was proud that he had been able to turn Morrison around on an issue where he held very strong views. After he heard that Morrison’s secret takeover had occurred on 6 May 2021, only five days out from that year’s budget, a badly bruised Frydenberg, who had prided himself on his loyalty, couldn’t help wondering if those two events might have triggered it.
He could not think of any other explanation, and Morrison had certainly not been able to provide one that made any sense, other than that he was getting blamed for everything anyway, and that no one knew what it was like to be him.
If Frydenberg had known about it before, he says he would have insisted that Morrison revoke his takeover. He would have told Morrison that he was the deputy leader and the treasurer – not him. Colleagues say that if Mathias Cormann had known, he ‘would have gone ballistic’.
As would Karen Andrews. Stuart Robert and Alex Hawke would have also told him to back off. It would have been a brave, or foolhardy, or completely deluded prime minister to have persisted in the face of such widespread opposition. Or, depending on his state of mind, he might have raced off to the governor-general to call an election.
If Morrison had resisted, Frydenberg is convinced there would have been a challenge, because of the level of outrage in the party’s moderate and conservative ranks. More likely, despite the complete absence of remorse afterwards, Frydenberg believes that Morrison would have done one of his famous ‘pivots’ and relinquished the additional ministries.
Even those usually counted among Morrison’s few friends in government, who had followed him religiously, literally, including Hawke and Robert were dismayed. Robert, who continued to pray regularly with Morrison both at the Lodge and in his Parliament House office, particularly before big events, thought it was ‘nuts’.
He was mightily offended by Morrison’s lack of faith in him personally to be able to step into those portfolios if anything happened to the ministers.
“Scotty’s a friend, as much as one can have a friend in politics,” Robert told me. “We are still reasonably close in that regard.” Twice during an hour-long conversation, after I had asked him if they were still friends, he laughed and quoted the old maxim: “If you want a friend in politics, get a dog.”
He says lots of crazy things happened during Covid, and blamed the secret ministry takeovers on poor advice. He said either Morrison’s chief of staff or the head of his department should have stopped him. “They should have hauled him back,” he said.
“We were facing Armageddon,” Robert said. Even so, he did not think this was a good enough reason to excuse Morrison’s actions. “If Armageddon happens, if all those five [ministers] get wiped out, then swear others in,” he said. He pointed out that it would only have taken a few minutes, and that if Morrison himself had gone down, another prime minister would have been sworn in.
In mid June 2021, after Morrison told Keith Pitt he had sworn himself in as Resources Minister to block the PEP 11 project to drill for gas off the New South Wales coast, Pitt considered unilaterally releasing a statement approving it. He also considered resigning. He did neither because he did not want to plunge the government into crisis. Pitt’s conversations with Morrison and with his office are chronicled elsewhere in Bulldozed.
Karen Andrews told me she did not take it personally or regard it as a slight when she found out Morrison had acquired her Ministry of Home Affairs. Nor was she fussed about getting an apology. But she was mightily offended that he had not repaid the loyalty he had been shown.
“It diminished him, it diminished the cabinet, and diminished the government all that work we did during Covid, industry stepped up – it was really good work. That was diminished,” she said.
She said if ministers had known, they would have insisted his extra commissions be revoked. If he had refused, she believes it is possible he would have been challenged.
“He had very strong support from ministers at the time. I thought cabinet worked well,” she said. “Ministers were unswervingly loyal to him. We went into the election fighting it out for him and the Liberal Party. Josh Frydenberg pushed back on challenging him. There was so much loyalty given to Morrison, and he has, in hindsight, squandered all the goodwill that was there.”
When Morrison eventually called her to apologise, after being prompted by Peter Dutton, it was a brief conversation. He told her he had only acquired portfolios where ministers had unilateral powers.
Andrews did not ask him why he had done it. Asked why she hadn’t, she replied: “Because there is no reason I would think was plausible.”
In a deliberate tactic – thought through, but ill-judged – hours after Albanese revealed the extent of Morrison’s deception, Dutton’s shadow cabinet decided to downplay it.
“The view was, we were best not to talk about it,” one frontbencher said later. The dominant view was that: “A day not spent talking about the rising cost of living was a wasted day.” As if it was not possible to talk about both the economy and to address a serious breach of conventions at the same time.
Morrison had been protected by a conspiracy of silence. No one who knew what he had done blew the whistle.
The Governor-General, David Hurley, was a former military man, very close to Morrison, also deeply religious, who would urge – or rather oblige – guests at his official residences, and at events around the country, to sing to one another.
Guests were alerted to the expectations of their hosts by his wife, Linda, who would announce: “I believe that singing is a gift we give to one another.” The Department of Foreign Affairs began forewarning new ambassadors of the Hurley tradition before they made the trek to Government House.
‘You Are My Sunshine’ was a hot favourite. Guests were told to face the person next to them to sing the final chorus. Sometimes it would be the familiar tune with new lyrics written by Mrs Hurley that would be printed on the back of menus and handed out to guests. No one had an excuse not to sing along. Hurley was punctilious about this ritual he had initiated, even though some guests found it awkward or embarrassing.
But he did not see it as his duty or responsibility to notify the public that the prime minister had secretly sworn himself in to five additional portfolios.
A former staffer, involved intimately for years with interactions between prime ministers and governors-general, said that Morrison’s secret takeovers and the seeming acquiescence of the governor-general came about as a result of “weakened institutions, weakened processes, and weak people”. He was referring to the public service, the governor-general’s office, and the prime minister’s office.
He said it was wrong for people to keep describing what happened as “weird” because that minimised what had occurred. “It was not kooky – it was dangerous,” he told me.
Albanese’s reaction was similar to most people and common in politics when something so extraordinary unfolds. He didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when he found out the full extent of Morrison’s secret acquisitions. To laugh, because the whole thing was so preposterous; or to cry, because of the affront to parliament and to conventions.
On his last day of a brief holiday, Albanese twigged immediately to the importance of it. He rang his staff, after reading an extract of Plagued in The Australian, (which revealed only that Morrison had been sworn into the Health and Finance portfolios as an elegant solution) to ask them to get to the bottom of it.
Whatever political plays there were in Albanese’s response did not detract from the fact that what Morrison had done was profoundly stupid and dangerous – the actions of an isolated, mistrustful, out-of-control leader – and that Albanese’s ordering of an inquiry by former High Court Justice Virginia Bell, was not only justified but critical.
Morrison became an object of ridicule. He joined in Facebook posts that poked fun at what he had done. Except that they were not laughing with him, they were laughing at him. Even Dutton made a joke at Morrison’s expense at the press gallery’s mid-winter ball on 7 September. Dutton recited all the ministries he had held – from assistant treasurer, to health, to immigration, to home affairs and defence – over his 21 years in parliament. “Imagine how angry I was when I found out I could have been minister for all those portfolios at once,” he said. “All those wasted years. How good is Scott Morrison?”
Frydenberg remains convinced Morrison’s deep unpopularity cost him his seat. In September 2021, Morrison had a net approval rating of minus 18 in Kooyong; by April 2022, it had more than doubled to minus 38. Monique Ryan was an exceptional candidate, but she also had plenty to work with. Frydenberg has not yet decided whether he will recontest Kooyong.
Scott Morrison’s fall and Anthony Albanese’s rise
By Niki Savva
Published by Scribe
Bulldozed is released on December 1.
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