On a Friday afternoon eight days before Christmas, I’m ushered into Scott Morrison’s private office at Kirribilli House, the official Sydney residence, to talk about the three tumultuous years of his prime ministership.
Morrison is seated behind a large desk, suit jacket off. He’s winding down after a hot and humid morning on the hustings in western Sydney where every vote will count come the looming election.
Through the window, across rolling lawns, sunlight glints off a shimmering harbour.
The interview opportunity has come with a promise: nothing will be off-limits.
Despite this, I know from previous interactions with him that he’s skilled in the arts of deflection and circumlocution, and unvarnished candour from any politician is unlikely with an unofficial election campaign already in full swing.
We’ve been allocated two hours for this encounter: one here, another hour to be shoe-horned into a lightning sweep through Brisbane’s outer suburbs in a few days’ time.
The room, dominated by a heavy bookcase along one wall, is filled with family photos and memorabilia. Over the mantelpiece is a large, framed photo of an eagle coming in to land – an art work which holds particular significance for him.
During the 2019 election campaign – the election which almost no one but he and his inner circle thought he could win – he’d walked into a gallery in a marginal central coast electorate, suffering a momentary and uncharacteristic loss of confidence. Seeing the striking image, he decided it was the divine signal he needed to keep going.
He would later tell a national convention of fellow Pentecostalists “the message I got that day was ‘Scott, you’ve got to run to not grow weary, you’ve got to walk to not grow faint, you’ve got to spread your wings like an eagle to soar like an eagle’” .
The way he’d told this story suggested he’d seen himself as the divinity’s personal pick to win that contest. But when I ask if he’s seen similar auguries for the coming election he says, “I just don’t think of it like that”.
“Faith is about me needing God, not the other way around… All I can tell you is that at a difficult time, I was encouraged. Now, encouragement doesn’t necessarily say, ‘Oh, it’s all going to turn out how you think it’s going to turn out’. It’s actually not what it’s about. It’s about, whatever happens, your faith will sustain you,” Morrison says.
He will need all the sustenance he can get. His battle-scarred government, in search of an elusive fourth term for the coalition, is lagging in most published polls, on a wafer-thin majority, and up against a Labor leader more popular than the last.
Each of Morrison’s last three summers has been shadowed by crisis: first the devastating Black Summer bushfires, then COVID-19, and now the tsunami-sized Omicron wave.
As well there has been a string of self-inflicted wounds, among them the tone-deaf handling of the Brittany Higgins rape allegation, the kid-glove treatment of Christian Porter, the too leisurely start to the vaccine program, the bitter falling out with the French, blatantly biased grants programs and a failure to rein in the rabble-rousing elements on the Coalition’s right flank in the dying days of the 2021 parliament.
“Legacies can be very vain. You do the job … and you don’t want to waste a day.”
Prime Minister Scott Morrison
All these topics were on my list. Yet when I looked back over the record of our conversation, one of the most revealing moments came in answer to the most innocuous question.
I’d asked him if he had given any thought to his legacy. “No,” he shot back.
At one level this wasn’t surprising. He views himself, above all, as a problem-solver and pragmatist – “a bit of a bulldozer”, to use his own words, “very mission, task-focused. That is my nature”.
But the speed with which he rejects the notion of even contemplating a legacy is striking. It’s as if devoting headspace to larger ideas about the future of the country is a form of moral or intellectual vanity, a derogation of prime-ministerial duty.
“It’s just not how I think about things,” he says. “When prime ministers think about their legacies, they stop thinking about today and what they have to do now.”
Several days later, he returns to the topic. “You know, legacies can be very vain. You do the job. And you get the time you have to do that job. And you don’t want to waste a day. And I don’t believe I have.”
His consistent goal, he says, has been “economy strong, Australians safe, Australians together. That’s what I’m trying to do. Every (pause) single (pause) day.”
When I suggest some Australians might like to be thrown some bigger ideas to chew on, he says: “They want to live their lives. They want to run their businesses, they want a country that is safe and secure where they can have their own choices and make their own way … They want to own their own home, they want to raise their kids, get skills and training for them, they want to be able to save for their retirement and not get too much debt and live their life the way they want to do giving back to their community. These are the great aspirations. That to me – that’s a big idea.”
There is no ambitious reform agenda here, no vision here for how the country might be transformed; but Morrison’s assessment of the national psyche is that “Australia is not a country where people want to spend every afternoon talking about politics”.
He believes his approach is “very similar” to that of one of his political heroes, Teddy Roosevelt, whose homestead he visited on a 2019 trip to the United States. Morrison has volumes of Roosevelt biographies, and a bust of the 26th US president in his office at The Lodge in Canberra. Roosevelt, whose term ran from 1901 to 1909, came from the Republican side of politics but drifted towards progressivism the longer he stayed in office.
“He was not from the extremely conservative end of the Republican Party at the time,” Morrison says. “He was a problem solver, he was passionate about national parks and the environment, he stood up for small business against the big trusts.
“One of the things that has wrong-footed Labor is that I’m no darling of big business. I’ve stood up to the big banks, the big tech companies, the big energy companies, the insurance companies, you name it, the unions, super … I’ve taken them all on. I’m no darling of that set – and they know it.”
This self-styling as the scourge of business elites is in marked contrast to his praise for “can-do capitalism” in a speech to industry types in Melbourne in November. There’s likely to be much more of the former than the latter in the lead-up to the election.
It’s of a piece with the Prime Minister’s long-time positioning of himself as an outsider, disdainful of the “Canberra bubble” despite being at the very centre of the world the bubble supports.
He taps into a similar vein when I ask how he justifies the “kangaroo court” attack he launched on the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption, as he sought to recruit former NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian into federal ranks for the election ahead.
“When people’s private lives are paraded around in the media rather than seeking to pursue [these matters] through a proper process, well, I’m going to call that out,” Morrison says.
“I’m no darling of the Macquarie Street Chambers [home to Sydney’s top barristers]. I’m not trying to impress them and I’m not intimidated.”
He’s in the habit of crafting his origin story to highlight its ordinariness, proffered as a cardinal Australian virtue.
“I grew up in the less affluent end of the eastern suburbs down in Bronte with a dad and mum and a brother who lived in [an] aunty’s house, went to public schools all my life, and then when I got to the Shire [in 2006] absolutely loved it,” he says.
“I felt at home, very at home there. That’s where I am happiest, I am very happy in the suburbs.”
The shire is Sutherland Shire, at the heart of Morrison’s electorate of Cook in Sydney’s south east, a boaties’ paradise with a good slice of comfortable homes clustering around a maze of coastal waterways.
The outline of his life story is accurate as far as it goes, though it glosses over the fact he went to one of Sydney’s most elite public schools, the selective Sydney Boys’ High. His late father John rose to become a police chief inspector and a significant local identity as a long-time councillor and later mayor of Waverley. His father’s grassroots, Mr Fixit approach to politics has heavily shaped that of his son.
Critics claim the Prime Minister’s BBQ-tongs wielding, curry-making, daggy dad persona, enhanced by baseball caps and enthusiastic boosting of the Cronulla Sharks NRL team, is an elaborate charade, the better to endear himself to the tribes of middle Australia.
Undoubtedly there is a performative element to it – particularly this close to an election. But it is an exaggerated version of certain genuine aspects of himself, like Boris Johnson’s schtick. He is not secretly immersing himself in grand opera, or burying himself in Nietzsche.
Morrison had spent the morning before our first interview touring the premises of Opie, a high-end metal manufacturer in the bellwether seat of Lindsay, in Sydney’s outer west, where he’d roamed the workshop floor with a media phalanx in close pursuit, exchanged one-liners with the workers, and deployed his latest three-word catchphrase (“shakin’ and bakin’”) to mixed effect. There had been a press conference to spruik strong employment figures and government plans for boosting apprenticeships and supporting local manufacturing.
Then he kitted up in visor and gloves to demonstrate his welding skills, angling himself to be best positioned for the TV cameras. Only later do I discover he’d burnt a finger halfway through the weld.
Morrison remains a formidable campaigner. He is visibly energised by working a room, a factory floor, a sausage sizzle or a warehouse, stopping for selfies and handshakes, climbing into the cabs of trucks or beach buggies or whatever vehicle prop the occasion demands. Over the four-and-a-half days during which photographer James Brickwood and I accompany his entourage up and down the eastern seaboard, from the NSW central coast to south-east Queensland and Tasmania, others around him occasionally wilt. He never does.
I ask if any of the crises of the last three years have given him the odd dark night of the soul.
“There wasn’t one, there were heaps of them” he says. “That was true during the floods in north Queensland [half a million stock were lost]. That was true during the fires, it was true during the pandemic, it was true in pulling AUKUS together, in evacuating 4100 people out of Afghanistan. There have been so many … Balancing competing demands in the budget, the royal commission into aged care, understanding and listening to the problems veterans are facing in veterans’ suicide … So yeah, heaps of them.”
When tens of thousands were lining up for income support in the early phase of the pandemic, the government had “serious concerns” about outbreaks of civil unrest, he says.
“You’re facing the abyss … we knew that we had to put a massive confidence shot into the Australian economy. And if those payments didn’t turn up in people’s bank accounts, who knew what was going to happen?” he says.
“JobKeeper was more than just income support, it was a clear statement from the federal government that ‘you are going to be OK, you don’t have to worry about tomorrow because tomorrow’s OK … Tomorrow, there is food on the table, you are not going to lose your house, you are not going to lose the lease on your business, and we are going to cover that off until we get this all sorted out’. And that was really important … many of the things we’ve done are not things Liberal governments would contemplate, let alone do. But ideology has no place in a crisis.”
Morrison won’t accept the charge that at least part of the nation’s current pandemic woes can be tied to the overly leisurely start to the COVID-19 vaccination program.
“There was no timetable from anyone that involved us being at 80 per cent vaccinated in June,” he insists. “This idea that all these lockdowns wouldn’t have happened, and all the rest of it, it’s fanciful … any plan is going to have setbacks. And we had them. But we overcame them … and we worked tirelessly to bring in the extra supplies.”
Nor does he accept that national cabinet – which he set up in March 2020 to try to co-ordinate pandemic responses with state and territory leaders – has enabled blame-shifting and eroded his personal authority, with the states going their own way much of the time.
“If people were concerned about the level of harmonisation, imagine what it would have looked like without it.”
“I’m the Prime Minister of a federation, not a republic with a presidential system,” he adds.
“We are not engaged in fantasy government. If I took a referendum to the Australian people which enabled the federal government to overrule all states and territories on these issues, it would fail.”
Our interview takes place before the full scale of the devastation now being wrought by Omicron – supermarket shelves emptying, supply chains freezing, the desperate hunt for home testing kits – has become apparent.
But he’s alert to the probability there will be other variants of the virus after this. “They can come in any number of forms. They can elevate the virus, they can certainly elevate the tempo … This one could mutate, it could go up, it could go down. … You focus on what you can control and you don’t think too much about the things you can’t in a crisis.”
He won’t engage with how it might affect the government’s electoral prospects. “My attention is solely on fixing the problem. I find that if you fix the problem, the politics takes care of itself.”
He’s largely pulled out of a planned family holiday, avoiding the mistake of again being absent during a national crisis, as he was in December 2019 when he attempted to take a secret family breakaway in Hawaii at the height of the fires.
He’d compounded the damage then by telling a Sydney radio jock, “I don’t hold a hose mate” – a remark that has haunted him ever since.
Did he regret those words as soon as they’d left his lips? “For many, many, many months we had been addressing this bushfire event,” he says, picking his words carefully. “I had promised we were going to take a break with the family for a week. And so it was an emotional time, when you were quite torn. And not every interview, not every way you want to express yourself, is going to go 100 per cent right every time.
“In this job there will always be those who will seek to take a phrase here or there and seek to use it against you and seek to put another context to it.”
When his handling of Brittany Higgins’ experience comes up, he talks again about “not every phrase you utter, or every way you might have said it, is going to meet with agreement by everybody”.
The young former staffer went public in February 2021 with the shocking allegation she had been raped by a colleague in the office of then Defence minister Linda Reynolds two years previously, and felt under pressure not to speak up about it with the 2019 election approaching.
Morrison’s initial tin-eared response (saying his wife Jenny had had to “clarify” the issues for him by asking him to think of their own daughters) unleashed a storm of criticism from women, which was further fuelled by an ABC story raising historical rape allegations – strongly denied – against then attorney-general Christian Porter.
I ask if there was anything he would, in hindsight, have done differently on either issue.
On Higgins’ plight, he insists, “we sought to be as sensitive and as empathetic and as action-orientated as we possibly could, as we were coming to terms with the situation as it presented. These are very sensitive, difficult issues”.
What he calls “the system … left everybody exposed … The system let everybody down, most significantly Brittany”.
He points to the inquiries that have since been set in train, leading to new confidential support and reporting mechanisms for parliamentary staff. “I believe we acted in good faith. I believe I did,” he says.
The Porter saga dragged on for months, sapping the government’s moral authority, grinding to an ignominious end when the former minister finally pulled the plug on his own political career after revelations about anonymous donors helping to cover his legal costs.
I ask if he now thinks there was a better way he could have handled that. Morrison sighs.
“It’s hard to know,” he says. “You are dealing with a situation which is quite extraordinary, the sad passing of the party [the alleged victim, Kate] in all of this. And important principles about the justice system and innocence until proven guilty and all of these sorts of things. The absolute denial of what had taken place.
“It has ended where it has ended … It was a really complex issue involving a lot of human beings, very vulnerable, very frail, with events that had allegedly occurred a long time ago, and it was a very tough issue. It wasn’t one dimensional, that’s for sure. Some may have liked to have portrayed it that way – but it wasn’t.”
He won’t accept that the Coalition now has a major reputational problem with Australian women, particularly younger women – not helped by one-time Liberal-turned-independent MP Julia Banks labelling him “menacing controlling wallpaper” in her recent book.
“That is a narrative that people are placing upon you, it’s not a narrative that I share … It’s not the narrative I necessarily get when I’m out and about, places far away from Canberra.”
On the failed recruitment of Berejiklian, he says, “People can’t have it both ways. They can’t say, why aren’t you getting more women into parliament, and when I try and get women into parliament, and when it doesn’t happen, they attack me. Well, I’m going to have a go, I’m going to have a go lots of times.”
‘Real and authentic’
It’s hard to think of a precedent for the way Emmanuel Macron, leader of an aligned and previously friendly Western nation, accused Morrison of having lied to him while secretly negotiating the AUKUS nuclear submarine pact with the UK and the US.
Morrison’s immediate predecessor Malcolm Turnbull weighed in with the claim Morrison had “always” had a reputation for telling lies, while Labor’s deputy, Richard Marles, accused the Prime Minister of being someone who “lies about lying”. Does he accept that he misleads on occasion?
“Of course not,” he shoots back. “That doesn’t mean that everything you say at any given time, you know, you’re fully informed. And where I haven’t been I have sought to correct that in good faith.”
I point out, for instance, that he obfuscated over whether or not he’d unsuccessfully tried to get Hillsong church leader Brian Houston invited to a special White House dinner in 2019. He was “fully informed” on that but refused to clarify it for months.
“It’s not my job to do journalists’ work,” he says. “I’m asked many questions every day and … you know, sometimes they are very speculative, just seeing what I will say in reply. And so on that occasion, I chose not to … umm … to respond”. (Houston at the time of the failed invitation attempt was under police investigation for allegedly covering up his father’s historical child sex abuse).
He says his opponents “try and tear me down, rather than having something constructive to say … they did the same to John Howard, they demonised him for years and years and years and years and they are doing the same thing to me. I take it as a compliment [that] … calling names is the best they can do.
“I’m just going to keep being real and authentic like I always have and engage directly with the Australian people.”
He downplays Macron’s devastating indictment of him. “He has got an election next year and they lost a very big contract. I understand that … This was the most secure, the most secure partnership that we were forming since the Second World War. What had to be landed with the US gave us access to the most significant defence technology in the world, that no other country had been able to access since 1958. Many of my predecessors tried, they all failed.”
Is he saying the Americans might have scuppered the deal if word had got to the French sooner?
“It could have occurred, and it could have influenced things. … Of course it was going to have an impact on the relationship with France! Of course it was. The suggestion that you could somehow break this information in some other different way where they would be happy I think is naive,” he says.
“Given the choice, I chose Australia … Others probably would have made different choices.”
Is he implying, then, that he made a braver choice than any of his predecessors? “Yes, of course I did,” he says.
In her recent book on Morrison, The Accidental Prime Minister, for which she interviewed him and a number of colleagues, journalist Annika Smethurst sums him up as “incredibly focused and hard-working” at his best and “calculating and manipulative” at his worst.
Does he recognise himself in that? “Well I don’t know if I would use the M word,” he says. “But I mean, you know … politics is not an easy business and it’s not for the faint-hearted. I’m not naive and I know how to get things done as a politician.
“When I’m with [ordinary] people I think they know my heart … Others want to run a narrative about that, they don’t know me and they probably have nothing to do with me.”
What about the view of some Coalition MPs that his Praetorian guard, the small but influential centre-right faction, which outsmarted Peter Dutton to manoeuvre Morrison into the leadership after the fall of Turnbull, are “political sluts” (to quote one source in Smethurst’s book), believing in nothing?
He breaks into a guffaw. “When I became PM, I said to my party room, I’m not going over there, and I’m not going over there [gesturing in opposite directions]. If you want to drag me to either side you won’t succeed … You’ve asked me to lead, I’m asking you to follow, and that’s been my mantra. If I know that both extremes are not exactly happy with what I’m doing, I’m pretty confident that I’m heading in the right direction.”
Morrison is, however, unabashed about his social conservatism. In 2017 he was one of around a dozen MPs to abstain from the same-sex marriage vote. Two months ago, he personally introduced his long-promised Religious Discrimination Bill into parliament, stirring deep unease among Liberal moderates. The bill is now working its way through committee hearings.
I’m curious as to whether he knows or has had conversations with any families with gay kids. He bristles instantly.
“Of course I have,” he says. “I live in the same world as everybody else.” There is a brief, uneasy silence. “My experience is no different to most Australians who live in Australia, who grew up in the suburbs of Sydney. So why would you assume differently?”
I’m assuming nothing, I say. “Well who is?” he demands. This is the glass-jawed, combative side of Morrison that I’d experienced once or twice in previous encounters with him. I’m surprised that this is the question that has provoked it.
“Why would you think that people who have a faith don’t live in the same world as everybody else, and have the same sets of relationships as anywhere else?” Morrison goes on. “I have been very clear about my view on [protecting] gay students and I have right from the outset.”
I ask why the question makes him uncomfortable. “Because you put to me a perception … which I think is very loaded and is based on a view about people of faith which is, quite frankly, prejudiced.”
Later he adds, “The thing that may surprise people [is] that that centred sort of world I live in is a lot more diverse than they probably think; a lot more diverse than they probably think.”
A question about the ABC gets short shrift. Why has he not gone on 7.30 for so many months? “Well have you watched it each night? It’s hardly an invitation,” he shoots back, implying that it’s politically unfriendly territory. “I don’t need to comment on television programs. I don’t watch them.”
Two months ago ABC chair Ita Buttrose took the extraordinary step of publicly accusing a leading Liberal senator, Andrew Bragg, of seeking to “mute” and “intimidate” the public broadcaster, when Bragg tried to trigger a senate inquiry that would have cut across an independent review already under way of the ABC’s complaints handling process.
I suggest to Morrison the government appears actively hostile towards the broadcaster.
He denies it. “But I do detect a bit of a [hostile attitude] from the coverage toward the government,” he says. “Every Coalition government has felt that. They keep criticising us … and we keep funding them!”
Morrison appears to have read and thought a lot more about climate change since I last interviewed him, in 2019. But it’s clear he doesn’t get the visceral and persistent anxiety it triggers for a proportion of the population.
Australia’s performance at the recent Glasgow international climate conference was lacklustre at best, but Morrison says dismissively, “the lesson of history is not conferences. There were plenty of peace conferences in Europe. Didn’t change much.”
The day after our Kirribilli interview we join his entourage to travel to Hobart, for the launch of the spanking new government-funded Antarctic research ship, NUYINA. Governor-General David Hurley talks evocatively of the fates of Antarctic krill and humankind being “closely entwined”. Morrison’s speech leans towards recalling the derring-do of the early generations of Antarctic explorers, man against the elements.
He remains wedded to the notion that technology driven by private capital will solve a problem that eclipses even the pandemic.
“The idea that all governments get together and regulate us out of this problem, that doesn’t sit with my understanding of how the world works and certainly how the economy works,” he says. “If we’re really serious about climate change we’ll put in place technology solutions that are affordable and scalable and that can be adopted by developing countries.”
I ask if he’s looked at any of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports, or the Australian government’s own most recent State of the Climate report, which warns of rising seas, longer droughts and increased fire and flood risk.
“Of course I have,” he says. “I’m not arguing about the issues.” He praises naturalist David Attenborough’s book, A Life on Our Planet, Bill Gates’ tome How to Avoid a Climate Disaster and The New Map: Energy Climate and the Clash of Nations by energy specialist and economic historian Daniel Yergin.
All worthy, but none of the three are a climate scientist.
He talks about how hard it was to get the National Party over the line to sign up to a goal of net zero emissions by 2050 to take to Glasgow. Why didn’t he put his prime ministerial authority on the line, like John Howard did on the guns issue? “I wouldn’t compare the two,” he says.
But a minute later, he adds, “ultimately it came to the situation where as you say, I did have to put it on the line, and it was very close”. How close? “Well the reports say there were two votes [in the Nationals party room] in it”.
“The net zero issue was seen as a great threat to many in rural and regional Australia. And they were being told by people in cities that they just had to suck it up. For the good of the planet. Fair point, about the good of the planet. But we need to have solutions that actually, you know, look after their interests,” he says.
Morrison says he’s not immune to occasional anxiety and takes spiritual counsel “in good times and bad” from “a range of pastors [and] good friends like [former NSW police commissioner] Andrew Scipione, who is tremendous”.
He describes wife Jenny as “the glue … Agape is the Greek word, selfless love. She has it in infinite quantities. She is an amazing woman who has no limit on her love and her own self-sacrifice for her family”.
When I ask how confident he is about the election he says, “I know all the things I have to do. I know what the path looks like. And I’m walking it.”
“I find as leader you cannot be distracted by your own anxieties and you’ve got to discipline yourself, not to let those things cloud your judgment.”
By way of illustration, he references the Tom Hanks movie Bridge of Spies. Hanks plays a lawyer defending a mole caught spying for the Soviets. When he asks the spy why he remains unruffled, with the threat of the electric chair hanging over him, the man (played by Mark Rylance) says coolly, “would it help?”
“Would it help,” says Morrison. “It’s a good question.”