Politics

Federal politics

Birth of a larrikin
The disguised rise of Scott Morrison

Scott Morrison in the sheds after the NRL match between the Cronulla Sharks and the North Queensland Cowboys in Sydney, July 25, 2019. (AAP Image/Craig Golding)

Scott Morrison is the descendant of convicts and the son of a copper. He sympathises with both the swagman and the squatter. In this way, “ScoMo” perfectly encapsulates the identity crisis at the heart of Australia.

“I love Australia,” Morrison told the Menzies Research Centre in 2018. “Who loves Australia? Everyone. We all love Australia. Of course we do.”

After serving in the army, Scott’s old man, John, joined the NSW Police Force and played rugby union for Randwick. Sydney was a city riven with political and religious divisions. The working class even had their own sport: rugby league. In 1908, Irish-Catholic larrikins had protested against the lack of match payments by joining the rival code. Rugby union players from the North Shore and the eastern suburbs were known as “rah-rahs”. Rugby league players from working-class suburbs were nicknamed “mungos”, short for mongrels.

Scott Morrison was raised on the side of the toffs, not the battlers. His dad, John, and mum, Marion, were salt-of-the-earth Presbyterians, à la Robert Menzies. They belonged to the Liberal Party’s moral middle class. The Morrisons popped out two sons – Alan and Scott – before dropping into the newly merged Uniting Church in Bondi Junction. John was the leader of the Boys’ Brigade and Marion the leader of the Girls’ Brigade.

Scott Morrison was an extremely obedient drama kid who played rugby union like his rah-rah father. The two defining themes of Morrison’s youth are a precocious puritanism and the blind faith that he comes from humble suburban beginnings. “Bronte was a lot different back then than it is today,” Morrison told The Australian before the 2017 budget.

The beachside suburb of Bronte might appear second-rate and far away from everything if you’ve got mates in Double Bay, where Morrison might seem like Darryl Kerrigan compared to Malcolm Turnbull. But Morrison’s upbringing was suspiciously close to that of the inner-city elite. He played the saxophone at Sydney Boys High, a selective public school next to the SCG and a member of the prestigious Athletic Association of the Great Public Schools of New South Wales (AAGPS). Morrison made the 1st VIII for rowing and 1st XV for rugby union, two leisure activities of the affluent.

“I learned that you don’t have to be rolling in money to be happy,” he told The Australian, “as long as you’re all together and helping each other.”

The eastern suburbs of Sydney were arguably the most concentrated pocket of prosperity in one of the world’s richest countries. Sydney Boys High might not have been Riverview or Cranbrook. Bronte wasn’t Bellevue Hill. Still, it wasn’t Blacktown, let alone Broken Hill. By the same token, Scott’s father wasn’t exactly Kerry Packer. But John Morrison was an extremely well-connected public servant who sat on Waverley Council for two decades.

In 1986, John served simultaneously as mayor of Waverley and as a chief inspector of the NSW Police Force. The “modest” house that Morrison’s parents inherited from a widowed aunt – where Scotty-Mo stoically shared a bedroom with his older brother, Alan, until high school – sold for $1.5 million in 2001. At the University of New South Wales, Morrison enrolled in a bachelor of science, followed by an honours degree in economics and geography. His thesis was titled: “Religion and Society, a Micro Approach: An Examination of the Christian Brethren Assemblies in the Sydney Metropolitan Area, 1964–1989.”

John Morrison didn’t let Scott join the Bronte Surf Life Saving Club or attend rock concerts, fearing that he’d succumb to temptations of the flesh and the thirst. “He said the guys in the surf club drank too much and he didn’t want me exposed to that,” Morrison told The Australian Women’s Weekly.

Scott celebrated his twenty-first birthday by marrying childhood sweetheart Jenny. Matchmaker Lynelle played maid-of-honour at the wedding. Jenny had been bridesmaid at Lynelle’s own nuptials to a weird unit named Tim Stewart, who would later become nationally famous for spreading QAnon conspiracy theories about how the world is run by cannibalistic paedophiles.

Scott Morrison is a devout wowser. Not even he could invent a character that more egregiously contradicts Australia’s self-image as a nation of laidback larrikins. Morrison’s solitary attempt at rebelling against his father was threatening to study theology in Canada after university. John Morrison – not just your average battler – lined up Scotty a job with the Property Council of Australia. The closest that Morrison came to battling – or being a larrikin, for that matter – was getting cast as the Artful Dodger in Oliver!.

Lech Blaine

For six years, Morrison worked as a white-collar propagandist for the Property Council. The late bloomer didn’t move out of home until the age of twenty-four. In 1995, now twenty-seven, he departed to be deputy CEO of the Australian Tourism Taskforce. It was a fruitful period; he also joined the Liberal Party. That same year, Scott and Jenny bought a unit on Pacific Street in Bronte. They negatively geared it for leverage, and bought a Californian bungalow on Lugar Brae Avenue, two streets from where Morrison grew up. Their second property cost $330,000. The median national house price was $129,800. They sold Lugar Brae Avenue for $985,000 in 2009. Morrison hasn’t spoken about when or for how much they sold the Pacific Street unit.

“I remember the first place I bought with Jenny,” he said in 2018, neglecting to clarify whether he was talking about his negatively geared investment property or primary address. “It was 53 square metres, it was not very big. It was very, very small. But that was what we could afford.”

A year after Morrison joined the Liberal Party, John Howard was elected prime minister. Morrison ruthlessly defected from the Labor-friendly Australian Tourism Taskforce to the rival Tourism Council, operated by Bruce Baird, former state Liberal minister and father of future NSW premier Mike Baird. Two years later, Bruce – a fellow Christian – was elected federal member for Cook. His protégé Morrison moved to New Zealand, accepting a newly invented position as director of the Office of Tourism and Sport.

The rah-rah described the rugby union–mad nation as “a bit of a nirvana – in Sydney, rugby usually takes second place to league”.

Within two years, Morrison was sent packing in acrimonious circumstances. Back home, patron Baird tipped him off about a vacancy for the director of the NSW Liberal Party. At the age of thirty-two, a political greenhorn snagged the high-profile position. In 2004, Joe Hockey promoted Morrison to be the CEO of Tourism Australia on $350,000 a year. The Bronte battler’s salary was higher than the PM’s, and approximately seven times the national average. Morrison oversaw the disastrous “So where the bloody hell are you?” campaign, featuring Lara Bingle, while igniting a civil war with tourism minister Fran Bailey. Then he was sacked in roughly the same time frame as the hapless stint in New Zealand. He reportedly received a $500,000 golden handshake.

Donald Horne had never been more on the money: “Australia is a lucky country run by second-rate people who share its luck.”

Scott Morrison rocketed to the top of a mock meritocracy populated by mediocre GPS boys, who scratched each other’s backs until there wasn’t any skin or fingernails left. “I’m a mortgage-belt Liberal,” he told Triple M in 2018. “I’ve got a mortgage like everyone else … That’s the centre of my life, is my family … The values that come out of just living a life in the suburbs of Sydney.”

Call it the politics of envy. But I don’t reckon the average suburbanite is lucky enough to live a few minutes from the beach – and twenty minutes from the Sydney CBD – while attending a selective school and then one of the best universities in the country, before their influential dad scores them a well-paid job as a lobbyist for the real estate industry. Nor do most battlers live at home while saving up for property deposits, or prosper from a six-figure payout after getting sacked for being bad at their job. It is one thing to be lucky, and another to dedicate your life to hoarding luck from those who need some.

According to Robert Menzies, Morrison deserves the social and economic advantages provided by geography, education and nepotism: “To say the industrious and intelligent son of self-sacrificing and saving and forward-looking parents has the same social deserts and even material needs as the dull offspring of stupid and improvident parents is absurd.”

The short shrift: eat shit, serfs! This moral justification for poverty is a central pillar of Morrison’s political beliefs and Pentecostalism. The problem is that it deeply contradicts Australia’s self-mythology about being a bastion of the fair go. So Scott John Morrison – a tall poppy from the eastern suburbs – needed to reinvent himself as ScoMo, a top bloke from the Sutherland Shire who loves rugby league. In doing so, he plagiarised the nickname and personal hobby of Anthony “Albo” Albanese, a life member of the South Sydney Rabbitohs.

“Morrison doesn’t even like rugby league,” Albanese protests to me. “Before he was the member for Cook, rugby league didn’t get a mention. He’s a rugby union guy from the eastern suburbs … He wouldn’t have a clue.”

In 2006, Bruce Baird tapped Scott Morrison on the shoulder to replace him as Liberal MP for Cook, the home of Puberty Blues, Andrew Ettingshausen and the Cronulla riots. The list of personal interests on Morrison’s curriculum vitae must have been a red flag for branch members: “Church (Hillsong Church, Waterloo), Family, Politics, Reading (biography, travel, history, Australian fiction), Kayaking, Rugby (Randwick, Waratahs), AFL (Western Bulldogs).”

Morrison belonged to a Hillsong congregation in Waterloo, the inner city, where the apocalyptically un-Cronulla Brian Houston was pastor. In the early 1980s, Frank Houston had founded the Sydney Christian Life Centre in Waterloo. Brian founded the Hills Christian Life Centre in Baulkham Hills. He later became national president of the Assemblies of God, an association of Pentecostal churches that included his father’s. In 1999, the son was forced to sack the father after the revelations of paedophilia. Brian then merged their two churches, rebranding them together as Hillsong, but keeping both venues.

“Heaven opened over that campus,” Houston said later about Waterloo, where he evidently met and enchanted Scott Morrison.

Houston’s protégé was a puritanical apparatchik entering peak Bunnings Warehouse territory of Cronulla without the Trojan horse of a Toyota Hilux. In the first round of the ballot, an engineer named Michael Towke defeated Morrison 82 to 8. Towke was Lebanese-Australian. His character was assassinated via a series of articles in The Daily Telegraph. According to journalist Deborah Snow, the Liberal Party blackmailed Towke to withdraw and support Morrison. The preselection was held a second time. Morrison duly won.

Morrison delivered his maiden speech on 14 February 2008. Whereas Rudd advertised himself as John Howard Light to swinging voters at the 2007 election, Morrison marketed himself as Kevin Rudd Heavy, an optimistic Christian without the bitter aftertaste of the Labor Party. He namedropped Hillsong pastor Brian Houston, along with Desmond Tutu. His rival moral crisis to Kevin Rudd’s climate change was sub-Saharan hunger.

“It is a true moral crisis that eclipses all others,” said Morrison. “The African tragedy is driven by war, poverty, disease, famine, corruption, injustice and an evil that is robbing generations of Africans, our fellow human beings, of their future … Paul Hewson, better known as Bono, said: ‘There is a continent – Africa – being consumed by flames.”

Rhetorically, Scott John Morrison bore little resemblance to ScoMo – the alter ego who hadn’t been invented yet. There were no “how goods” and only one “fair go”. He made no mention of rugby league or coalmining. The politician in that debut speech was an earnest WASP from the eastern suburbs, who practised the compassionate conservatism of Bruce Baird, not the pitiless wedge politics of John Howard, which seemed obsolete in 2008.

Morrison bought a family home in Cronulla. Unfortunately, there was no local Hillsong in the Morrisons’ new Sutherland Shire neighbourhood, so the family transferred to Shirelive, later renamed Horizon, a fellow member of Houston’s Assemblies of God. (Hillsong departed from the organisation – renamed Australian Christian Churches – in 2018.) The scene was set for his road to Damascus moment on sporting matters. The long-suffering Sharks ran equal first. But the new local member stayed indifferent to rugby league.

“why the dogs and not the swans,” he tweeted in 2009. “because rodney eade sparked my interest in the great game #afl and loyalty counts.”

“Rugby [union] will always be my game,” he tweeted in 2012.

2016 was a sliding doors moment for Western civilisation generally, and Morrison specifically. The success of Boris Johnson’s Brexit and the election of Donald Trump demonstrated a longing for leaders who were anti-Establishment. The new treasurer officially defected from rugby union to rugby league, becoming the number-one ticket holder of the Cronulla Sharks.

“I was one of the very few Libs who played rugby league before I knew anything about politics, and who kept watching after my career ended,” former NSW premier and Howard government finance minister John Fahey told me in 2020. “Morrison was a rugby union fan. But he realised that rugby league has everything to do with the white picket fence suburbs, as Howard called them.”

Morrison’s timing was impeccable. In 2016, Cronulla Sharks won their first premiership. In January 2017, shock jock Ray Hadley noticed that the hi-vis treasurer had added a DIY nickname – ScoMo – in brackets to his Facebook profile. “So you’re on Facebook now as … ScoMo,” said Hadley.

“That’s how people are increasingly getting to know me,” said ScoMo.

In the week following the 2018 Libspill – and all the way to the 2019 election – Morrison’s two-year-old infatuation with the Sharks became the defining feature of his existence. It is nothing new for ambitious politicians to partake in the hobbies of the great unwashed for photo ops, or to jump on the bandwagon of a sporting team. But it takes an innovative shamelessness to drop compulsive references to beer and the Sharks even privately among old acquaintances who know you are full of shit. On election night in 2019, ScoMo attributed the shock victory to divine intervention.

“I have always believed in miracles,” he said. “How good is Australia?”

ScoMo was Australia’s larrikin messiah, leading aspirational battlers in regional Queensland to the Promised Land of tax cuts for the North Shore and soaring profits for mining tycoons. The day after the election, Morrison went to his Pentecostal church in the Sutherland Shire – Horizon – followed by a visit to Cronulla’s real cathedral: Shark Park. On the news, casual bystanders couldn’t tell that Cronulla had been beaten from the vision of the PM helicoptering a Sharks scarf above his Sharks cap with an obligatory schooner of beer.

“I’ve been going to rugby league games since I could walk,” Albanese tells me. “No one waves a scarf like that when your team is going to win … Some Victorian has told him this is what you do to get on TV. It’s not real.”

The prime minister wears the mask of a larrikin without the people skills or street smarts that come from battle scars. The real Scott John Morrison was there for all to see when the PM smoke-bombed to Hawaii during a national disaster, and when he proclaimed: “I don’t hold a hose, mate.” Voters watched him attempting to put the mask back on while forcing a bushfire victim to shake his hand in Cobargo. They saw the mask fall off completely when he vacillated on the alleged rape of Brittany Higgins, or while claiming he didn’t appreciate the seriousness of the situation before a bedside confessional with Jenny.

“I think there is zero possibility that he didn’t know,” says Albanese. “He mightn’t have known all the details. But he must’ve known there’d been an incident in the defence minister’s office prior to that election.”

The gap between the gravity of those situations and the PM’s emotions is the symptom of someone constantly trying to decide whether he needs to be Scott John Morrison or ScoMo. It was one thing for him to go missing during the bushfires, or be mates with Tim Stewart and Brian Houston. But the bungled vaccine rollout and mixed messages on lockdowns are persistently hitting a critical mass of people in the hip pocket in a way the other missteps didn’t.

On the PM’s Pentecostalism, current Labor MPs walk on eggshells, even off-the-record, afraid to antagonise religious voters they’ve been shedding since Rudd. Morrison’s colleagues are less civil. Coalition MPs from traditional denominations or with secular sympathies view his religion with suspicion and outright derision. In July 2019, Morrison prayed on stage with Brian Houston at the Hillsong Conference. In September 2019, he attempted to score his spiritual mentor an invitation to a dinner at the White House. Trump’s administration rejected the request. Morrison repeatedly denied making the invitation, calling it fake news, before confessing to it on talkback radio in January 2020.

“I’ve known Brian for a long time,” he said.

On 5 August 2021, Brian Houston was charged with concealing paedophilia. To say that there are a number of Coalition MPs – federal and state – watching the developments with popcorn is an understatement. Those I spoke to who know the PM personally were more damning of the man than Labor MPs. They paint a picture of a prime minister who is publicly supple and privately stubborn. Much bad blood bubbles around NSW factional Svengali Alex Hawke, and most hotly towards former housemate Stuart Robert, who both have strong personal connections to Hillsong. “Christian” is the least offensive c-word used by a former cabinet colleague of Scott Morrison to describe the prime minister and his posse of Pentecostals.

“Morrison’s clique is clever, calculating, cunning, conniving,” says the senior Liberal figure. “That arrogance and authoritarianism has served them very well with journalists. But their time is coming. Labor might pull its finger out and win the election. And Australian politics will revert back to the centre more than where Morrison is very quietly taking it at the moment.”

This is an extract from the Quarterly Essay Top Blokes: The Larrikin Myth, Class and Power by Lech Blaine, published by Black Inc.

Lech Blaine

Lech Blaine is a writer from country Queensland.

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