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The Liberal factions pushing out Scott Morrison

Scott Morrison has regularly praised NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian for her government’s so-called ‘gold standard’ approach to contact tracing, and unwillingness to enter lockdown. But behind the surface there are growing tensions.

If there’s a state government the Prime Minister has spent the most time talking up over the past year it’s the one led by Gladys Berejiklian. 

Scott Morrison has regularly praised the NSW Premier for her government’s so-called ‘gold standard’ approach to contact tracing, and unwillingness to enter lockdown.

But behind the surface there are growing tensions between key Liberal party figures in NSW and the federal government. 

Today, national correspondent for The Saturday Paper Mike Seccombe on how factionalism and mishandled pandemic are weakening Scott Morrison’s influence in his home state.


Guest: National correspondent for The Saturday Paper Mike Seccombe.

Show Transcript

[Theme Music Starts]

RUBY:
From Schwartz Media I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.

 

If there’s one state government the Prime Minister has talked up over the last year, it’s the one led by Gladys Berejiklian. 

 

Scott Morrison has regularly praised the NSW Premier for her government’s so-called ‘gold standard’ approach to contact tracing, and unwillingness to enter lockdown.

But behind the surface there are growing tensions between key Liberal party figures in New South Wales and the federal government. 

 

Today, national correspondent for The Saturday Paper Mike Seccombe on how factionalism and the mishandled pandemic are weakening Scott Morrison’s influence in his home state.

 

It's Tuesday, July 27. 

 

[Theme Music Ends]

RUBY:
Mike, Sydney is in lockdown. There's no end in sight. The New South Wales government - is under a lot of pressure to contain the situation, but things are precarious at the moment. You've been talking to some Liberal MPs in New South Wales. Can you tell me who they are and what they're saying about what’s gone wrong here?

 

MIKE:
Well, I can't tell you who they are because they were speaking on background, unfortunately.  But I've been speaking to some current state MPs, current federal MPs, former state and federal MPs and some factional operators. And the message that comes through is that a lot of them are not very impressed with the Prime Minister just at the moment. 

 

One New South Wales minister in particular just really ripped into Scott Morrison. And he said, and I quote, “The Prime Minister had two jobs, to roll out the vaccination program and to fix the quarantine system, and he stuffed it.” 

 

Another one criticised Morrison's failure to lobby the global chief of Pfizer, Albert Bourla, about increasing vaccine supply as far as supplies to Australia as other national leaders had done.

 

And a third veteran Liberal gave me a frank assessment of the federal government's approach to vaccine supply and eligibility. The way he put it was, quote, “piss poor communication.”

 

RUBY:
So a lot of anger then that you're hearing, Mike. And it sounds like all of these MPs that you're speaking to, they're really saying that what's going on right now, that's the fault of the federal government.

 

MIKE:
Yes, that's right, and that's sort of what the Premier, Gladys Berejiklian, has been saying publicly to in a number of occasions, albeit somewhat less colourfully, you know, she keeps stressing the point that if the vaccine rollout had not been so slow, the current outbreak would not be so serious. 

 

Archival tape -- Gladys Berejiklian:

“It is not the state government’s responsibility - which is a fact - to source the vaccines or to get the doses. It’s our responsibility to get jabs in arms…”

 

MIKE:
And Berejiklian, as she said, expresses frustration over the...not just the slow rollout, but the bad logistics of it. 

 

Archival tape -- Gladys Berejiklian:

“You have to plan for the future. You have to plan for the weeks and months ahead. And I'm getting frustrated that people aren't doing that at other levels.”

 

MIKE:
Other levels means the federal government. She just didn't say it. She says we need to plan ahead for the future.

 

Archival tape -- Gladys Berejiklian:

“I certainly am someone that likes to plan ahead, and I also think New South Wales should be ready, because there’s always every opportunity that you might suddenly be told that you have an extra tens of thousands of doses in a week, well if that’s the case, let us make sure we have the ability to scale up and provide those doses to people…”

 

MIKE:
But you know, what's really significant about this here is that we're talking about two Liberal governments. You know, it's one thing for the Prime Minister to be at loggerheads with, with Labor's Daniel Andrews in Victoria. The fact that we're seeing this sort of increasingly bitter stoush within the Liberals ranks speaks to a couple of things. You know, obviously, criticism about how the pandemic response has gone so far. 

 

But there's another factor here, too, which is in the background, which is that there's significant factional tensions involved within the Liberal Party, you know, including between the most significant and senior political figures in New South Wales, such as the Premier and the Prime Minister.

 

RUBY:
So can you tell me a bit more about that tension? Where it’s coming from? And where the Premier, Gladys Berejiklian, and the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, fit into it all?

 

MIKE:
Well, the first point to make is that the support base for both of them is New South Wales. I mean, that's obvious in Berejiklian’s case. But Scott Morrison to, his seats in Sydney and he's a former state director of the Liberal Party. 

 

The party is divided into three basic factions. There's the left or moderates or the modern Liberals, you know, call them what you like. There's the hard right and there's the so-called soft right. So as to Morrison, well, factionally, people historically were never quite sure where Morrison stood. 

 

And he's been something of a factional chameleon. I mean, there's lots of stories that attest to this. 


Archival tape -- Malcolm Turnbull:

“Scott, you know, when Abbott was defeated, Scott was saying publicly he was supporting Abbott, but he was working to get the numbers to vote for me.”

 

MIKE:
He's made a career by playing the factions off against each other. That's how he got preselected in the first place. And that, of course, famously is how he became Prime Minister.

 

These days, I should say, he's a creature of the centre right faction, which is run by one of his junior ministers, Alex Hawke, who's Morison's numbers man. 

 

RUBY:
Right. OK, and so where does Gladys Berejiklian fit in then?

 

MIKE:
Well, there was never any doubt about where she stood. She's always been a moderate. And Scott Morrison was state director when Berejiklian was preselected for the seat of Willoughby in 2003. And it's been alluded to that he was always in her corner and that he supported her. But I've spoken to a number of people who never really believed this, you know, they never believed this sort of story that Morrison had given Berejiklian a leg up in her political career.

 

It just seemed to a lot of people more like another move to attach himself to power. Some people say Morrison attached himself to Berejiklian and her faction, but she didn't really need him. She was already well on her way. She'd had some senior positions in the party organisation before she actually entered parliament. And so she had a great deal of power before Morrison, you know, came into her life.

 

RUBY:
OK, so their relationship was never that close then. But it's interesting because throughout this pandemic, over the last year and a half, we've really heard Scott Morrison talking up the New South Wales government's ability to handle the pandemic. He's really said that over and over again.

 

MIKE:
Well, yes, he has. 

 

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:

“New South Wales, I have no doubt, has the gold standard contact tracing system, not just in Australia, but I think in the world. That’s how good I think they are…”

 

MIKE:
He's continually referred to the New South Wales system, particularly the contact tracing system as the quote “the gold standard.” 

 

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:
“The key to being able to open up your economy as New South Wales has demonstrated day after day, week after week, month after month, has been about the capacity of your contact tracing system and your testing regime…”

 

MIKE:
And he's continually lauded them for the fact that they have not been as trigger happy about going into lockdown as Victoria in particular has.

 

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:

“Sydney doesn't need to be under curfew now. They have a tracing capability that can deal with outbreaks…”

 

MIKE:
I think you would say that this was another example of Morrison hitching his wagon to Berejiklian, you know, and it also, of course, gives him a convenient stick with which to beat the Labor Premiers. 

 

You know, the fact that he can draw this contrast between them and Berejiklian. So I don't think that's a particular sign of closeness between the two. It's just that it was a convenient weapon for Morrison. And also they genuinely shared a belief that you shouldn't go into lockdown unless you absolutely had to.

 

RUBY:
And a few weeks ago they did absolutely have to Mike… 

 

MIKE:
Well, that's right. And interestingly enough, on the very day that New South Wales went into lockdown, Morrison went on to Sky news and said and I'm quoting him, “New South Wales, I have no doubt, has the gold standard contact tracing system, not just in Australia but in the world.”

 

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:

“That’s how good I think they are. And that's why I think your fellow Sydneysiders, you and I can feel very confident that if anyone's going to get on top of this with their tracing and not have to shut the city down, it’s the New South Wales government.”
 

MIKE:
He said that on the day, though, they went into lockdown. So it would seem that Morrison was not being well briefed by his state colleagues and the premier.

That, I think, points to some pretty significant communication problems within the Liberal Party. You know, if the PM is so out of the loop with what the state government is planning.

 

RUBY:
We'll be back after this.

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RUBY:
Mike, we're talking about the tension between the New South Wales Liberals and the federal government, particularly between Gladys Berejiklian and Scott Morrison. Can you tell me a bit more about what this kind of current standoff says about the relationship?

 

MIKE:
Well, it says a few things. I think, first, it highlights the different political styles of the Prime Minister and the Premier. You know, as one of her state supporters said, she's never been a person who lauded herself. Gladys has never said that we have the absolute gold standard ever.

 

And while Berejiklian has inevitably come into some conflict with other leaders during the pandemic, you know, notably with Queensland over border closures, she didn't go out and gratuitously try to score political points. 

 

Archival tape -- Gladys Berejiklian:

“It's not for me to tell other premiers what they should be doing. But Kochie contact tracing has been critical…”

 

MIKE:
She was much less political and much more cautious. 

 

Archival tape -- Gladys Berejiklian:

“But what I can guarantee is that our public health network in New South Wales, I would contend, is well, best practise. Does that mean perfect? Not by a long shot…”

 

MIKE:
And as one of her colleagues said, that's because she understood quoting again that we're always one outbreak away from disaster and now that's happened. 

 

Archival tape -- Gladys Berejiklian:

“We'll have good days and bad days during the pandemic. But what's important is to learn from every single mistake that occurs, to learn from every new scenario, and then apply that to the future…”

 

MIKE:
The second point that the Morrison Sky interview indicates is the extent to which Morrison's political currency is devalued in his home state. And it wasn't all that great before the pandemic, frankly. And it's worse now.

 

RUBY:
And is there any political risk for Gladys Berejiklian in criticising Scott Morrison like this so publicly?

 

MIKE:
It's a good question. I don't think so. I don't think so. The blame shifting between the federal and state governments, I suppose, is to be expected. But pretty clearly, if you look at what's happening with public opinion, the public now rates the states, including New South Wales, much more highly than they do the federal government in terms of the response to the pandemic. So by further piling blame onto the federal government, it helps her avoid some of the blame herself. 

 

And Berejiklian supporters will tell you that much of the success of her government is due to her ability to manage the Liberal Party factions. But of course, the group that's being left out in all of this is Scott Morrison's faction. 

 

The fact is that the leaders of the left and right have known each other since they were teenagers. And even though they've been in opposing factions for most of that time, they have a pretty good working relationship. Neither of them likes or trusts Alex Hawke, who's the leader of Morrison's faction. And as one of the people I spoke to, put it quite bluntly, they are now considered the main enemy internally of the other two factions. So, you know, Morrison's people are quite, seriously weakened within New South Wales.

 

RUBY:
Right. So, Mike, we've got the New South Wales government taking aim at the federal government on a range of policy issues, and that's to do with the handling of the pandemic. But at the same time, in the background, we've got this factional battle going on. We've got senior figures in the New South Wales government in a factional fight against the Prime Minister.

 

MIKE:
Yeah, that's right. And you're quite right to mention on a range of policy issues, you know, there's a number of other policy issues, the response to climate change being another one. New South Wales has been way out in front of the federal government and there's been quite overt hostility about that. But in the current context, Morrison has a battle on two fronts.

Not only is he losing trust and favour and influence amongst Liberal MPs at a state level, but the increasing public criticism from all quarters shows that he's losing trust and favour with the public as well. And the state Liberal Party, quite frankly, is helping him as much as they can to lose that trust. You know, they're very happy to shift the blame onto the federal government. 

 

And frankly, that's where a lot of the blame lies, not only for the vaccine rollout, but even when it comes to New South Wales, as you know, late decision to go into lockdown. Well, whatever criticism attaches to Berejiklian for being late should also attach to Scott Morrison because he was resisting lock down the whole way. 

 

So, you know, he's in a degree of trouble, I think.

 

RUBY:
Mike, thank you so much for your time.

 

MIKE:
Thank you.

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[Theme Music Starts]

 

RUBY:
Also in the news today,

 

Victoria is expected to exit lockdown tonight, after the state recorded a number of days in a row without unlinked community transmission of Covid-19.

However strict restrictions on household gatherings are expected to remain in place. 

 

In New South Wales, the state's chief health officer Kerry Chant has announced that the AstraZeneca vaccine will be available on a walk-up basis at some health clinics. 

 

And In Tokyo - 20 year old Australian swimmer Ariarne Titmus has made Australian Olympic history, beating American champion Katie Ledecky in the late stages of the 400m freestyle to win gold.

 

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am. I’ll see ya tomorrow.

[Theme Music Ends]

 

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