But as MPs upped sticks for the last time in 2018, some Liberal MPs felt more upbeat than they had for a while. In one frenzied week Morrison had moved to put an end to the revolving door at The Lodge by announcing new party rules making it virtually impossible to challenge an incumbent prime minister. Labor had been forced into a back down over encryption laws. And it may not have been pretty, but the government avoided an embarrassing defeat on the floor of the house over demands sick asylum seekers be transferred to Australia. Straight out of the John Howard playbook, the government was able to accuse Labor of being soft on national security and boat people.
As the curtain comes down on the parliamentary year, there’s no question the Morrison government has its back against the wall. But the PM will use the summer break to plot out an election strategy with key advisers.
As AFR Weekend spoke with ministers, MPs, staffers, party members and business figures about the PM’s inner circle, what emerged is a picture of a leader who relies on a small cadre of loyalists he has known for years.
‘He understands grassroots politics’
Along with Briggs, the other significant “mate of Morrison” who straddles the business and political worlds is David Gazard, a former staffer to Howard and Peter Costello turned lobbyist. Morrison and Gazard got to know each other when Gazard was chief of staff to NSW Liberal leader John Brogden and Morrison was the NSW Liberal Party State Director for the 2003 election.
One Liberal source source Gazard is “number one” in terms of who Morrison talks to first but Gazard, who calls the PM one of his best friends, maintains he is way down the pecking order.
“It’s a feature of the Prime Minister he wants the first course of consultation to occur with his colleagues,” Gazard says.
“From that perspective he is a Westminister-style PM. He respects the process of governing which has not taken place over the last little while.”
Gazard says when Morrison does seek his counsel, it is often to offer a historical perspective, such as how Howard and Costello confronted issues. One area was GST reform, with Gazard able to give tips on how to bring all the states to the table.
While the pre-politics Scott Morrison is best known for unleashing a bikini-clad Lara Bingle asking the rest of the world “Where the bloody hell are you?”, many sources point to his time as NSW Liberal state director as the job that influences his thinking the most.
“One of the benefits of coming out of the organisation is you get a feel for what people think. You understand what drives people and their vote,” Gazard says.
One minister says of the PM: “He understands grassroots politics. He understands the war is going to be won on the ground, not in the Canberra bubble or leafy suburbs.”
One trait that Gazard and ministers say is a Morrison hallmark is a willingness to act. Unlike Turnbull’s vacillation, Morrison is firm on what he thinks and wants advice on how to do it.
“There is a tendency among some in the governing process to get overwhelmed by different views but he has shown an ability to get on with it fairly quickly. He is not going to die in a ditch waiting,” Gazard says.
“The guy has a massive work ethic. He works a problem hard, turns it over in his mind.”
‘You’ve got to a build a relationship with Scott to get trust’
One frontbencher says both Turnbull and Morrison empowered their ministers but the key difference is Morrison has sharper instincts.
“There is no bullshit with Scott. He is much more more willing to push back against and give directions to bureaucrats,” the minister said.
“You’ve got to a build a relationship with Scott to get trust. Once you’ve got that, you get a free rein to do what you’ve got to do.”
With the government basing its re-election campaign on a strong economy and budget surplus, it’s not surprising that Morrison speaks regularly with deputy Liberal leader and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, one of the Coalition’s most energetic performers.
A number of sources emphasised the central role small business plays in the Morrison pitch. Morrison appointed a minister he has worked closely with in the past, Michaelia Cash (she was his junior in the immigration portfolio) and has made a raft of policy announcements, including a $2 billion fund to boost SME lending.
“There is the focus on small business because that gets you into every household in Australia,” one frontbencher says.
He is said to get on with the low-key Nationals leader Michael McCormack, although some Nats grumble the current Coalition relationship is not transactional enough. When McCormack’s leadership came under threat over the inability to deliver a regional labour visa, Morrison stepped in by promising help to bring in extra overseas farm workers.
Chief parliamentary tactician Christopher Pyne is also a key player. Pyne helped make Morrison PM by corralling moderates behind him instead of Julie Bishop.
But undoubtedly within the government, the three politicians Morrison is closest to are NSW factional powerbroker Alex Hawke, Queensland frontbencher Stuart Robert and West Australian MP Steve Irons. The trio had their loyalty reciprocated with promotions after the August leadership spill.
Hawke heads up the small but influential and highly disciplined centre-right faction in NSW and, as Morrison’s representative on the state executive, manages party matters for the PM along with Briggs. Robert and Irons – like Morrison committed Christians – were his long-time Canberra flatmates
Even though Robert is no stranger to controversy – this week alone as the minister responsible for financial services came under attack for headlining a party fundraiser billed as a chance to hear the government’s response to the banking royal commission – colleagues know he has Morrison’s full backing.
Irons, as Morrison’s assistant minister, is his chief conduit to the backbench. Irons has regularly defied pundits to hold onto his marginal seat in Perth and has a key role advising fellow marginal seatholders.
“They are his eyes and ears on the ground,” one MP says.
“If someone can’t get to Scott directly, [talking to Robert and Irons] is their opportunity to speak to the PM.”
Other backbenchers close to Morrison are Ben Morton and Lucy Wicks, who holds the NSW marginal Central Coast seat of Robertson, a microcosm of middle Australia with its high proportion of retirees and mortgage belt families.
In his personal office, Morrison has brought in a number of Liberal veterans from the Howard years, including chief of staff John Kunkel, cabinet secretary Peter Conran and backbench liaison Bronwyn Morris.
‘His key political allies are his sounding boards’
Morrison had some experience in foreign affairs and national security through his time as immigration minister and treasurer but his key international adviser is career diplomat Michelle Chan, a south-east Asia expert who was deputy director-general of the Office of National Assessments. Kunkel, a trade expert, is also valued for his input in this space.
On the media front, Julian Leembruggen, who has been with Morrison for nine years since his days as a shadow minister, oversees long-term strategic communications.
But perhaps the most influential staffer is the PM’s principal private secretary Yaron Finkelstein, who worked for the Liberals’ long-time polling and research firm Crosby Textor for 12 years. As a mark of Gazard’s and Finkelstein’s influence, one Liberal source says they were brought in to help prepare Morrison’s 2017 budget when the priority was neutralise Labor’s attack on health and education funding.
The PMO runs everything through a “political lens”, although one Liberal laments the government seems driven by focus groups, pointing to the attacks on big banks and energy companies because research shows their reputation is mud with the public.
Morrison was not part of the Howard government but he has tried to model himself on Howard’s pragmatism and seeks the former prime minister’s counsel.
Morrison has described Peter Costello – who now chairs Nine Entertainment, publisher of AFR Weekend – as a mentor but it is understood the pair do not speak as often as they did when Morrison was treasurer.
Notably, Morrison doesn’t seem to have the relationship with the top end of town that Turnbull enjoyed but he is understood to enjoy speaking with entrepreneur Mark Bouris.
Bouris, who made his fortune founding Wizard Home Loans, has sung Morrison’s praises in his columns for Sydney’s Sunday Telegraph newspaper and criticised Labor’s negative gearing policy.
Morrison, as treasurer, last year appointed Bouris to head up a taskforce to help small business adapt to the digital world. One source said Morrison is keen for Bouris’ insights on the risk a tightening of the credit cycle could pose to small business.
Several sources said Morrison had deliberately stayed away from getting too cozy with big business but he has good relationships with media mogul Kerry Stokes and ANZ chairman David Gonski, a long-time personal friend of Turnbull.
“His key political allies are his sounding boards, not high falutin’ business leaders,” one MP said.