Malcolm Turnbull’s new memoir, which is due to be published on Monday, is a sweeping account of events from his early childhood in Sydney’s eastern suburbs to being forced out of the prime ministership in 2018. Given Turnbull’s tumultuous exit from public life, and the history wars that have followed, many readers will be interested in the former prime minister’s reflections on Scott Morrison, the man who replaced him. Here are some of the standout passages from A Bigger Picture.
Turnbull says his first encounter with Scott Morrison happened in 2001, when the then-businessman was mulling options to enter politics and Morrison was the state director of the Liberal party. Morrison, Turnbull says, wanted him to be the New South Wales party leader, and “hatched an ingenious idea in 2001 that involved a Liberal member of the Legislative Council retiring, my taking up the casual vacancy and then becoming leader of the opposition, running for a seat in the lower house at the next election, due in 2003”. Turnbull wasn’t interested in state politics and was bemused by the unconventional pathway to leadership that Morrison war-gamed with him. He was also concerned Labor would go after him for being wealthy – “an out-of-touch plutocrat”. Morrison apparently had an answer, and spreadsheets, at the ready. “We’ve been throwing your name into our polling in western Sydney. And you know what? The battlers like you,” Morrison told him. “They admire your success; they reckon you’re self-made – it’s all about aspiration. Australians don’t want class wars.” According to this account, Morrison told Turnbull Kerry Chikarovski would make way for him if he signed up to the plan. But the “Malcolm for Macquarie Street” fizzled.
Morrison as a key player in federal Liberal leadership battles against Tony Abbott
Turnbull portrays the current prime minister as always ringside, either in person or through surrogates, during the corrosive leadership battles that erupted shortly after the Coalition came to power in 2013. Turnbull says Morrison began to “sniff out interest in removing Abbott” as early as 2014, only a year after the Coalition’s election victory, when the majority of colleagues were not countenancing a change.
There was talk of moving Turnbull to Treasury to replace Joe Hockey after the disaster of the 2014 budget. “I was careful to play no part in this. Abbott would never move me to treasurer,” Turnbull says. “And I felt I was being used as a stalking horse by others, especially Scott Morrison, to position themselves.”
Turnbull says the agitation persisted, and on 10 December, he had dinner with Morrison, who wanted to replace Abbott as party leader. “It was the first time he laid out, fairly comprehensively, his thinking on Abbott, who he felt would have to go by the middle of 2015 if his performance didn’t improve. He said Hockey should go now and he was making the case to Abbott to replace him with me. He was closely in touch with the key figures at News [Corp], he told me, and said they were getting ready to dump Abbott. And he made it clear he saw himself as the successor.”
After the reshuffle at the end of that year that moved Morrison out of immigration and into social services, Turnbull says Morrison was “furious” and “this was the first time I recall him saying we will need to remove him before the budget”. By 19 January, Turnbull says Morrison had a list of names who would support tipping Abbott out of the leadership. Morrison wanted the job, “but didn’t want to be seen to challenge him. He felt the rightwing commentators (by whom he meant Alan Jones and Ray Hadley) would never support me”. Morrison also, according to Turnbull, wanted to marginalise Julie Bishop, but later backed off that idea, and the three later agreed Turnbull would be the leader in the event the campaign to remove Abbott succeeded.
Throughout this period, Turnbull notes “Morrison was vocal in his support for Abbott and publicly denied discussing leadership issues with me. Of course, he’d done so on many occasions, and every indication was that he’d encouraged, if not masterminded, the [first] spill itself.”
Round two: Morrison’s role in Turnbull losing the prime ministership in 2018
Turnbull’s ire is directly predominantly at Mathias Cormann and Peter Dutton for the coup that terminated his prime ministership in 2018, but he concludes after some equivocation (“it’s never possible to be 100% certain about these things”) that Morrison “was playing a double game: professing public loyalty to me while at the same time allowing his supporters to undermine me. It was, of course, precisely what he’d done in 2015 when he said he’d voted for Abbott in the leadership ballot but worked closely with me to ensure his supporters voted against Abbott”.
Turnbull says he knew on the morning he spilled the leadership, “while I was prepared to accept Morrison’s assurances of continued loyalty, I knew that some of his supporters were starting to urge him to make a move himself”. He says he was aware of the risks of tactical voting by Morrison supporters in the first ballot. Turnbull says Morrison sent him a note while the ballots were being distributed. “The note said: ‘I don’t know why we didn’t discuss this. But that’s your call. Turnbull is on my ballot.’ I replied, ‘Thanks! It’s the right call. The room has to make up its mind.’”
When the result was 48 votes for Turnbull and 35 for Dutton, “I wondered whether some of Morrison’s supporters had taken the chance and voted for Dutton, hoping they didn’t accidentally deliver him a win. Subsequent accounts of these events indicate that Stuart Robert and Alex Hawke had organised about half-a-dozen of them to vote for Dutton – enough to lift his numbers up to a level that damaged me but didn’t get Dutton over the line. If Morrison’s friends had voted the way he said he did, the Dutton insurgency would have been utterly dead that morning.
“The idea that they did that without his knowledge is fanciful. Scott is a control freak and I’d seen before in the ballots in 2015 how he’d publicly vote one way while ensuring his supporters voted the other way.”
‘Love you mate’
When it was clear he had no prospects of retaining the prime ministership, Turnbull actively encouraged Morrison’s campaign. Turnbull says he lined up behind Morrison because he believed he was “a responsible, safe pair of hands. But Dutton, were he to become prime minister, would run off to the right with a divisive, dog-whistling, anti-immigration agenda, written and directed by Sky News and 2GB, designed to throw red meat to the base. With no constraints, Dutton would do enormous damage to the social fabric of Australia. It’s one thing having the tough cop handling border protection and counter-terrorism, but not at the head of our multicultural society”.
Turnbull also records the messages he exchanged with his successor after Morrison was sworn in. “I messaged him,” Turnbull says, “Congratulations prime minister and good luck.” According to Turnbull, Morrison replied the next morning. “Only you can know how I feel today, but I cannot begin to know how you feel. I loved working for and with you. I’m really proud of what we did. And that is always how I will always feel and speak of it. I want you to know I am thinking about you a great deal and you know I pray for you. That doesn’t change now. I don’t know why all this happened, but now it has come upon me, you know I will be relying on my faith, friends and values to overcome and conquer what is ahead … Thank you for all you’ve done for me. But above all as one PM to another, thank you for everything you did for our country. No one knows that contribution better than me.
“Love you mate.”
Morrison’s negative views on marriage equality
Turnbull notes at one point in the memoir that working to prevent the legalisation of same-sex marriage was the most animated Morrison ever got during internal policy debates. Morrison, Turnbull says, wanted a constitutional amendment on the question. “Scott explained to me a few days later, ‘I don’t want gay marriage. And because referendums are almost always defeated, I think that’s a good way to ensure it never happens.” Morrison also ran interference on the issue. In the 2016 election, Turnbull says the issue of marriage equality was broadly neutralised until “this equilibrium was thrown out in the last crucial week of the campaign by Scott Morrison, who had been the principal advocate of a plebiscite”.
“During an interview with Leigh Sales on 7.30 on Tuesday 28 June, he refused to say how he’d vote if the plebiscite was carried and this immediately raised concerns about the government’s sincerity. Scott had a very sincerely held and viscerally intense opposition to same-sex marriage and could have said he’d abstain, but I fear his troubled conscience was reserving the right to vote against it. Every other minister was then asked how they’d vote; most sensibly said they’d vote for legalisation if the plebiscite passed. A cautious answer from Julie Bishop was unreasonably portrayed as equivocal. She was a strong supporter of same-sex marriage despite a ferocious anti-same-sex-marriage element in her constituency, led by Margaret Court.”
‘We’ve got a treasurer problem’
Turnbull recounts a number of instances in the memoir where he asserts Morrison was either leaking government discussions or front-running issues with trusted media surrogates during internal debates about tax reform and about budget measures. Turnbull says he had several “tough discussions” with Morrison about his behaviour. He says both he and the finance minister Mathias Cormann were “at our wits’ end as to how to manage Scott”. He says Cormann said the government had “a treasurer problem”. In an exchange of messages between the two Turnbull says he replied: “[Morrison] operates completely differently from us. We prefer to stay absolutely resolute on course until we decide to change. He wants to flag possible changes way in advance (why?) which reduces optionality and makes us look undecided. I can’t work it out because it’s so counter productive.”
“Nothing is more corrosive of good government than policy consideration being front-run in the media,” Turnbull says. “I found it completely incomprehensible and couldn’t see how anyone’s interest or agenda was assisted. Scott adamantly denied any responsibility, but regrettably nobody believed him.
“I had no problem whatsoever with Scott’s political pragmatism – he was, after all, a former state director of the party and looked at issues almost exclusively through a political prism. But working with him was difficult; so much of what we discussed or were thinking about found its way into the media.
“Many of my colleagues encouraged me, without success, to mistrust Scott and to see his briefings as malign, the calculated undermining and manoeuvring of a Machiavellian plotter. And yet we enjoyed a close working relationship. Despite Mathias’s begging me to be selective in what I told him, I continued to be open with Scott. He seemed to me to be my most likely successor, and as far as I could I preferred to work with him as a trusted partner. Scott, like many politicians, wanted to keep himself constantly in the centre of things. That was the purpose, Mathias maintained, of Scott’s constant stream of briefings, mostly to Simon Benson at News Corporation.”
We have to make sure Scott is a success
Some of the more scathing commentary Turnbull makes about his successor is delivered through passing references to the prime minister. “Mathias and I agreed we had to make sure Scott was a success.
“We had to recognise he was brittle emotionally and easily offended. At a practical level we both sought to ensure, as tactfully as possible, that he stayed out of negotiations with the Senate. He had a blustering manner that could easily be mistaken for bullying and was often counterproductive.”
Relationships between Morrison, Dutton and Cormann
It should be clear from the preceding references that Turnbull narrates a hostile relationship between Cormann, the finance minister, and Morrison, then treasurer. Turnbull suggests that Cormann’s strong support of Dutton during the leadership crisis in 2018 reflected two things – a close personal relationship between the two rightwingers, and Cormann’s fixed dislike of Morrison.
“Mathias regarded Scott as emotional, narcissistic and untrustworthy and told me so regularly,” Turnbull says.
Turnbull says Dutton was also hostile to Morrison. “Of course, if Mathias had a poor opinion of Scott, Dutton’s dislike of him was even stronger,” he says.
Turnbull suggests the feelings were more or less mutual. Morrison for his part “didn’t entirely trust Mathias, not because he saw Mathias as a rival for the leadership one day, but because he knew Mathias was close to Peter Dutton. Scott didn’t trust Dutton at all and regarded him as deficient in all respects – character, intellect and political nous”.
“Within that troika,” Turnbull says, “it would be fair to say that each of them trusted me more than they trusted the other.”
Cormann’s move against Turnbull clearly stung the most. Turnbull says he was “hurt” personally by the finance minister’s decision to agitate on behalf of Dutton, because he thought there was a friendship that eclipsed the transactions of politics. Although he also quotes Cormann describing the move against him by Dutton as “madness, and it is terrorism – but you have to give in to it”.
• A Bigger Picture by Malcolm Turnbull is published by Hardie Grant Books (RRP $55). It will be available from 20 April.