Prime minister Scott Morrison was asked a relatively simple question by Sabra Lane, the compere of AM, ABC Radio’s flagship current affairs show, on Monday morning:
Okay. The New South Wales minister Matt Kean says there are a group of senior Liberals, including federal colleagues, urging your government to adopt stronger climate policies and a commitment not to use the so-called carry-over credits to meet Australia’s emissions commitments. Will you consider those calls?
Mr Morrison could have answered a completely different question. He does that quite a lot. He could have engaged in some mellifluous waffle. God knows, he’s an expert at that. He could even have pointed at a spot just behind Ms Lane’s ear and shouted, “Look out, there’s a spider!”
But he didn’t. He abandoned his usual style of obfuscation and well-rehearsed talking points and started using short, declarative, intelligible sentences. “Matt Kean doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” he said. “He doesn’t know what’s going on in the federal cabinet. Most of the federal cabinet wouldn’t even know who Matt Kean was.”
Suddenly a tiny chink appeared in the PM’s public persona. Before our very eyes Daggy Dad in the Baseball Cap had become Angry Dad with a Baseball Bat.
So who is this Matt Kean and how did the mere mention of his name cause the PM to start speaking so uncharacteristically clearly?
Matt Kean is the Liberal member for the NSW electorate of Hornsby and environment minister in that state’s Coalition government. He is a former student politician, naturally, and a former accountant. He is still young — and still young at heart, it seems.
In 2018 he sent some indelicate texts to a female Coalition state MP that his girlfriend at the time thought appropriate to put up on Instagram, thus ending her relationship with Mr Kean. He is now back with an earlier love, who happens to be the woman who introduced him to the Liberal Party. They have just had a baby together and intend to get married.
So, other than having had a child out of wedlock, Matt Kean is pretty much your typical, white bread, Liberal MP.
But there are three further things you need to know about Matt Kean. He believes that climate change is a scientific fact, he is a major player in the moderate faction of the NSW Liberal Party, and his friend, factional ally and boss is premier Gladys Berejiklian.
It seems like ancient history now, but back when houses and lives were being destroyed in the unprecedented bushfires he had been warned about months before, Mr Morrison returned home from his holiday in Hawaii to find the nation in a state of grief, shock and anger. He set about doing what any modern political leader does when faced with a career-threatening crisis: he looked around for someone else to blame.
According to the well-connected political commentator Peter van Onselen, writing in disgust on Twitter in early January, “the inner sanctum of Team Morrison are actively backgrounding media against the NSW Coalition government to try and make sure the PM doesn’t wear the blame for his handling of the fires.”
Remember when the PM tried to run the politically obtuse line that “fires are a state responsibility”? And remember when Sydney’s Daily Telegraph reported erroneously that the Berejiklian government had rejected offers of further military help from the federal government? Matt Kean remembers; he is, in fact, the NSW government’s point man for matters prime ministerial.
Premier Berejiklian’s revenge is to do her job better than Morrison. And Matt Kean’s job is to put a thumbtack on the great man’s chair when he least expects it.
For the next few months — at least — the PM will be tiptoeing barefoot through a still-smouldering political landscape, desperately trying to find the right words, gestures and ideas to summon up an escape chopper.
Whatever he’s tried so far, it hasn’t worked. He tried to meet some bushfire survivors. He tried making a video extolling his own virtues. He threw the army and lots of cash at the problem and people asked — quite rightly — what else have you got? The recent Newspoll figures were predictably savage.
After doing his bit to make Matt Kean into the sort of Liberal who gets good press on the letters page of the Sydney Morning Herald, the PM paused to blow some steam through his nostrils and stamp the ground. Lane enquired pleasantly, “How are you going to deal with this internal angst?”
The prime minister deployed the full weight of his office to splutter: “Well, who are the others? Who are the others, Sabra?” Like he didn’t already know. He has spent decades in the famously vicious factional politics of the NSW branch of the Liberal Party.
And if he can’t remember, then several names had already been thrown about — some by the News Corp journalist Sharri Markson. Whatever you think of Ms Markson, there’s no doubt that people in the Liberal Party tell her stuff. In fact, it was her Sunday evening interview with Matt Kean on Sky that got this ball rolling in the first place.
On Sky, Markson name-checked two members of the moderate faction of the NSW Liberal Party, Trent Zimmerman and Jason Falinski, and the recently elected member for Higgins, Katie Allen, as some “others.” And she offered up the tantalising titbit that they had lobbied treasurer and deputy Liberal leader Josh Frydenberg about the issue in a recent meeting.
The three backbenchers don’t pose much of a threat to Morrison, but the mention of the treasurer’s name is gold. Equally ominous could be the fact that the new Tasmanian premier, Peter Gutwein, elected unopposed on Monday, immediately told journalists that “we must do more” about climate change. A couple of days later, Victorian Liberal leader Michael O’Brien was lamenting the lack of a sensible national policy.
The prime minister is currently involved in the tricky task of overhauling the federal Coalition’s policy on climate change. He wants to become the PM for Hazard Reduction, the Scourge of Arsonists Everywhere, but he doesn’t — can’t — won’t — advocate for tougher policies to drive down Australia’s carbon emissions. For that purpose, he offers hopes, prayers and accounting tricks; and he’s obviously getting pushback from inside his own party.
While he’s trying to achieve this delicate task of bomb disposal, his energy and emissions reduction minister, the egregious Angus Taylor, is busy helping the police with their enquiries, as they say, and his former sports minister, the Nationals’ Bridget McKenzie, is doing a pretty good impression of a woman sinking slowly into a muddy paddock.
No wonder the prime minister started talking plain English during a live radio interview with the national broadcaster.
Parliament is back on 4 February. The next Newspoll is due within a fortnight. Summer has another six weeks to go. •