Inside Story

“No one dared tell him to stop”

In her latest post-election book Niki Savva puts Scott Morrison through the wringer. But has she avoided all the pitfalls of the genre?

Matthew Ricketson Books 14 December 2022 1949 words

Scott Morrison crash-tackling in Devonport during this year’s election campaign. Mick Tsikas/AAP Image

It’s no secret that Niki Savva dislikes former prime minister Scott Morrison. But even readers of her weekly newspaper columns will find her new book, Bulldozed, a bracing read.

In the first three pages alone, she labels Morrison secretive, petty, vindictive, a liar, a bully and a betrayer of his closest colleagues. In case she hasn’t made herself clear, he’s also “a deeply flawed personality” and “a duplicitous, damaged leader with limited horizons and appalling judgement” who “rarely understood what Australians expected of a prime minister.”

Reporting how colleagues reacted to the news that Morrison had signed himself up to multiple ministries, Savva reaches for alliteration: Morrison is “messianic, megalomaniacal and plain mad.” Still steaming 384 pages later, in the book’s acknowledgements, she describes Morrison as the worst prime minister she has covered in a line stretching back to Labor’s Gough Whitlam in the early 1970s.

The headline revelations from Bulldozed have been well aired: former treasurer Josh Frydenberg denounced Morrison’s taking of his portfolio as “extreme overreach”; even Morrison’s most loyal colleagues, Stuart Robert and Alex Hawke, have been deeply critical of his actions; the governor-general and his wife expect their dinner guests to face the person next to them and sing the final verse of “You Are My Sunshine.” Particularly welcome is the fact that Savva has persuaded so many of her interviewees to speak on the record.

But what else does Bulldozed tell us — not just about the election campaign but also about the virtues and vices of that enduring phenomenon, the election book?

Savva is an experienced, well-connected political journalist who also spent nine years working in John Howard’s governments of 1996–2007, first as a media adviser to treasurer Peter Costello and then in the Cabinet Policy Unit. She knows politics from two perspectives, then, but her abiding interest is in the daily cut and thrust rather than how policy is created or run.

So she barely mentions robodebt, for example, despite Morrison’s having been social security minister when it was developed and prime minister when the government was forced to abandon it. The scheme was found to be unlawful, to have taken much-needed funds from low-income households, to have imposed acute anxiety and to have cost lives. It was at best punitive, at worst cruel.

But if, like many in the Canberra press gallery, Savva focuses less on policy than on politics, she differs in making sharp judgements derived from firmly held moral views. And she rarely fails to notice who does what to whom and to comment accordingly.

She notices, for instance, which politicians reached out to each other after the election loss and which didn’t. In the former camp is Josh Frydenberg, who called Anthony Albanese and Jim Chalmers to offer his congratulations despite having lost his own seat of Kooyong, and contacted Kristina Keneally to offer his commiserations on her failed attempt to move from the Senate to a lower house seat. Albanese called Frydenberg during the campaign to say he had ordered the removal of a photo posted online by a Labor supporter showing the then treasurer in a Nazi uniform, and Chalmers texted Frydenberg on election night to ask if he was okay.

Liberal MP Fiona Martin, on the other hand, lost her seat but received no call from her former leader because, Savva concludes, she had crossed the floor to vote against the government on the Religious Discrimination Bill. Other backbenchers did receive calls from Morrison.

Savva has a gift for the pithy summation. Of the inability or unwillingness of Morrison’s staff to save the doomed PM from himself — a failure that culminated in the burly Morrison crash-tackling a child on a soccer pitch in the campaign’s final week — she writes:

It was one stupid stunt too many, on top of so many stupid ones that preceded it, like washing a woman’s hair in a salon, or welding by lifting the protective mask with sparks flying, or playing the ukulele. No one dared tell him to stop. They kept feeding his addiction for prearranged acts of self-parody.

Although Morrison is Savva’s primary target, others don’t escape her acid tongue. Tony Abbott’s chief accomplishment as Liberal leader was to “destroy Julia Gillard and then himself.” Liberal backbencher Nicolle Flint resisted joining a WhatsApp support group for women because she was sick of women casting themselves as victims, until she “cast herself as a victim of a hateful campaign in her seat of Boothby in 2019 and announced her retirement from parliament.” Former National Party leader Barnaby Joyce cops this zinger: “Joyce was to Liberal voters what Roundup was to weeds.”

The great virtue of campaign books is their recounting of vivid scenes witnessed by their authors and well-reported details from inside the parties’ headquarters. Bulldozed is a fine exemplar of this tradition, though it offers more of the latter than the former. Its account of how Anthony Albanese spent election evening, for instance, is accompanied by a candid photo of the future PM wearing a footy jumper, ugg boots and a face flushed with excitement, sitting next to a smiling Penny Wong, who is leaning towards him.

We learn that Wong declined to be on a television panel after having to endure Labor’s unexpected 2019 loss on screen. Katy Gallagher, the ACT senator who filled that role in 2022, didn’t have a chance to eat during the television coverage and also failed to avail herself of a shot of the whisky fellow frontbencher Chris Bowen had stashed away. At 1am she found herself back in a hotel room, alone, savouring victory with a packet of chips from the minibar.

This kind of detail is catnip for political junkies. More substantively, though, Savva gives useful insights into how the parties went about their campaigns. She shows us the on-the-ground diligence of the Greens, who used a one-third increase in their volunteer numbers to knock on 260,000 doors around the country. She describes the teal campaigns in some detail — Monique Ryan in Kooyong attracting 2000 volunteers, for example, who knocked on 55,000 doors — and recounts sharp insights from Cathy McGowan, the former independent member for Indi, whose community-based campaign both inspired and offered a roadmap for the teals.

McGowan points to how, in 2019, Frydenberg had lost nearly 11 per cent of his primary vote in Kooyong, a party citadel, to independent candidate Oliver Yates and the Greens’ Julian Burnside. “If such a disorganised effort could reduce his primary vote to 49.4 per cent,” thought McGowan, “a better-organised, better-funded one could do a lot better.” Which of course it did.

Labor’s campaign was clearly better organised and better funded than it had been in 2019. And shrewder: Savva reports how the party’s national secretary, Paul Erickson, realised — when family circumstances required him to stay in the northern suburbs of Melbourne during the second half of 2020 — that the federal government’s attacks on premier Daniel Andrews fatally misread the dominant mood among locked-down locals. “Victorians wanted Andrews to succeed, not fail,” she writes, “because failure would lead to more illness, more deaths, and more pressure on the hospital system.”

As for this year’s Liberal campaign, it was equally clearly a mess, starting with the prolonged tug of war between the prime minister and the party’s NSW branch that led to candidates being preselected perilously close to the election. In that respect, Savva remarks, Morrison won the battle but lost the war: he got his way on preselections but failed dismally in his apparent strategy of sacrificing moderate Liberals to pick up outer-suburban seats.

The candidacy of Katherine Deves in the seat of Warringah, strongly supported by Morrison in the face of internal protests, epitomised the strategy in all its grisly brutality. When moderate Trent Zimmerman reluctantly attended a rally to support western Sydney candidates on the proviso that Deves wouldn’t be there, he was shocked to see the prime minister single her out from the podium. Former NSW senator Chris Puplick, also a moderate, went so far as to say post-election that Morrison’s strategy was an “act of treason” meriting his expulsion from the party.

Having been hailed as a master strategist after winning the 2019 election campaign, Morrison appears to have swallowed his own story, becoming convinced of his acumen as a campaigner and a prime minister. When he joined Mark Skaife in his Ford Mustang supercar at Bathurst in late 2021 and uttered the cheesy line that Australians were “looking out the front windscreen, not in the rear-view mirror,” Bulldozed reports that Peter Dutton remarked, “There’s a reason they call him Scotty from marketing.”

More importantly, Savva recounts how a key reason for the failure of the Religious Discrimination Bill was that the prime minister didn’t understand the bill’s implications. He didn’t see that it set up two potentially irreconcilable positions on the rights of religious bodies and LGBTQI+ people:

Once the implications of what he had done were explained to him, he is said to have responded by saying: “I didn’t mean that, that’s not what I had in mind.” One MP paraphrased his excuse thus: “He stuffed up, but couldn’t bring himself to say it.” Everyone felt dudded. The moderates were furious; the conservatives were incredulous.

It wasn’t only the prime minister whose self-perception went awry; so too did the news media’s, most of whose members took an awfully long time to realise that the 2022 election campaign was not a repeat of 2019. Well before the election, Morrison’s verbal bulldozing, characterised by many in the media as an impressive mastery of detail, was exposed — first in Sean Kelly’s excellent book, The Game, then on Shaun Micallef’s ABC TV program, Mad as Hell — as a sequence of non-sequiturs tending to collapse into a veritable word salad.

The notion that many members of the news media are unreflective and prone to herd behaviour is not new. The problem is that political narratives are like quick-drying cement. Billy McMahon was Australia’s worst prime minister and a figure of fun; Gough Whitlam was a political visionary but couldn’t run the economy to save himself. Both views have been challenged — by Patrick Mullins, biographer of McMahon (most recently in Inside Story), and by political scientist John Hawkins in the Conversation.

The quick-drying cement on the Coalition government of 2019–22 is that it was led by someone vying with McMahon for the title of Australia’s worst prime minister, whose deep personal unpopularity always made a 2022 election loss more than likely. But if the outcome was that obvious, why did so much media coverage either downplay what now seems conventional wisdom or ignore it altogether?

Savva is not immune from this affliction. She was certainly an early and consistent critic of Morrison’s leadership, but as Laurie Oakes reminded those attending the launch of Bulldozed in Canberra, she also wrote in her previous book, Plots and Prayers, that Morrison was “the most astute conservative politician of his generation.”

This contrast brings to mind the line uttered by Jack Nicholson as a mob hitman in the 1985 black comedy Prizzi’s Honor, when a particular character’s qualities are lauded. “If Marxie Heller’s so fuckin’ smart, how come he’s so fuckin’ dead?” Good question. Scott Morrison may well have been the most astute conservative politician of his generation and an epically failed prime minister. Explaining just how he went from one to the other requires more than a snapshot of the present, however vivid and well reported. •

Bulldozed: Scott Morrison’s Fall and Anthony Albanese’s Rise
By Niki Savva | Scribe | $35 | 391 pages