Monday, December 17, 2018

The Prime Minister and Me

The Prime Minister (then a humble MP) at farewell function for me

Just memories… the Prime Minister and me

THE FIRST time I met Scott Morrison, the current Prime Minister of Australia, I took an instant liking to this apparently warm delightful bloke (first impressions anyway, but they have never changed) with a permanent smile, young go-go-getter whirlwind with the speed of the Road Runner who, in 2007, had just been elected to the Federal seat of Cook in Sydney’s southern suburb of Sutherland Shire … headquartered in the delightful seaside suburb of Cronulla. Scott had migrated from a once humble Bronte in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. Time has brought opulence to Eastern Suburbs like Bronte, Coogee, et al.

I was Communications Manager at the highly sensitive Caltex Oil Refinery in Kurnell, the official birthplace of Australia where Captain Cook was carried on shoulders to the shore. It was a real challenge. During my first few weeks, no one from the village would even talk to me and it very, very hard yakka breaking the ice. Everyone, it seemed, was up in arms against the refinery, mainly out of fear for their lives should anything like a bleve or even an explosion or fire happen. They were also afraid that refining particulates released to the atmosphere were poisoning them. There were some moves to shut down the refinery and turn the suburb into a gated millionaire community. It never happened. 

It took me a while but thanks to community leaders John Scott, Dorothy Wheeler, Dorothy Exon (whose passion in life was the annual Kurnell Festival which incorporated the Kurnell Arts Festival which gained some regard in the art world and which was sponsored by the refinery) and a whole bunch of other people, I turned things around. Lots of folks from the refinery lent a hand wherever it was needed. For example, refinery workers helped put up a might circus Big Top tent for one of the festivals. It also helped that Caltex management was always enthusiastic about most things we did about improving community relations and creating refinery-friendly neighbours.

For me, it meant that I had learn about whole new industry, especially about emergency response (every aspect of it, inside and outside the fence), due diligence with agencies like the Environment Department, Sutherland Council, State Government, the relevant Federal Government interests, all the surf clubs, junior sport, and virtually every group and community organisation in the Shire, especially the schools who were visited the refinery every year.

Once in a while, we suffered the accidental release of catalyst (white powder used in catalytic cracking of molecules) into the community. I had an army of cleaners and responders from inside and outside the refinery. We cleaned, washed people’s homes, pools, cars… and sometimes replaced items. We used to be pretty quick.

I introduced regular meetings in the refinery between the Kurnell community leaders, the refinery manager and the relevant engineers including environment protection manager and others to lift the veil of secrecy. Once a year we opened the refinery to anyone from St George or the Shire. We eventually won their trust. 

The refinery is now a petrol farm. Only the ghosts of the past wander the large waterfront site with multi-million dollar real estate tag.

However, Bruce Baird, Malcolm Kerr and local mayors (especially Kevin Schreiber, General Manager John Rayner and perhaps the most influential and likeable person the shire, car dealer magnate, leading businessman and former president of the Shire, Liberal Party powerhouse the much loved Michael Tynan who passed away in 2016) and other influential folks gave me a lot help.

Danna Vale, the former Federal Member for Hughes in the Shire was a great supporter and contact. She stood for the seat because “no Liberal was standing” in the virtually unwinnable seat. She was there from 1996-2010, unseating the once highly popular Labor front bencher Robert Tickner.  In the run-up the 1996 election, one of the radio stations had called me for my take on the seats St George and Sutherland Shire. The interviewer thought I was a nut for suggesting that “a mere housewife” could unseat a Labor icon like Tickner. Danna was actually practising lawyer. I was not aware he was listening in and when he piped in his charming manner as always, I held my ground, as charmingly as always. I left that for election night and Danna’s win. Danna never forgot my call.

She was for a little while the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs. She did not endear herself to Prime Minister John Howard because, in defending issues pertaining to the shire, she went against Liberal polices in parliament. She was vehemently opposed to a second airport, nuclear waste and increased operations at Lucas Heights, mandatory sentencing of juveniles in the Northern Territory and she was butt of jokes for emphatic denial of global warming. However, she did put her foot in it when she sent an email to the wrong address. Unfortunately, it was meant for broadcaster Alan Jones who was embroiled in the “cash for comment” controversy. She told Jones to “stay brave and true” … which was manna for comedians and commentators alike, especially the ABC’s brilliant Media Watch (my badge of scorn was that they called me a racist) program.

Chris Downy, the State Member for Sutherland, was a friendly guy. He quit politics and was succeed by Lorna Stone who had a brief stay in Parliament because the seat was soon made redundant.

For a moment or two, Scott (later to be Twitted as ScoMo) worried me that he would burn out even before he had begun because he set an almost suicidal pace as he went about cementing his place in Cronulla. The seat of Cook had been a safe Liberal seat and Scott was obviously going to make bloody sure he would continue the trend.

The son of a policeman, a devoted Christian, a Liberal with a big R (as in right of the party), Sutherland Shire found it easy to baptise him and adopt the whole family as one of their own. But Scott is more often than not is his own man. Above all else he is relentless … he is also extremely ambitious … that was what worried me. Just what would he not do to achieve his ambitions? One thing for sure: he does not even allow the natural course of Christian charity in some instances to interfere with his hard line right wing politics. A case in point is when he was vehemently against the government footing the bill to fly in to Sydney the relatives of asylum seekers who died in the Christmas Island December 10 boat tragedy. I didn’t think that was his finest moment and I often wondered in those early years if he had ever learnt the art of risk assessment and applied it to his every move, word (either written or spoken): what is the worst thing that can?

When he stood for preselection in Cook, he bombed out in the first vote gaining only 8 votes against his opponent’s 80+. Some Shire folks reckoned he was marooned between the Left and Right sections of the local Liberals while his opponent had already stacked up the numbers.

But then there was a pretty serious media campaign blackening the name of the winner and virtually driving him out of the political scene. There was some money exchanged in compensation and he was disendorsed and the path was cleared for Scott to begin his reign. He insisted he had nothing to do with the political skull drudgery or dis-dorsement.
For Morrison, it was water off a duck’s back, at worst a minor itch which was as quickly forgotten. When I met him long, long after the second vote, he said: “All good, Skip. Nothing to worry. Let’s get to work.” I had not known him for long then and I wondered if he would be good for the Shire. I guess he was, indeed. We ribbed him a bit about it and he always fended our attempts with that smile.
Many would argue that folks in Sutherland Shire are overtly racist (I can’t remember a single person of colour holding office in Sutherland Council). One example of this was the now infamous Cronulla riots in 2005. One commentator said: “The outbreak of mass racist violence against young men of ‘Middle Eastern appearance’ on Cronulla beach, Sydney, in December 2005 was the culmination of a campaign of populist incitement waged in the media and by the state. The battle to reclaim control of the beach for white Australia mirrored, it is suggested here, the battle that the Howard government has waged to reclaim control of the nation itself from asylum seekers and the Muslim/Middle Eastern ‘enemy’.”

During those days at the Cronulla beaches, it was not a matter of if it was going to happen, but when. Everyone expected it. It had to happen. An eruption was needed to enforce the ground rules and ownership of the turf. I guess that is what happened.

During all the time I spent there, I did not really experience any kind of racism. The worst I came across was the second most foul mouthed woman I ever met in my life. Someone on Sutherland Council. The No. 1 foul mouthed female I know lives in the UK and happily continues to abuse anyone and everyone. Hey, I have also met much worse males, to be politically correct.

It always seemed to me that Cook attracted very likable Members of Parliament who stuck around for a long time. After all, this short range rocket care for people, solved their problems, bridged differences between local government and local business, as soft and gentle as he was with folks, he was also tough, tough, tough when he needed to be. But always the smile, artificial or not. I believe pretty genuine, rather than the smiling assassin. But he was not afraid to going to war, manning the trenches and holding his ground, as he was to prove as a Federal Minister charged with stopping the boats carrying illegal migrants. Some folks have even accused him of being a bully. Really, my mate, Scott Morrison, the Prime Minister, a bully? Or just a tough politician when he needs to be … because the smile is never too far away.

Please to consider:
Don Dobie 1969-1972
Ray Thorburn  (Labor) 1972-1975
Don Dobie 1975-1996
Stephen Mutch 1996-1998
Bruce Baird 1998-2007
Scott Morrison 2007

Don Dobie actually made himself into a local institution. Everyone knew him, everyone had met him, everyone liked him, it would seem. Cook is not really seat for hard core politicians, it is a seat the Federal Member is part of everything that is going in Sutherland Shire which, the locals will be quick to tell every time, is God’s country. Having worked in the area for more 20 years, I can tell that they are not far wrong. So Don went Christenings, funerals, weddings, was a regular at all the surf club events (never missed a single one), junior rugby union and rugby league events, Mothers’ Union here there and everywhere and of course he attended virtually every home match of the Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks, the much loved Rugby League team. Dobie also cocked a paternal public non-partisan eye on the often turbulent Sutherland Shire Council. Of course, the council Lib-wallahs always had his support.

In essence, Dobie was everybody’s friend and so were most of those who followed him.

Bruce Baird Picture courtesy of The Leader

Malcolm Kerr, an exceptional Member of Parliament

Before Scott’s arrival, my favourite was Bruce Baird (Cronulla born and bred, who had migrated to the North Shore) who was the man who should have been Premier of New South Wales donkey’s years before. He was the hapless victim of political skulduggery. Bruce was always an elegant man, looked very upper-crust but acted always the dignified gentleman. I am little biased as you can see … Bruce dubbed me the “Mayor of Kurnell” at an official function in the National Park at Kurnell … fortunately, the nickname did not last very long.

Bruce’s son Mike achieved what his father didn’t: became Premier of NSW.

Bruce held the Ministerial portfolios of Transport, the highly successful Sydney’s Olympic Bid and Tourism and Transport. Federally he was on a lot of committees and delegations. I know he enjoyed his time as Sydney’s Minister for the Olympics perhaps the most of all the jobs he had in life. He made a lot of friend all over the world, and they exchanged visits too. Bruce was the State Member for Northcott (1984-1995) and I was working for Fairfax Newspapers who had hired me in the UK. Bruce was something of mentor in state politics for me. However, as in all things, I never encroached on my journalistic credibility nor did he or the other politicians I mentioned. Fortunately, for me, most if not all trusted me.

He moved to the Australian House of Representatives in October 1998. With his vast background in NSW politics, the ins-and-outs of the Liberal Party and the respect he enjoyed there, we in Sutherland Shire thought he was a shoe-in for the front bench. We never thought for a moment that Baird’s support for the Deputy Leader and Treasurer Peter Costello would result in Prime Minister John Howard ignoring Baird for the Front Bench. Baird also opposed mandatory detention for asylum seekers, which irked Howard even more. I think Baird harboured hopes that Costello would one day succeed Howard. It never happened and eventually put an end to Baird’s Federal political career.

I was pretty bothered about that. I couldn’t understand how a politician of Baird’s stature could be left out of the ministry, especially when people with far less abilities were ministers.

In May 2014, when a few people in Canberra were taking note of Scott Morrison who was winning in Immigration and Border Protection, Baird predicted his “friend” would one day become Prime Minister. “He has what it takes to be Prime Minister,” he told my old paper the St George and Sutherland Shire Leader.

Mr. Baird said it was "quite possible" Mr. Morrison, who took over from him in 2007, might lead the Liberal Party one day.
"I notice he is being touted as a future leader, and well he should be, because he is very talented," Mr. Baird said.
"He has obviously got a few people ahead of him in the queue, but I was at a conference in Canberra where they listed the people who they thought were performing the best in the government, and he was on the list."

Back to Speedy Gonzalez with the speed of the Road Runner. While Scott Morrison went about protecting his seat, a cabinet post or even a future prime ministership was the furthest thing from my mind. I knew he was special, some day he would become a Federal minister and may be even a prime minister who knows? Well we do know now, don’t we?

There is another quite outstanding politician in Cronulla who deserved to be the State Attorney General or a Minister for Justice or something similar but was looked over for 27 years. He retired as the State Member for Cronulla in before the 2011 State election: Malcolm John Kerr.

I have been talking politics, especially at election time, with Malcolm for nigh on 25 years. Like many others, I have admired this adroit man with the sardonic, sometimes desert dry humour and political skills of polished veteran that he is. Kerr is a consummate professional. While he was quite short, sharp and to the point, sometimes a cutting point, he always seemed to quietly walk backwards in the oblivion of the unseen when he was actually made for the brightest spot light. Maybe he did not have the political nous or backing of his fellow liberals to achieve ministerial heights, nonetheless he was more than a hidden gem, we will never what he might have achieved had he gone on to become a minister and then perhaps even a premier of NSW.

Like other MPs in the Shire, Malcolm was utterly dedicated to his community and served them with a dedication reserved for the heads of families. He gave his all, and more.
Scott Morrison in Federal Parliament in 2011, on Kerr’s retirement:
“Malcolm has also stood up to recognise our great cultural heritage in this country. As a fellow representative of the area of our nation’s modern birthplace at Kurnell, Malcolm has always sought to honour the stories of our past, which go back not just several centuries but several thousand centuries. He has sought, like others and me, to try to tell and celebrate these stories together, rather than have them be a cause for division. He has celebrated cultural diversity, as I share in doing with him. In the comments he has made in our community he has always said that we must achieve unity in our efforts as much as we seek to recognise diversity. We do that through a sense of shared values that have been time honoured over our great history.
“Malcolm has championed the cause of freedom of religion. As someone with a fellow faith to Malcolm, that is something that we share in great commonality. If we do not have freedom of religion in the religion that we practise then others cannot also have it. That is the shared sense of freedom of religion which I think all members in this place celebrate.
“Malcolm is a great friend of our community—they love him and they have reason to love him. He has been an honourable friend to them; he has been at everything he should be at, and more, because of his great love and affection for his community. Malcolm is a friend of mine who has gone through difficult circumstances of late in suffering from depression, and I am so pleased to report to this House that he has conquered that through great strength, through the support of his friends and great care from the medical services.”
I first came to know Malcolm when I became Editor of the St George and Sutherland Shire Leader with an edition for the Shire and another for the neighbouring St George District, friendly enemies for as long as there is anyone old enough to remember why the rivalry first began. However, this rivalry has often reached battleground proportions on the Rugby League field. In a fit of bravado, one club president ripped the rival colours to shreds and with that also ripped his future as club president.

Strange thing though. In the Shire I found the Liberal Members of Parliament, both State and Federal, more amenable and opposite was true of St George (former State Premier Morris Iemma, who I always thought was a nice guy not really cut out for the ugly world of cut-throat politics). However, they can come together sometimes. The Liberal Federal Member for Hughes hosted me to President Bill Clinton’s visit to the Federal Parliament. At dinner, though, I sat with the Member for Hughes (Lib) and Federal Member from St George (Labor). And a jolly good time was had by all.

During the 20 years or so I spent in Sutherland Shire and St George, I met a lot of wonderful people (and they had warned me that the Shire could be a little racist) and I had an absolute ball and made many friends for life. It was a pleasure to work with so many dedicated people. In retirement I really do miss them. I catch up with one or two State MPs in the Visitors’ lounge in Parliament House now and again. Of course, more often than not, Malcolm is a genial host.

As the Prime Minister prepares for the General Election sometime in 2019, one thing certain, he won’t be taking any backward steps. His days in the tough portfolios of Immigration, Border Protection and Treasury will have toughened him up … if he needed anymore toughening. In Sutherland Shire they breed them tough … or they toughen you up. They don’t back away from a fight.

He has a tough battle on his hands. Labor has been leading in the polls for yonks, but don’t underestimate the Prime Minister. This will be the biggest fight of his life. He is used to fighting political wars and the bigger they are he leaves nothing of himself behind. He gives his all. “I knew when I had to step up just over ten weeks ago, that I had a big mountain to climb,” he told Sky News. “I didn’t take the job thinking it would be an easy one. I have always taken on hard jobs in my political career.”

As Prime Minister, Morrison is still wearing his L-plates. He would love to know the answer to this question before the polls: “Does Australia want Bill Shorten as Prime Minister.” Most experts reckon he has not got a hope in hell. He is new in the job, he has had time to cement his policies, the electorate has not really had a chance to know him as Prime Minister, he is largely an unknown quantity. He has shocked people before. Only the General Election can really answer that.

Sadly, I was not able to get a comment from the PM, these are very busy days, you know. Perhaps, I might get a chance to meet up with him sometime in the New Year.

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