It must be one of the biggest hits in the federal parliament since March 1971 when Liberal Party frontbench member Malcolm Fraser launched an all-out attack on his prime minister, John Gorton. Not long after, Gorton lost the Liberal Party leadership to William McMahon and stepped down as prime minister. Gorton never spoke to Fraser again.
At 9.20pm on Tuesday, shortly after Josh Frydenberg delivered the 2022 budget in the lead-up to the forthcoming federal election, Concetta Fierravanti-Wells (a Liberal Party senator for NSW) stood up in the Senate and comprehensively bagged Scott Morrison. She did so after declaring her history with the Prime Minister.
It was a verbally brutal attack, delivered with scant supporting evidence. Fierravanti-Wells declared that “while professing to be a man of faith and claiming centre-right status, Morrison is a product of the left”.
She added that the Prime Minister was “adept at running with the foxes and hunting with the hounds, lacking a moral compass and having no conscience” and “has used his so-called faith as a marketing advantage”.
The NSW senator went on to claim that Morrison was “an autocrat and a bully”, “ruthless” and “is not fit to be prime minister”. Fierravanti-Wells also accused NSW Liberal Party Premier Dominic Perrottet of being a “supine and weak state leader”.
As the saying goes, Fierravanti-Wells did not miss her targets – both of whom are on the Right of the NSW Liberals.
But she provided no evidence to support her case against the Prime Minister, especially with respect to her most serious allegation that Morrison was a bully. None whatsoever. Her main gripe – as told to the Senate – was that in the Liberal Party preselection for the relatively safe Liberal seat of Cook in 2007, Morrison eventually prevailed over Michael Towke.
It was a complicated affair – and there are probably more than two sides to the story. But a couple of points are worth making.
Fierravanti-Wells was not a candidate for Cook in 2007. She was already a senator by 2005, courtesy of being preselected by the Liberal Party. Moreover, as Sky News reporter Andrew Clennell told Peta Credlin on Wednesday, there is little doubt that Morrison was a better candidate than Towke.
In any event, there are tales to be told about contested preselections in all major parties – Liberal, Labor, Nationals and Greens alike. Frequently, they are tough affairs in which the winner takes all. As it happened in this case, Fierravanti-Wells eventually supported Morrison’s preselection and Towke joined her staff.
The NSW senator alleged that Morrison made “racial comments” about Towke but she provided no evidence to support her serious claim, beyond referring to several anonymous statutory declarations that she said she has “been advised” exist. That’s all.
This is a not uncommon abuse of parliamentary privilege by which politicians can make allegations in parliament without fear of being sued for defamation.
Former prime minister John Howard told Nine newspapers’ Michael Koziol on Wednesday that Morrison might be “forceful” – like most successful politicians – but he was not a bully. Victorian Liberal senator Jane Hume also denied on Thursday that the Prime Minister was a bully.
Howard added that Morrison did not deserve criticism for his religion. Quite so. Just as Fierravanti-Wells does not warrant disapproval because she is a Catholic.
It is a matter of fact that Fierravanti-Wells has had difficulties with Liberal Party prime ministers during the past decade. She supported Malcolm Turnbull to replace Tony Abbott in 2015. Then she resigned from the Turnbull ministry in 2018 and supported Morrison. Now she has turned against Morrison.
The immediate focus on Fierravanti-Wells’s anger with the Liberal Party turns on the fact, last Saturday, she lost a competitive preselection for a winnable place on the Coalition NSW Senate ticket. Senator Jim Molan prevailed over her. Molan is a member of the political conservative faction of the NSW Liberal Party with considerable support in the electorate – as was demonstrated when he won 140,000 under-the-line individual votes in the 2019 election.
All successful politicians owe their professional success to the party that made it possible for them to attain high office – as Howard frequently reminds the Liberal Party. Fierravanti-Wells’s successful career, in which she has been a senator for 17 years and a minister for two years, was made possible by her party.
And now she has turned on the Liberals by making the assertion that Morrison is a bully, on the eve of what could be a highly contested election.
Not surprisingly, Fierravanti-Wells’s attack was embraced by sections of the media that are hostile to the Coalition. Take ABC television’s 7.30, for example. The story that the late Kimberley Kitching was bullied by Labor’s Senate leadership team, whom she depicted in private as “mean girls” (following the 2004 film of the same name) was broken by The Australian’s Sharri Markson on March 16. It was confirmed by news.com.au’s Samantha Maiden the following day.
7.30 did not mention this story until March 21 – and then it omitted Andrew Landeryou’s reference to Labor’s “cantankerous cabal” in the Senate and elsewhere whom he alleged had bullied his late wife. But 7.30 reported Fierravanti-Wells’s attack on Morrison within 24 hours of it having occurred.
Fierravanti-Wells’s evidence-free assertion that the Prime Minister is a bully has been taken up by his political critics on the right (senator Pauline Hanson) and the left (senator Jacqui Lambie). Even the so-called independents have had a go.
At the end of the soft interview with Patricia Karvelas on ABC Radio National’s Breakfast program on Thursday, independent member for Warringah Zali Steggall said her relationship with Morrison had been “cordial and professional”. In response to a question, Steggall said she had not been personally bullied by the Prime Minister. And then she added: “All those who know him and work with him do not have good things to say about him.”
How about that? Steggall reckons that everyone who knows Morrison does not have good things to say about him. Yes, everyone. This is absolute tosh – but made possible by Fierravanti-Wells’s rant under parliamentary privilege.