‘I was gobsmacked when he became prime minister’

Back in July 2006, Scott Morrison was forced out as managing director of Tourism Australia. For 16 years, mystery has surrounded exactly why. Various accounts have been published, based on “off the record” briefings. Exactly what happened has been hush-hush.

The late Tim Fischer, former deputy prime minister, was the chair of the Tourism Australia board at the time. He consistently refused to answer questions about what triggered Morrison’s dismissal. Former prime minister John Howard has blamed “a clash of personalities”.

Fran Bailey was minister for tourism in the Howard government and ordered Fischer to terminate Morrison’s contract in 2006. She has declined the many requests to explain on the record what happened – until now.

So infuriated is Bailey with the recent disclosures about Morrison secretly appointing himself to multiple ministries during 2020 and 2021, that she has agreed to speak to make one profound point: Morrison was removed from Tourism Australia for the same type of conduct he displayed in the “multi-minister” scandal.

“What has changed my mind is that all of those characteristics that make up Scott Morrison – the secrecy… the supreme belief that only he can do a job, the lack of consultation with those closest to him – those characteristics were evident 16 years ago, and perhaps we’re seeing the end result of those now.”

Back when Morrison was “Mr Tourism”, Bailey says he showed no respect for his colleagues and he left her – his boss, the government minister responsible – feeling bullied: “He doesn’t have any soft approach.”

Bailey says she was left with no choice. “It came down to a complete lack of trust. It’s not something that I have stewed over for all those 16 years, but I certainly have become very concerned as he worked his way through the ministry, and I was gobsmacked when he became prime minister. Because I knew what he was really like to work with, and I think that’s been a tragedy for the Liberal Party and it has been a tragedy for our nation.”

The backdrop to her losing trust in Morrison is the story of the “Where The Bloody Hell Are You?” tourism campaign. Morrison was in charge, but refused to disclose even to his board or his minister how international ad agency Saatchi was chosen from a competitive field.

Former tourism minister Fran Bailey in 2006, the year she sacked future prime minister Scott Morrison from his role as head of Tourism Australia.Credit:Paul Jones

Bailey explains that Morrison “point-blank refused” to provide her or the board with any documentation or to answer questions about the $184 million taxpayer-funded campaign.

I first crossed paths with Bailey, who retired from federal parliament in 2010, during the aftermath of the Black Saturday bushfires. She represented the electorate of McEwan, covering Kinglake, Strathewen and so many other devastated communities.

In my bushfire coverage for ABC Radio Melbourne, and during the many years of the recovery, I developed a deep respect for her tireless work. But whenever Bailey was asked about Tourism Australia, she remained reticent. She would hint that she had profound problems with Morrison, but as he ascended through the political ranks, she would only shake her head and repeat “I’m gobsmacked”.

Scott Morrison as head of Tourism Australia in 2004.Credit:Michele Mossop

Now, with the solicitor-general’s report released, she wants to not just set the record straight but to add her voice to the chorus calling on Morrison to quit.

“He must leave the parliament. The Liberal Party has to prove to the Australian public that it has listened, it has got the message, and that it is prepared to adapt, just as society is adapting, and changing. It can’t do that while Scott Morrison sits on those benches, and is a constant reminder of all of the awful things that happened during the Morrison government.”

She is unmoved by the entreaty from her old boss, former prime minister John Howard, to avoid a byelection at all costs.

Fran Bailey was minister for tourism in the Howard government and ordered Fischer to terminate Morrison’s contract in 2006.Credit:Illustration: Matt Davidson

“John Howard has also said ‘the public get it right’, and the public have got it right about Mr Morrison. Yes, there will be a cost to a byelection, yes there is a possibility that a ‘teal’ candidate might stand, but it’s an opportunity for the Liberal Party to show that it has the ability to move on from Scott Morrison … and, in fact, to have the gumption to preselect a strong, young professional woman who could do the best job for that electorate. He must move on.”

Bailey is emphatic the Liberals must preselect a woman to replace Morrison whenever he leaves. She wants the public to remember his denouncement of former Australia Post chief Christine Holgate and his clashes with former Liberal MP Julia Banks, and is in no doubt that Morrison treated women differently. “He was vindictive and unpredictable – who would have thought a prime minister could behave like that in parliament.”

Morrison was contacted for comment but did not respond.

After our interview, I escort Bailey to our front gate. As she unfurls her umbrella, she almost skips to her car. A load has lifted from her shoulders – a load that has been a burden for this retired politician for 16 years.

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