How Scott Morrison pulled off a miracle to remain PM
INSIDE PM'S VICTORY: By the end of the 37-day campaign Scott Morrison had criss-crossed the country hitting 38 key seats in every state and the Northern Territory. He worked for every last vote, right up until the end. Here's how his strategy worked.
They'd already parted company with the PM's trusty campaign sounding board Ben Morton in Gladstone and were supposed to be flying home to the Shire.
And then, sitting on the tarmac in his RAAF VIP plane, Morrison changed his mind.
Instead of pottering around Sydney, waiting for the voters' verdict, he decided he'd spend one more day campaigning in Tasmanian marginal long-shots, in the Labor-held seats of Bass and Braddon.
It would be his seventh visit to Tasmania over the course of the five-week campaign, and each time the reception was warmer, especially when he was accompanied by Jenny, whose easy smile and approachable manner won hearts across the country. Initially reluctant to campaign, she relished it by the end.
By the end of the 37-day campaign Morrison had criss-crossed the country hitting 38 key seats in every state and the Northern Territory. He campaigned 20 days in his home state of NSW, 10 in Queensland and nine in Victoria.
And over the course of the campaign the Liberal brand had overtaken Labor's as the more trusted and respected in Tasmania as it had across the country.
"Have to win the national argument but win the seat-by-seat battles.''
So Morrison wanted to give it one last shot and woo the waverers.
While Labor leader Bill Shorten had knocked off earlier that afternoon, raising a beer to Bob Hawke in a Melbourne pub, Morrison's Calvinist work ethic kept him going for every last vote.
"The thing that was important to him was to have no regrets about the campaign before it was over to the Australian people to decide," said one adviser.
Morrison wasn't going to die wondering.
In the plush prime ministerial seat, en route to Launceston, Morrison pulled out his well-thumbed campaign notebook, filled with his illegible handwriting, and ran through the marginal seats for the millionth time with his principal private secretary, the bespectacled savant Yaron Finkelstein, 47, and Andrew Carswell, 38, his head of media and press secretary.
The internal polls for key marginal seats, crunched every night by Crosby Textor quants in London, hadn't wavered. Throughout the campaign the primary vote stayed within the winning zone of 42 and 43 per cent. It first broke through the victory threshold of 40 per cent in April, going from 38 to 41 per cent on the back of the "Back in Black" budget.
And when it came to the personal popularity, Morrison always beat Shorten handily as preferred Prime Minister.
Paradoxically, Newspoll and the rest of the published opinion polls still had the Coalition losing, but the mood on the ground was positive.
Morrison was buoyant. With less than 12 hours until polling booths opened on the east coast, he was sure the Coalition could retain government by winning 75 seats in its own right and then cobbling together a majority with the help of two crossbenchers with whom he had cultivated unlikely friendships, the madcap Queenslander Bob Katter and the dour Tasmanian Andrew Wilkie.
So confident was Morrison of winning at least minority government, his closest advisers bandied about the idea of offering Wilkie or even Rob Oakeshott, should he win, the speakership, so that he could retain numbers on the floor of the house.
"He thinks he's going to win," one adviser said that Friday night.
"If he doesn't win, there needs to be a royal commission into Crosby Textor," the adviser joked about the Liberal Party's pollster.
"And if it's a wipe-out in Victoria, then we need to look at what value research has.
"But seriously, Shorten doesn't get there in his own right, if he gets there."
Labor, sitting on 70 seats, needed to pick up another seven seats to win the election, but were on track to lose Herbert in North Queensland and Lindsay in western Sydney.
So that meant Shorten needed nine seats to form majority government.
Morrison just couldn't see it happening.
He was confident Shorten would only pick up two and at the most, three, seats in Victoria; Chisholm, Dunkley and, perhaps, Corangamite, where he'd been twice to help the hardworking Sarah Henderson.
He expected to win Lindsay and Wentworth Reid in NSW, Indi in Victoria and Herbert.
The WA tracking poll had been consistently strong for the Liberals as well, so he did not believe he would lose a seat there.
But nothing was guaranteed. As one strategist said: "A lot of people make up their mind in the last 24 hours and some when they're in the polling booth."
The Friday morning tracking poll showed 13 per cent of votes for either party were soft and 2 per cent were undecided. Morrison confided to his team that he was nervous that Labor might plant a story on the final day of the campaign to which he'd have no right of reply. That fear did not eventuate.
The Prime Minister's mood and confidence the night before polling day were at odds with the broad perception in the media, public and political elites that Shorten was on track to become Australia's 31st prime minister.
Bob Hawke's death two days before the election was deemed by many pundits to be a parting gift to Shorten, reminding Australians of a time when Labor could manage the economy and stopping the PM's "Sco-mentum" in its tracks.
"Sorry, mate, that will be the clincher," was a typical text message into campaign HQ.
Yet, the nightly tracking that Thursday night actually bounced for the government.
Half the polling was done before news broke of Hawke's death around 8pm and the other half after. It was the best track of the week.
The previous 10 days there had been a fair bit of volatility in the tracking.
Morrison's view was that Hawke's passing made people desire incumbency and stability.
"Voters just don't like Shorten," Morrison told his advisers.
They landed in Launceston at 10.30pm and decided against a return visit to Shorties Hotel to play pool. But bright and early election morning, the PM and Jenny Morrison were on the road pressing the flesh in Bass and Braddon before heading home to vote in the Shire and reunite with their daughters Abbey and Lily.
"He went for every last vote right up to 6pm on Saturday," said a source.
"You have to send a signal you desperately want it with every fibre of your being, you want it for the Australian people, you're hungry for the job …
"Shorten put his cue in the rack. In those last 36 hours he never did anything in marginal seats."
Another more junior staffer expressed the fear that "maybe Shorten is seeing polling we're not".
ELEVATION TO THE LEADERSHIP
Morrison's abrupt rise to the prime ministership, leapfrogging candidates more ambitious, more ruthless and more popular with parliamentary colleagues, began in August.
Morrison and Malcolm Turnbull had no inkling that Peter Dutton was considering mounting a leadership challenge.
The idea seemed absurd.
When this newspaper broke the news that Dutton would make his move "within weeks'', Morrison and Turnbull were slow to realise our media report had credibility.
When parliament returned a few days later, Morrison's team assembled on the Monday to work out how to fend off any challenge. But they also began to discuss a back-up plan which involved putting Morrison forward as the compromise candidate between Turnbull and Dutton.
Morrison believed he would have the support of his colleagues. One supporter described his self-belief as "delusional''.
Yet, extraordinarily, in a stroke of strategic brilliance, Morrison - or his small team of centre-right faction supporters, led by the Napoleonic Alex Hawke - pulled off the unthinkable.
They engineered a situation where Morrison did not ever stand against Turnbull but was effectively gifted the support of the moderate faction desperate to deny Dutton's coronation.
Turnbull bought Morrison some time to get the numbers and gave Christopher Pyne permission to help Morrison.
It is also a matter of record that three of Morrison's supporters voted for the leadership spill on the Friday, sealing Turnbull's fate, while buying Morrison an extra day to secure his numbers.
A LONG-TERM PRIME MINISTER
Being Prime Minister for nine months was never going to cut it for Morrison.
He intended to win the next election - no matter how far-fetched the idea seemed.
"For me, it's never been about saving furniture, for me it's been about winning a third term for this government," Morrison told The Saturday Telegraph during the campaign.
Turnbull, from Manhattan and Point Piper, was urging a snap election, reportedly telling members of the Liberal state executive that Morrison was delaying because he just wanted to "keep his arse on C1 (the Prime Minister's official car)".
Morrison tolerated Turnbull's phone calls and tried to keep him on-side, aware of the damage he could wreak.
While Turnbull already was tweeting and his camp leaking unhelpfully, Morrison did his best to avoid an all-out war which would wreck his chance of remaining Prime Minister.
Morrison had no intention of going to the polls straight away.
He was determined to rebuild the party, sort out policies and go to an election, as planned, in 2019.
It was a view Morrison made clear when he approached staff to work for him.
Turnbull and others may have seem him as a stop-gap PM who might save some furniture, but he was on a mission to win.
His first task was to assemble a dynamite team. Finkelstein was just five weeks into a new role at the fabled Liberal Party research firm Crosby Textor as global head of campaigns when Morrison asked him to take on the crucial role as his principal private secretary.
Finkelstein had worked as press secretary for Brendan Nelson when he was opposition leader.
Finkelstein's view was that while every leader thinks they can win, Morrison knew how to win - an entirely different proposition and one that convinced him to come on board.
The pair had worked together when Morrison was treasurer, commissioning in 2017 a substantial piece of research from Crosby Textor, estimated to cost $200,000, to help formulate the budget.
During that time, Finkelstein saw that Morrison could prosecute complex issues in simple and easily understood ways.
SCOMO'S INNER POLITICAL SANCTUM
Finkelstein's appointment brought a very research-focused and highly political approach to Morrison's office. This was already a contrast with Turnbull's office which was often criticised for having no one with political experience.
Morrison already had the mild-mannered former Daily Telegraph chief of staff Andrew "Carsy" Carswell, who is calm in a crisis, running media and the bald economist and former senior Howard adviser John Kunkel as his chief of staff, called "The Kunk", who was based at campaign headquarters, or CHQ, for the campaign.
During the campaign, Finkelstein oversaw the polling and strategy, working closely with Catherine Douglas, managing director of campaigns at Crosby Textor. Carswell was more tactically involved, along with overseeing the media, while federal director Andrew Hirst had a role in where they were going day to day.
Hirst is widely praised and his organisational wing worked seamlessly with Morrison, a former state director who engineered election wins for Howard.
One insider described Morrison as like a "tutor" to Hirst during this campaign.
"The campaign director of this campaign was Scott. He is a brilliant campaigner and always was," one insider said.
"He understands intimately how campaigns are run and what's required to put them together," said another. "But he never sought to micromanage anything. He was an absolute dream to work with.''
Outside of his office, there were a few others in his inner political sanctum; former Howard, Costello and Abbott adviser David Gazard as well as Ben Morton, Scott Briggs, Alex Hawke and Sasha Grebe.
By the time the election campaign rolled around, Morrison also had four people in senior roles who were alumni of Crosby Textor.
WINNING THE UN-WINNABLE ELECTION
By late September, Morrison had survived a hellish first month as prime minister, when he scheduled a standard briefing from Crosby Textor, on their most recent diagnostics of how the Liberal Party was tracking post-leadership.
The session, in the PM's suite in Parliament House, Canberra, was so revelatory that it went from a short catch-up to an expansive discussion between Morrison, Hirst, Kunkel, Finkelstein and Carswell where the first gems of how to win the election were formed.
The discussion around the research - which itself was abysmal - provided clarity and the revelation: "This is our path. We had a path and we knew the framing and what needed to be done," one insider recalled.
The path to victory came down to two things: the economy and Morrison himself.
Firstly, voters cared about the economy, returning it to surplus and securing essential services.
But this was too one-dimensional on its own. It failed to create "emotive qualities if it was just about the economy''.
The second part was crucial: voters needed to know and trust the person who was going to credibly deliver a strong economy.
NARROW PATH TO VICTORY
Pollsters use the term "equities" and "disequities" for qualities that the public like or dislike about a brand.
Economic management was a major equity for the Liberal Party. They enjoyed double-digit leads over Labor and Morrison needed to exploit the advantage - which is why he would announce a budget surplus a year early.
But the party's disequity, was leadership chaos. It was minus-30.
"The single biggest drag on our vote was disunity and division," said one campaign strategist.
Yet the advantage Morrison enjoyed over Shorten in terms of their favourability was stark.
Focus group research from western Sydney showed voters "liked Scott, they though he was down to earth. They liked the fact he seemed relatable and he had a sense of purpose about him''.
"But the key hesitation was, 'Well I like him but if I vote for him I'll probably just end up with someone else … leadership [instability] still to this day affects both sides. There is disappointment and resignation about it."
Morrison needed to neutralise the issue, so he embarked immediately on the arduous task of changing Liberal Party rules so no prime minister could again be overthrown.
"The rules were changed, and you would have noticed during the campaign whenever leadership instability was mentioned [Morrison] referred to the rule change. [Then he'd say] 'The choice is you get me or Bill for the next three years' and then he would start talking about what it would mean in terms of higher taxes.
"If we focused on the Australian people and not ourselves we could see there was the opportunity for success at the election because the single biggest problem we were facing was something in our own control."
At the Parliament House meeting, another senior figure said: "We started … mapping out a strategy to win. Not to save furniture, not to just hope for the best, but what does it take to win.
"We managed to neutralise many of our disequities over that eight-month period."
It was a modern approach to politics.
So here was the first sketch of the path to victory: focusing on the economy and making Morrison the star of the campaign to come.
While they were optimistic, they remained humble.
"We were always fighting to win," said an adviser, "but the strategy was to win 76, 77, 78. It was never a let's win by 10 seats strategy. It was only a very narrow path to victory which fortunately we navigated. It worked out".
On Melbourne Cup day, Bill Shorten went to the Birdcage -- hobnobbing with Australia's rich and famous.
Morrison was nowhere near Flemington. He was in Queensland at a regional racecourse out the back of the Sunshine Coast.
"I wouldn't mind getting out amongst it," Morrison said.
And, accompanied by his security detail, he went for a walk through the public section, through the messy crowd.
There were thousands of people. One adviser recalls how the crowd reacted to him - with no cynicism or nastiness.
"All the way through, you heard it. 'Hey ScoMo.' ScoMo this and ScoMo that. Young people, middle-aged. Just people. There just seemed something in his appeal," he said.
While the media ridiculed Morrison for using the name "ScoMo", in the public domain, people actually called him that.
Always holding sombre portfolios, from Immigration Minister to Treasurer, Morrison was never seen as a popular, charismatic figure with Australians.
But it soon became apparent, through both research and observation, that the public was warming to him.
"Knowing there was a huge gap on favourabilites between the two candidates, well you would emphasise that it is a choice between two people," one insider said.
"It ultimately is a choice and you just remind them - you really do have a choice.''
And those were words Morrison kept hammering every day of the campaign.
ALL ABOUT SCOMO … RELUCTANTLY
It was out of character for Morrison to make the campaign all about him
But he had little option. Senior figures were deserting the government such as Julie Bishop, Steve Ciobo and Christopher Pyne. Others, like Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton and Health Minister Greg Hunt, were tied down in tough battles to save their own electorates, or simply were an unfortunate reminder of leadership chaos.
So, it was decided. The campaign would be about Morrison, not the party.
It was an idea Morrison formulated over Christmas.
"He said he didn't want to appear arrogant or narcissistic but he said this election has to be me versus Shorten," one source said.
Morrison was doing his best to rein in what he called "the Muppet Show" of party disunity. But the Liberal brand had sunk to new lows as 2018 drew to a close. In October, independent Kerryn Phelps snatched the blue-ribbon seat of Wentworth, vacated by Turnbull after the leadership coup. The by-election loss hinted at the extent of public anger. In December came the "sugar daddy" scandal that forced the resignation of National MP Andrew Broad and Newspoll hit rock bottom, 45-55 to Labor.
But over Christmas, Morrison set about burnishing his image as an everyday knockabout Australian. He took a break with his family at Shoalhaven Heads on the South Coast, kayaks and bikes in tow.
"I wasn't there on any political visit, just holidaying with Jen and the girls enjoying the flathead and chips like everyone else," he wrote in a column for The Daily Telegraph, pitching himself for the first time as one of "us quieter Australians''.
"The political elite had put Scott Morrison on mute but he was still performing and working the whole time," said one adviser.
"They'd written him off but the people who read the Telegraph, the Quiet Australians from Shoalhaven Heads, he spoke to them for eight months … no one could have threaded this needle like Scott did."
"Green shoots started to appear in January," says another adviser, "with a plethora of opeds from Josh [Frydenberg] nailing the argument on Labor's taxes."
The Liberal brand improved 11 points in internal polling.
"From March it was locked in, this was Shorten v. Morrison, and that was the strategy."
The second part of the strategy was to keep the campaign solely focused on taxes and the economy.
When Labor tried to shape the election as being a contest on climate change, Morrison's team urged him to respond with compelling facts and figures about the action the government had taken to address climate change.
They wanted him to say that emissions have reduced under the Coalition government and that it is the third largest investor in the OECD with renewable energy.
But Morrison resisted. And so he would return to his message, described by one adviser as: "Taxes, taxes, taxes. Bill, Bill, Bill."
"Everyday we spend speaking about climate change is a day we lose," Morrison is understood to have said to his team.
"Every day I go off message, we will lose."
And he never did.
CONCERNS OF THE CAMPAIGN
The point at which team ScoMo was most concerned was when Labor began its advertising blitz. It was relentless.
"You can have the best day in the world on the campaign, a great interview with Sharri Markson, Mark Riley's package was lovely but all night you're being told Scott Morrison is xyz," one adviser says.
"I worry what the night game is, not the ground game with Labor."
Unlike in 2016, business donations were up.
"Scott brought in a lot of money," says a party source. "He understands fundraising. And knowing there wasn't a millionaire [Turnbull] to help them out, a lot of donors thought this time I have to donate. This time everyone's arses were on the line."
Then, halfway through the campaign, a lot of "low value high volume" donations started to flow-in.
It was tangible. It gave Australians the sense that they had backed the party in some way.
It made his advisers think: "Actually, there's something going on. It's a confidence thing.
"We had a very good campaign. I don't think we had a bad day. Bill had two weeks where there were bad days."
But there was one point during the campaign that worried some of his advisers. On Easter Sunday Morrison was captured on camera at his own Pentecostal Horizon church in Sutherland, standing with arm outstretched, and eyes closed.
Some in his team were worried the public would think it was "weird".
Why had Morrison allowed himself to be photographed like that, they said to each other?
But it wasn't a deliberate strategy. The media campaign bus was trailing Morrison and Horizon's pastor had asked Morrison if the media could come in. The Prime Minister replied that decision was up to him.
Later he said the event had received more media attention than it deserved, considering he visited numerous churches throughout the campaign, including two days earlier, on Good Friday at St Charbel's Catholic Maronite Church in Punchbowl, in Tony Burke's seat of Watson.
It didn't hurt, judging by the swings towards the Coalition in high faith areas of the country, such as south-western Sydney and Queensland.
"I think the fact that Scott is a family man with a mortgage who goes to church, for a lot of people, particularly in Queensland, they like that about him."
Morrison also said the media may have thought something odd was going on if they had been banned from entering his church.
While trying not to remind the public of leadership chaos, Morrison never distanced himself from the achievements of Turnbull or Abbott.
"One of his strengths was willing to run on the record of the Abbott-Turnbull governments," an adviser said.
"He talked about our government, not my government, and all the achievements since 2013."
On election day, Newspoll had the Coalition's primary vote at an unwinnable 37 per cent - the lowest ever number for the Coalition on a federal election eve. The YouGov-Galaxy market research company, which conducts Newspoll, also was employed by the Labor Party to provide its own tracking polls through the campaign.
But Morrison trusted Crosby Textor's data.
"He is still very upbeat," one senior figure in Team ScoMo said that Friday night. "Final track held up for us. We will see whose polling is accurate."
The atmosphere in Kirribilli House when Morrison's closest advisers and mates started to filter in after 6pm to watch the election coverage, was optimistic.
Morrison's family were sitting in the lounge room, switching between television channels. Also present were his brother, brother-in-law, mother-in-law and parents.
But Morrison didn't want the television on. He wanted to look at the results unencumbered by the coverage.
He squeezed into the small study with Gazard, Briggs, Finkelstein, Carsy, his university friend Adrian Harrington and Kunkel.
Everyone had their laptops open. No one could eat. But there was red wine.
Morrison examined the AEC polling booth tallies and the ABC's resident psephologist Antony Green's web predictions. The PM scribbled his own calculations in his campaign notepad.
WhatsApp groups had been set up with key scrutineers. Hirst also was ringing through with results from his base five kilometres across Sydney Harbour, the Sofitel-Wentworth Hotel, where the party faithful already were gathered in the ballroom hoping for a miracle.
In a boardroom on level four of the hotel, Hirst crunched the booth data with a small group, including his deputies Simon Berger and Isaac Levido, Michael Brooks, Crosby Textor's pollster seconded from London for the campaign and NSW Liberal director Chris Stone.
The earliest numbers to come in from the scrutineers were upbeat. "By 6.40, we already had some data in from Lilley, Banks, Dawson, Braddon and Dobell showing a swing towards us.''
Just after 7pm, "Bass started swinging away from Labor. And Macquarie."
The good news was "flowing in. But you can't get too excited. It could be a small booth or a booth that's changed".
Back in the Kirribilli House study, the mood was excited.
"We are definitely in play," one of the group said before 7pm.
"The early trends are good."
By 7.15pm, the team were thrilled with how Bass was looking in Tasmania, and Macquarie in NSW.
Before 8pm, there was surprise that Liberal candidate Gladys Liu was still hanging on in Chisholm, the seat deserted by turncoat Liberal Julia Banks after the Turnbull coup, and virtually written off.
Everyone had a notepad and, slowly, the list of seat wins kept notching higher and higher.
But there was another big column of unknowns, and Morrison knew too well how a close marginal seat can flip-flop for days as the count continues. This tempered his optimism.
His daughters, Abbey, 11, and Lily, 9, came into the study every now and then for "big hugs" from Dad.
"It was slow and steady looking at the numbers," one adviser said.
In the room, around 8pm, Briggs felt the election had gone their way, and was growing increasingly excited.
Finkelstein refused to celebrate just yet; there was still concern about a legal challenge or persuading Wilkie or another independent.
"Another bad night for Bill. It's clear they don't want him," one adviser remarked.
At 8.30pm, Morrison declared: "I think we're going to win this."
On the television in the next room, ABC political editor Laura Tingle was looking downcast.
Kirribilli House was now abuzz. Calls were coming in thick and fast. People were moving onto the harbourfront verandah to talk because the room was so noisy.
The adrenaline was kicking in and the energy was electric as the boot numbers came in better and better.
"We were looking at swings we never imagined, like [Wayne Swan's old Queensland seat] Lilley," one adviser recalled.
The euphoria started to grow and then Morrison stood up at 9pm, grabbed his jacket and said: "We better get over to the Sofitel."
Upstairs in a suite at the Sofitel, Morrison was joined by John and Janette Howard. The 79-year-old former prime minister's frequent energetic appearances on the campaign trail, from Perth, to Melbourne to western Sydney, had been invaluable.
"He's the best brand in Liberal politics," said one adviser.
At the Sofitel, the team grew anxious again; televisions were on. Labor commentators on air seemed to suggest the count could go on for days. No one could relax until Western Australian booths were in.
"We started to wonder, is Bill Shorten going to concede?"
Hirsty tried to contact Labor campaign director, Noah Carroll, but he wasn't taking the call.
Then a message came through to Morrison: "Shorten is going to call you."
A private room was organised for the Prime Minister on his own.
Morrison was gone 15 minutes. He went in to take the call but had to wait some time for it to come through.
At 11.25pm, Morrison rejoined his team: "Bill Shorten just conceded."
The room erupted.