Less than three months from his second budget, Treasurer Scott Morrison is not in a happy place.
The last week has been a disaster for him, culminating in the weekend exit of his strategy and communications director Sasha Grebe at the weekend.
Like his now-ex boss, Grebe – who dates from the Howard days – is a tough operator who’s played his part in tensions between the Treasurer’s office and the Prime Minister’s Office.
News of Grebe’s resignation – its precise circumstances are unclear – came as a Monday item by Australian Financial Review columnist Joe Aston elaborated on the hissy fit by Morrison and his office over the Australian Bankers’ Association (ABA) last week appointing former Labor premier Anna Bligh as its executive director.
Mostly, Morrison and some others in the government were furious that the ABA had the temerity to select someone from the other side of the political tracks. But also, Aston reported, Grebe, who had been “job hunting for months”, wanted the ABA post.
A spokesman for Morrison said later that “Sasha has been exploring job opportunities outside the office since last year’s election”.
The heat of the eruption over Bligh was evident in the front page lead of Saturday’s Weekend Australian, co-authored by Simon Benson, who is close to Morrison. It said “Coalition MPs have called for the big banks to be cut out of the government’s plan to reduce the company tax rate after the surprise appointment”, and noted Morrison was only informed of the Bligh decision on Thursday night.
Unsurprisingly, Malcolm Turnbull quickly squashed the idea of excising one sector from the tax cut (which may never come to big businesses, as the Senate is only inclined to vote for a reduction for smaller companies).
On Monday, appearing on his regular spot with 2GB’s Ray Hadley, Morrison was asked “what ducks and drakes” the ABA was playing in appointing Bligh. “Only they can explain that,” he replied.
Morrison’s attitude is part of a feeling in some Liberal circles that business organisations should in effect be an extension of a Coalition government, peopled by its friends and there to serve its interests and argue its case.
Hence the periodic angry attacks on the Business Council of Australia (BCA) by Victorian Liberal president, Michael Kroger. Years ago the Howard government was feral about then BCA chief executive, David Buckingham, who had formerly worked for prime minister Bob Hawke.
The reality is that many companies these days want to maintain a certain distance from partisan politics. They are reluctant to donate money to parties, or they give to both sides, knowing they’ll have to deal with both conservative and Labor governments.
Business lobbies may favour conservative governments’ policies but don’t want to be seen as compliant handmaidens. Thus among the 18 organisations recently calling for a more bipartisan approach to energy policy were the BCA and the Australian Industry Group.
Anyway, the perfectly appropriate appointment of Bligh - who left politics several years ago and is seen by the banks as a good “face” for their message that they are changing - surely is worse for Labor than for the government. Presumably Bligh wouldn’t have been employed unless she was broadly in line with the banks’ views; most pertinently, she opposes a royal commission, to which the ALP is committed.
By being ungracious and – if the Australian Saturday story came from near him, appearing vengeful – Morrison has just stirred another controversy the government doesn’t need right now.
Turnbull’s private reaction on the Saturday story about calls to deny the tax cuts to the banks can only be imagined. Questioned in New Zealand about the idea he said: “The first I heard of it is when I saw it in the media this morning.”
It is clear that the Turnbull-Morrison relationship is again under stress.
Their personalities are incompatible.
Morrison is headstrong – a quality that has marked his career, including before he was an MP. This was shown last week when he insisted the move to tie savings in the Omnibus Bill to the financing of the National Disability Insurance Scheme should be announced quickly despite a caution from the Prime Minister’s Office about the timing.
Morrison is highly ambitious and wants to be the next Liberal leader. This is not suggesting he is doing anything deliberately to undermine Turnbull – rather it is to say that he always has an eye to the future and seeks a high profile. As things have turned out, his ranking in the post-Turnbull leadership hierarchy has gone seriously backwards since he has become Treasurer.
Turnbull is impatient and volatile, grinding his teeth when Morrison makes a mistake or goes off on a frolic.
When we think of history, relations between prime ministers and treasurers are usually complicated and often inclined to finish sourly or catastrophically.
Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey stuck together at a personal level, but Hockey’s failures contributed to the collapse of the Abbott government.
The Kevin Rudd-Wayne Swan partnership ended with Swan switching to Julia Gillard; he later painted Rudd as a maniac.
John Howard and Peter Costello worked successfully together at a policy level but their personal relations were corroded by Costello’s unfulfilled ambition.
Bob Hawke could never have achieved what he did without Paul Keating but finally Keating became his executioner.
As his treasurer has caused him some grief, Turnbull has grown closer to Finance Minister Mathias Cormann. One of Cormann’s strengths is that he is a good negotiator with the Senate crossbench. A few months ago Turnbull made sure that Cormann got public credit for his role in the deal with the Greens over the backpacker tax deal.
The run up to this very difficult budget will be closely watched for the interaction between Turnbull and Morrison. In the longer term, it will go against the balance of recent experience if things end well between these two.