Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton and Health Minister Greg Hunt have revealed what really went on during shadow cabinet discussions about Muslims, denying Scott Morrison urged the Liberals to use Islamophobia to win votes.
They are among a number of ministers who have rejected explosive claims that Prime Minister Scott Morrison once urged Liberal colleagues to “capitalise” on anti-Muslim sentiment.
The public denial of private discussions within shadow cabinet by multiple ministers is highly unusual and underlines deep concerns within the party that the Coalition is vulnerable to political attacks over the claims.
The original report, published in 2011, stated Mr Morrison had urged his colleagues to “ramp up questioning of multiculturalism and appeal to deep voter concerns about Muslim immigration and ‘inability’ to integrate”.
Mr Morrison’s reference to “anti-Muslim” sentiment was a red flag for some at the special meeting of shadow ministers, who were asked to bring three ideas for issues on which the Coalition should concentrate its political attack.
The New Daily spoke to five former shadow cabinet ministers including Mr Dutton, Mr Hunt and former defence minister David Johnston who insisted the PM did not call for anti-Muslim sentiment to be exploited.
Former frontbencher Philip Ruddock said he did not recall the discussion but he did not regard Mr Morrison as anti-Muslim.
Giving some context to the report, however, a fifth cabinet minister speaking on background said a discussion on anti-Muslim sentiment had occurred.
But he insisted there was never any suggestion it be used for political gain.
Describing the claims as “garbage”, Mr Dutton said it was time to set the record straight over the shadow cabinet discussion that resurfaced in the wake of the Christchurch massacre as evidence that the Liberals had flirted with Islamophobia.
“The Labor Party are pushing this garbage around. It is completely false,” Mr Dutton said.
Broadcaster Waleed Aly referenced the report during a widely shared editorial on Channel 10’s The Project on Friday night when he spoke of his despair over attacks on the Islamic community.
His comments prompted a swift denial from the Prime Minister’s office.
Since Friday’s terrorist attack on two mosques, which left 50 dead, questions have been raised over the role of the media and politicians in fuelling anti-Muslim sentiment.
“You’ll have to forgive me, these won’t be my best words…”
— The Project (@theprojecttv) March 15, 2019
Mr Hunt told The New Daily he had attended the December 1, 2010 shadow cabinet meeting where the then-opposition immigration spokesman was alleged to have made the remarks.
He said Mr Morrison did not make those comments.
“As someone who was in the shadow cabinet at the time, the story was clearly categorically and unequivocally false then and remains clearly, categorically and unequivocally false to this day,” Mr Hunt said.
Mr Hunt said he was “very upset” with the report at the time because he knew it was untrue.
“Scott agonised over the loss of life at sea, which he warned about in advance and then witnessed at the time,” he said.
“I saw him in tears of sadness at the loss of beautiful young Muslim, and other, lives at the hands of the people-smugglers and he vowed then to protect them and that this tragedy would never happen on his watch.
“He cared then with every fibre of his being and that same compassion still drives him.”
His recollection was backed up by Mr Johnston.
“I never heard him say that we should exploit anti-Muslim sentiment in the community,” Mr Johnston said.
“He’s not anti-Muslim for a start. He’s just not. Whoever is saying that he did say those things is being very mischievous and has an axe to grind. The grinding of axes is one of the reasons I am not in politics any more.”
Giving some context to the report, however, another Liberal cabinet minister present during the discussions – and who asked not to be named – said that Mr Morrison had spoken of anti-Muslim sentiment in the community during the shadow cabinet discussions.
But, they said, he had never suggested the Liberals exploit or “capitalise” on that sentiment.
“I was at that meeting. He didn’t say anything like that. He stated the obvious, which is that people were concerned in the community about the Muslim faith and integration. But he didn’t suggest we exploit it.”
Today I met with Muslim community leaders to offer my support & to share their deep sorrow over yesterday’s horrific terrorist attack. This has rocked not only NZ but nations around the world, incl. ours. We stand together to condemn the hatred & intolerance behind this attack. pic.twitter.com/hKEu6LdSl3
— Scott Morrison (@ScottMorrisonMP) March 16, 2019
The report, in the Sydney Morning Herald, also said that “several colleagues, including the deputy leader Julie Bishop and the former immigration minister Philip Ruddock, strongly disagreed with the suggestion, pointing out that the Coalition had long supported a non-discriminatory immigration policy and saying it was not an issue that should be pursued”.
Mr Ruddock told The New Daily he did not recall the discussion but did not believe that Mr Morrison would pursue such a strategy.
“I have no recollection. But if there had been such a discussion, the position I would have taken was the one that you mentioned,” he said.
The report was published when tensions were high within the Liberal Party after Mr Morrison complained about the cost of sending asylum seekers to funerals after the Christmas Island shipwreck tragedy.
Mr Morrison apologised at the time, admitting his remarks were “insensitive and inappropriate”.