Why did he do it?
Why did the Prime Minister agree to a nationally televised, live interrogation into whether he is an Islamophobic political opportunist with The Project‘s Waleed Aly?
After watching Scott Morrison wrestle with that elephant in the room for over 30 agonising minutes – without an ad break – the answer soon became clear.
The Prime Minister is a man deeply wounded by claims that he sought to exploit prejudice towards Australians of Muslim faith and he simply cannot let it go.
This was the one-on-one interview sparked by a feud over an ancient story about a shadow cabinet meeting nine years ago, that would have drifted into the clouds if Mr Morrison had said nothing.
Instead, he kicked up a fuss.
When Aly, in an emotional editorial after the Christchurch mosque massacre last Friday, noted reports that Scott Morrison once stood accused of seeking to “capitalise” on anti-Muslim sentiment, the Prime Minister’s chief media adviser called Network Ten to warn that the claims were “discredited” and “defamatory”.
Waleed: “So, when you raised those issues in that meeting, what did you say about them?”
PM Scott Morrison: “I was concerned that we needed to address them.”
— The Project (@theprojecttv) March 21, 2019
Aly’s heartfelt editorial so fascinated the public it has now been viewed more than 12 million times.
At issue were claims that Mr Morrison told the shadow cabinet in 2010, according to one unnamed source in The Sydney Morning Herald, that the Liberals should capitalise on anti-Muslim sentiment.
“We had all been asked to come up with potential issues we could run with. Scott said, ‘What are we going to do about multiculturalism? What are we going to do about concerns about the number of Muslims?’ He put it on the table like a dead cat,” the unnamed Liberal MP was quoted as saying.
On Sunday, The New Daily asked former and current cabinet ministers about that reported exchange. Three were prepared to go “on the record” with Peter Dutton, Greg Hunt and David Johnston insisting he never sought to “capitalise” on anti-Muslim sentiment. It later emerged Mr Hunt was not at the meeting.
In the meeting, Julie Bishop, Malcolm Turnbull and Philip Ruddock pointedly warned Mr Morrison that Australia had a non discriminatory immigration policy.
But did he raise it? Some ministers insist that he did. Others said he did raise it but not to “exploit it”, and this was “twisted” by colleagues in the room.
On Monday, it was reported by The New Daily that the Prime Minister’s office had a “furious” phone call with The Project over the claims.
When the Prime Minister was asked about that report at a media conference on Wednesday, he described Aly’s editorial as containing “a disgraceful smear and an appalling lie”.
He also confirmed he had no intention of filing a defamation suit.
“I have no intention of doing that, I just simply want people to report the truth,” Mr Morrison said.
But hang on, didn’t other ministers agree he had raised anti-Muslim sentiment in shadow cabinet? Why not just admit it?
When Mr Morrison was questioned as to whether he asked in the 2010 meeting “what are we going to do about multiculturalism” he shut down the question and abruptly ended the media conference.
“I’m going to stop you there. I’ve already addressed this issue today. It is an ugly and repugnant lie, I reject it absolutely 100 per cent and my record of working with the Muslim community in Sydney in particular speaks volumes for my track record. Any suggestion to the contrary, I find utterly offensive,” he said.
On Thursday, he finally confirmed that he had discussed these issues, but to “address them, not exploit them”.
The historical context to the original shadow cabinet leak was that moderates were furious that Mr Morrison had questioned the decision to fly asylum seekers to Christmas Island for the funerals of family who died in a boat tragedy.
Someone in the room was so incensed by Mr Morrison’s conduct in February 2011, that they leaked what happened in shadow cabinet in December 2010 to The Sydney Morning Herald‘s Lenore Taylor.
Whatever was said in that shadow cabinet room nine years ago, whatever his colleagues think he said, the Prime Minister clearly believes he is a man accused and convicted of a crime he never committed.
It’s also important to him that voters believe that.