Gladys Berejiklian Scott Morrison NSW COVID-19
Gladys Berejiklian and Scott Morrison (Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

Scott Morrison’s attempted political reset has moved to full-scale damage control after his start of the year speech at the National Press Club yesterday was hijacked by a text message bombshell. 

This morning, the prime minister dismissed the text as “scuttlebutt” — and several key NSW federal ministers denied being the minister who described him as a “complete psycho” to former NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian.

For her part, Berejiklian says she has no recollection of calling the PM a “horrible, horrible person”. But she has stopped short of denying it.

With the identity of the minister dominating political discussion — and shaping as distraction for a PM falling in the polls — Crikey joined the political whodunnit.

How it started

It all kicked off when Peter van Onselen, Ten’s embattled political editor, got up to question Morrison at the press club and read out a savage text exchange, allegedly between Berejiklian and the senior Liberal minister.

Morrison’s response was a quick denial: “I don’t know who you’re referring to or the basis of what you’ve put to me, but I obviously don’t agree with it, and I don’t think that’s my record.”

Van Onselen followed up with more text messages during the evening news, in which Berejiklian allegedly referred to Morrison as “obsessed with petty political point-scoring” while lives were at stake during the bushfires. According to the unnamed minister: “The mob have worked him [Morrison] out and think he’s a fraud.”

The fallout

Berejiklian was one of the first to comment on psycho-gate. Her comments were revealingly evasive.

“I understand there has been some commentary today concerning myself and the PM. I have no recollection of such messages,” she said.

“Let me reiterate my very strong support for Prime Minister Morrison and all he is doing for our nation during these very challenging times. I also strongly believe he is the best person to lead our nation for years to come.”

That tensions between Morrison and Berejiklian is hardly a new revelation. Their relationship always oscillated from frosty to begrudgingly collegial. But a minister mouthing off at Morrison was enough to deflect attention from his relatively meagre policy announcements, and dominate discussion of the press club address.

Morrison, meanwhile, hit the media rounds with gusto this morning and dismissed the revelations as pointless chatter, a distraction from his goal of getting unemployment down. At a press conference he said he was “not fussed” about getting his office to investigate the source of the leaks.

Meanwhile, NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet slammed the whole story as a “dark day for the media and politics”.

“To have news now reported from an unsubstantiated text message, I think, is terrible,” he said.

Liberals deny leaking

Morrison’s feigned uninterest hasn’t stopped the identity of the leaker becoming the subject of feverish rumour around Canberra. Initially van Onselen didn’t make it clear whether the minister was state or federal. 

Speaking to 2GB this morning, federal Liberal backbencher Jason Falinski said he was confident the leak came from Macquarie Street, rather than Canberra. 

“I just don’t believe it’s a federal minister,” he said. “I just don’t believe that story.”

He called for the leaker to resign if identified.

There was good reason to believe the messages might have come from a state minister. Relations between Morrison and the NSW government haven’t always been the best. Right now the stoush is over preselection battles, but the federal government has also frequently clashed with NSW Treasurer Matt Kean on climate as well as economic support during the pandemic.

Asked by 2GB’s Ben Fordham this morning if the texts were his doing, Kean said he “played no part in the ambush on the prime minister”.

Later this morning, on the triumphant radio rounds, van Onselen revealed the minister in question was federal, and said the texts were from the time of the bushfires — the last time Morrison’s approval ratings were as low as they are this week.

Crikey asked all NSW-based federal ministers about whether they’d sent the texts. A spokesperson for Communications Minister Paul Fletcher’s said he was not responsible for the texts. Energy Minister Angus Taylor’s office told Crikey he was “absolutely not” the person who leaked the email.

Environment Minister Sussan Ley said any suggestions she’d sent the texts were “outrageous, insulting and completely untrue”. Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne, who van Onselen mentioned in the preamble to his question, and is the most senior NSW moderate, said the claims had nothing to do with her.

“I have never had such an exchange with the former Premier, nor have I ever used such language, and nor did I leak messages, if indeed they are genuine. It is ludicrous to suggest otherwise,” Payne said.