Scott Morrison leaks revealed: A leader deciding to ‘up the ante with Beijing’

Photo: AAP

Scott Morrison has been warned not to disclose information that might “undermine national security and the integrity of the Cabinet process” after the release of a book presenting an insiders’ view of how he handled COVID-19.

Cabinet Secretary and Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus wrote to Mr Morrison on Monday, expressing concern over apparent “extensive disclosures” in the book Plagued by Simon Benson and Geoff Chambers.

“Disclosures of Cabinet discussions and deliberations undermine Cabinet confidentiality and solidarity,” Mr Dreyfus wrote.

What was leaked?

Leaks from Cabinet are not unheard of in Canberra.

But Mr Drefyus’s letter zeroes in on instances of apparent leaks from the National Security Committee (NSC) which receives highly classified material and briefings, and is usually above the partisan day-to-day fray.

The book mentions the committee 15 times in its index, most of which includes information that came before it or the contents of its discussions.

Only in May, Morrison was denying talking about meetings of that committee, after a separate story cast the former cabinet in an unfavourable light by suggesting it had turned down a policy proposal to spend more money countering China in the Pacific.

“The members of my national security committee are very, very tight,” he said.

“I don’t discuss things … that are addressed and worked through a national security committee.”

The leaks suggest Mr Morrison was very concerned about China, with direct quotes from the former PM representing a substantial portion of the material in the book.

He expresses concerns that would move the government to call for an inquiry into the origins of COVID-19, a diplomatic affront that drew retaliatory economic sanctions from Australia’s largest trading partner.

Accelerating tensions

In an establishing scene, the book says the national security implications of COVID-19 are laid out for the first time at an April 6 meeting of the sub-committee: “The pandemic would accelerate strategic tensions in the region. China could be expected to make the most of the situation.”

Mr Morrison establishes himself as equal to the task having just told colleagues: “We will cop some pain, but we can’t let it undermine our national security.”

Strident language

On the morning of April 20, readers are told, Mr Morrison had decided to “up the ante with Beijing” and in what the book says was a “decisive moment” told the committee “the time had come for Australia to be more strident in its language about China’s conduct”.

The NSC met virtually and was provided with an oral update on the latest Chinese-sponsored cyber activity. Morrison, acting as commander in chief, gave a sweeping interpretation of the brief, telling his most senior minsters that Australia’s democracy was being ‘infiltrated’ and that it had to be resisted. ‘We need multiple points of pushback on this increasing aggression,’ he told them. 

Changed game

A subsequent leak concerned both the full NSC and the National Security Committee’s COVID group – a slimmed-down security meeting that dealt only with COVID-related issues.

“There is no more serious issue facing the NSC,” he told them. “Our relationship with China and the deterioration of the wider strategic situation is the biggest challenge in a generation.”

He used the 1930s as an analogy. Having chosen to defend its national interests and sovereignty, Australia had to accept that this was a long-term campaign. “We can’t be naive,’ Morrison told them. “The game has changed in the past five years.”

Warnings realised

One of the book’s main supporting characters is Andrew Shearer, a Liberal Party staffer and strident China critic who was Mr Morrison’s cabinet secretary early in his prime ministership.

Mr Shearer was soon promoted to become Australia’s top spook, or the head of the Office of National Intelligence when he gave the former PM information about the impending invasion of Ukraine, classified intelligence that is included in the book.

“Morrison himself wasn’t caught by surprise,” readers are told of the invasion of Ukraine by Russia in February. The former PM had received a briefing from Mr Shearer one month earlier that such an invasion was now probable.

Morrison was among the first leaders to draw China into a nexus of Russian aggression with Beijing’s refusal to condemn the invasion. His prior warnings about the emerging threats to global democracy were realised with the sound of cannon fire and missile strikes over Eastern Europe.

More than two years earlier, he had cautioned that western democracies and the freedoms they upheld were being challenged in a way that had not been experienced since the Cold War. He had informed G7 leaders about China’s behaviour and he had warned Trump personally against a détente with Putin. 


Mr Morrison previously said the book’s contents were based on contemporaneous interviews given to the authors in the “middle of the tempest”.

“It certainly appears to reveal information that was, until revealed, Cabinet materials and would ordinarily be protected under the principle of Cabinet confidentiality,” the acting deputy secretary of the prime minister’s department, John Reid told Senate estimates last month.

But Mr Reid also noted that previous leaders have released information from Cabinet meetings.

The government conceded on Monday that there was no obligation on Mr Morrison to respond to the letter but the AFP did not respond to an emailed question asking if it had received any referrals on the leaks.

The New Daily contacted Mr Morrison for comment.

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