Ready, Fire, Aim: PM’s Office Caught ‘Leaking’ Against NSW Libs, Conservative Journo Confirms

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The nation is still burning, people are still dying. Meanwhile, in Canberra, the Prime Minister’s office has begun privately briefing media to try and shift as much blame as possible for the unfolding bushfire crisis onto the NSW Liberal Government. Chris Graham reports.

A conservative press gallery journalist has revealed that senior figures in the Morrison Liberal government have begun ‘backgrounding’ media against the NSW Liberal government in an effort to ensure the Prime Minister is not blamed for bushfire crisis gripping the nation.

Of course, no-one is actually blaming Morrison for the fires, just for his and his government’s handling of the Commonwealth response. But for several weeks now, Morrison has lurched from PR disaster to PR public, beginning with his holiday in Hawaii and rounding out overnight with his (possibly illegal) political ads, which he linked to a Liberal Party fundraiser.

Or maybe rounding out this morning, when Morrison admitted in a press conference that there’d been a “communication breakdown”, which explained why the NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner had no idea the federal government had yesterday deployed thousands of Army reservists to fight the fires.

In any event, things have today gotten even worse for the embattled PM. Peter van Onselen – a Professor of Politics and Public Policy, a veteran of the Canberra press gallery, a long-term columnist for The Australian, and the political editor for Network 10 – sent out an explosive tweet overnight.

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“I kid you not, I can confirm the inner sanctum of Team Morrison are actively backgrounding media against the NSW Coalition government to try and make sure the PM doesn’t wear the blame for his handling of the fires. It’s extraordinary that is their focus at the moment! #auspol”

‘Backgrounding’ is when someone, usually a political adviser, provides information to a journalist which they can publish, but without attribution to a source. It is a standard practice in political reporting, although it’s routinely used by politicians and adviser to anonymously smear opponents, often within their own parties.

Earlier this morning, van Onselen continued to expand on his claims, naming and shaming at least one of the Morrison officials involved.

“Nice to see the PM complimenting the states for their efforts in this media conference. It’s a far cry from Team Morrison backgrounding against state premiers, close Morrison confidant David Gazard targeting the states for failures on his now deleted Facebook account etc etc…”

Gazard is a former adviser and press secretary to former Prime Minister John Howard, and Treasurer Peter Costello. He began his career as a journalist at News Corporation, and currently works as a lobbyist.

He was the failed candidate for the Liberals in the 2010 election, for the seat of Eden-Monaro, ironically the seat which takes in the South Coast of NSW, which has been hardest hit by the fires and which was the scene for this week’s public relations disaster for Scott Morrison.

Scott Morrison and adviser David Gazard, pictured in 2010.

Gazard performed poorly in the campaign, delivering a swing to Labor incumbent Mike Kelly of almost two percent, while Labor nationally suffered a swing against it of more than five percent.

van Onselen also directly called out the Prime Minister, in another tweet early this morning.

For close followers of politics, van Onselen has been one of the surprise ‘honest broker’ commentators in the press gallery during the bushfire crisis. Generally regarded as a ‘traditional conservative’, van Onselen has spent weeks criticising the Prime Minister for his handling of the crisis, both on his private Twitter account and in his professional writing and television commentary.

This morning, van Onselen was calling out the Prime Minister for his overnight foray into political advertising, a clear breach of the laws around the use of taxpayer funds.

He’s also spent much of the past few weeks live tweeting the PM’s press conferences, and calling out spin where he sees it, and revisiting the PM’s overseas holiday.

You can follow van Onselen’s Twitter account here. You can also catch him all next week, as guest host of Channel 10’s popular news program The Project.

And by way of brief update (1pm Sunday), here’s van Onselen’s last two weeks….

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Chris Graham

Chris Graham is the publisher and editor of New Matilda. He is the former founding managing editor of the National Indigenous Times and Tracker magazine. Chris has won a Walkley Award, a Walkley High Commendation and two Human Rights Awards for his reporting. He lives in Brisbane and splits his time between Stradbroke Island, where New Matilda is based, and the mainland.

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