Scott Morrison’s Liberal Party machine man

But the same person, a factional opponent, has grudging respect for Hawke’s persistence. “[Labor’s] Graham Richardson has nothing on Alex Hawke, ”he says. “Alex would circumnavigate the moon if it got him a vote.”

It’s a common sentiment. Former federal Liberal MP Ross Cameron, one of Hawke’s first bosses, praises his abilities but questions his motives. “He’s highly skilled in the ancient art of the back room. The elevation of Morrison over Dutton was a work of tactical genius, ”Cameron says.

“But he’s a guy who is absolutely mesmerized by the transactional elements of politics and power. He’s just cut adrift from any kind of philosophical ballast. ”

As leader of the moderates, NSW Treasurer Matt Kean is one of Hawke’s main factional rivals. But from one numbers man to another, his admiration for Hawke’s capabilities is genuine.

“Alex and I have been the closest of friends and the fiercest of rivals,” Kean says. “Notwithstanding some of our differences, he is easily the best political tactician that I’ve come across. He’s ruthlessly effective. ” Why is that? “You can always do business with Alex Hawke.”

Alex Hawke at a press conference in Canberra on Wednesday.

Alex Hawke at a press conference in Canberra on Wednesday.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

And in rare public comments, moderate Liberal powerbroker and lobbyist Michael Photios – who once had an alliance with Hawke and was in business with his factional co-founder Nick Campbell – says Hawke was above all things “a masterful political strategist”.

“His personal ambition and ambition for his faction sits alongside his ideology and values, and is a central feature of his success to date,” Photios says. “He’s a very ambitious political player, but who does not want to succeed in the federal arena? For my part I have always believed a bit of ego and ambition on the part of politicians goes with the territory – and Alex has both. ”

Hawke’s first rise occurred during the Howard government’s fourth and final term; those heady days that followed John Howard’s stomping victory over Mark Latham before it was all lost to the hubris of WorkChoices and the juggernaut of Kevin Rudd.

In early 2005, writer Chloe Hooper visited the federal Young Liberal convention in Hobart for a lengthy essay in The Monthly magazine called “Young Libs in the Chocolate Factory”, which is still infamous in Young Liberal circles. A 27-year-old Hawke, elected president at that convention, is a key character. Among a slew of reactionary remarks about welfare, he told Hooper there was no stolen generation and historian Keith Windschuttle “has got it exactly right”.

In a telling observation, the young Hawke said that while he wanted to be influential in Australian politics, he did not necessarily need to be elected. “In fact, in some ways it’s more fun on the outside. It gives you more power, ”he said.

Alex Hawke, age 26, as president of the NSW Young Liberals in 2004.

Alex Hawke, age 26, as president of the NSW Young Liberals in 2004.Credit:Edwina Pickles

Hawke ended up entering the Federal Parliament two years later at the same election as Morrison. And just like Morrison in Cook, Hawke’s entry into the Hills District seat of Mitchell – one of the safest Liberal electorates in the country – was controversial. He challenged the sitting member of 33 years, Alan Cadman, who quit the preselection contest when it became clear he did not have the numbers. Hawke defeated David Elliott, now NSW Transport Minister, 81 votes to 20 for the nomination.

Cadman publicly savaged Hawke, accusing him of relentless branch stacking, and in a familiar refrain remarked: “It’s about personal cult following. It’s about … power for the sake of power. ” Contacted for this story, Cadman, now 84, says he and Hawke have buried the hatchet.

Of the four MPs Morrison is often described as being closest to – Hawke, Ben Morton, Steve Irons and Stuart Robert – only Hawke is from the Prime Minister’s home state. They also share a strong and similar faith; raised Anglican, Hawke now attends Hillsong Church.

He spent his first two terms in Parliament on the opposition backbench, during which time one of his notable contributions was a remarkable campaign against his own leader Tony Abbott’s paid parental leave policy. In a piece for the Institute of Public Affairs, Hawke invoked his enduring loathing of Malcolm Fraser (Hooper’s essay documents him thumping the podium, demanding Fraser be expelled from “our party”) to condemn the PPL scheme as unaffordable, unfair and ill-suited to the Liberal agenda.

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“A future Coalition government must heed the lessons of the Fraser government and focus on tackling the major economic challenges of our time, not continuing Labor’s expansion of the welfare state,” Hawke wrote.

Needless to say when Abbott won the election later that year, Hawke did not have a place on the frontbench: that would have to wait until Turnbull’s ascent in 2015. At that point Hawke became assistant minister to Morrison as treasurer, then to Peter Dutton as immigration minister and in home affairs.

Hawke has never explained the specifics of his role in Turnbull’s downfall and Morrison’s rise. In 2019 the Herald‘s Peter Hartcher reported that Morrison’s “numbers men” had organized for five MPs to vote for Dutton in that week’s first ballot, the one that fatally wounded Turnbull – parking their votes with Dutton to weaken Turnbull and later install Morrison.

In his memoir, Turnbull accuses Hawke and fellow Morrison ally Stuart Robert of organizing those votes. He also writes that one of Morrison’s mates outside Parliament, Scott Briggs, had told him before the ballot that Hawke was “trying to restrain” some of Morrison’s supporters from moving against him. Turnbull declined to comment for this article.

As Prime Minister, Morrison promoted Hawke to Special Minister of State – a behind-the-scenes portfolio if ever there was one – and then Immigration Minister, a role Morrison later elevated to cabinet level. It’s one of Morrison’s former portfolios and one in which he remains invested.

Hawke’s handling of the evacuation and resettlement of Afghan nationals from Kabul after the Taliban’s advance has been widely praised – and not just in his own party. Independent MP Zali Steggall was complimentary, and retired soccer player turned human rights activist Craig Foster, who worked closely with Hawke during the evacuations, is effusive.

“Alex and his office staff did an outstanding job in difficult circumstances during the chaotic days of the Kabul withdrawal,” he says. “They worked with a range of political and community stakeholders to facilitate emergency visas to allow us to move forward quickly in a critical situation, and he has my enduring thanks for being committed to a safe resolution for them all.”

Foster says his disagreements with Hawke on immigration policy are well known – notably on the Tamil family from Biloela, who Hawke could free from community detention in Perth. “But Alex has my thanks for his role in evacuations of many people who are safe today, including the Afghan women’s national football team,” he says.

Former Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack, of the Nationals, says Hawke pulled an all-nighter to get as many people out of Kabul as possible as the situation deteriorated. “That to me really spoke volumes about him,” McCormack says. “Alex really takes his job seriously. I’ve heard from other colleagues who share my view, who say he’s as good as we’ve had in the role. “

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McCormack says there is another side to the machine man that the public would not often get the chance to observe. Last Thursday evening, after a grueling parliamentary sitting week, they spoke for 40 minutes about an immigration matter involving a family wishing to settle in McCormack’s Riverina region.

“He knew the case back to front. Not because he had an adviser shove it under his face five minutes earlier, but because he cared, ”McCormack says.

“You’re going to have those numbers people in political parties, rightly or wrongly. I suppose you’d regard him as a bit of a political animal. He’s come up through the system. [But] if you know him from the point of view that I do, what you have is a very understanding and compassionate person. ”

Hawke re-entered the public gaze this week at the helm of an immigration bill that expands the government’s ability to deport foreign-born criminals convicted of serious offenses, even when a judge has found the circumstances warranted a lesser sentence.

In the House: Alex Hawke, Minister for NDIS and Government Services Stuart Robert, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton and Scott Morrison.

In the House: Alex Hawke, Minister for NDIS and Government Services Stuart Robert, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton and Scott Morrison.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Dismissing concerns of the legal fraternity, Hawke was typically blunt. “Lawyers are part of the problem in this system,” he told the ABC. “They go and represent some pretty serious criminals. These are not Australians, these are not people who should have a right to be in Australia. ”

Hawke has also come under increased scrutiny because of his role as Morrison’s representative on the NSW Liberal Party’s executive committee, and its failure to select candidates for key winnable seats ahead of the federal election. People who were frustrated last year are now livid; the party’s best hope for Warringah, barrister Jane Buncle, grew sick of waiting to be endorsed and quit.

Under party rules, nominations for a seat can only be reviewed by a meeting of four officials; the state director, the party president, the head of the seat’s local conference and the Prime Minister’s representative. Hawke has been accused of stonewalling the process for several seats.

Many Liberals believe Hawke and Morrison have been delaying the process deliberately to justify intervening and installing their preferred candidates – with a significant number convinced it is Hawke driving the bus rather than Morrison. The closer the election, the more pressure to end the impasse and do what the Prime Minister wants.

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Crucially, Hawke himself is one of three federal MPs from NSW facing preselection challenges for their own seats, along with Sussan Ley and Trent Zimmerman. Many Liberals interviewed for this story noted the irony: an exemplar of machine politics effectively losing control of the numbers in his own seat.

This week, the Liberal Party’s federal executive, led by Morrison, formally gave the NSW division 10 days to endorse candidates in those three seats and clarify their executive team’s eligibility to serve beyond February 28, or face a federal takeover. It’s the first step towards an outcome many suspect Morrison and Hawke wanted to engineer all along.

Hawke’s behavior in these internal shenanigans has also been called into question. In 2020 Sally Betts, a moderate faction member of the state executive, accused Hawke of “appalling behavior”, including making derogatory remarks about others present at a meeting. Betts made the complaint in an email to party president Philip Ruddock which she copied to other officials and federal Labor MP Linda Burney, and the email was revealed by the Herald at the time.

Contacted this week, Betts said: “I do not think his behavior has improved since then. He’s created a culture of bad behavior. Whether you like us or not, we got elected to the committee and I think we should be treated with respect. I’m disappointed, especially after my letter, that that level of respect and courtesy, that way of debating, has not improved. ”

Hawke declined to be interviewed for this story, as did several others including his former boss and ally David Clarke and former state Liberal leader John Brogden. In a demonstration of the passionate rhetoric Hawke seems to inspire among his critics, one Liberal who did not want to be identified says: “He’s not lord of the flies, he’s lord of the candidates who are dropping like flies.”

For now, Hawke remains a powerful figure in the internal machinations of the Liberal Party. But his fate is largely tied to Morrison’s. If the Coalition loses this election, Hawke may find himself, at 44, once again considering the appeal of a career on the outside.

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