The low-down on your new minister for public service

By Melissa Coade

Tuesday October 5, 2021

Ben Morton
Minister assisting the prime minister and cabinet Ben Morton said the report showed Australia had a ‘world-leading’ approach to regulation. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas

Ben Morton is one of the few Western Australian Liberal politicians in federal government and among Scott Morrison’s newest minted ministers — here’s everything you need to know about him.

The boy from Wyong who became Morrison’s biggest cheer-leader

When Morton delivered his maiden speech in the house of representatives five years ago (with Morrison sitting in front of his podium), he vowed to ‘repay the faith’ of the members of his electorate who had voted into elected office and acknowledged that the position he might take on issues may not always find consensus. 

The former bus driver and Howard government advisor, then aged 34, said that his political career was motivated by ‘hardworking, aspirational Australians’ who want to apply their own effort and succeed. He added that he hoped to inspire fellow Australians to overcome self-defeating beliefs and see a way to steer their own destiny

“I am here to help build an Australia that empowers people—an Australia that rewards individual and community effort,” Morton said.

“Sadly, in many parts of our country, the most significant limitation on an individual’s success is their ability to aspire and to believe that they can create their own future, and I am determined to change this.”

The WA seat of Tangney was the second tilt at federal politics for Morton, who attempted but failed to campaign for his home seat of Wyong in New South Wales in 2003. Morton was the director of the WA Liberal State Party Branch from 2008-2015.

Less than a year ago Scott Morrison elevated Morton — a known confidant to the pm — to serve as assistant minister for the public service, electoral matters, and to the prime minister and cabinet. 

Last week, in the prime minister’s second cabinet reshuffle for 2021, he chose to expand Morton’s portfolio responsibilities by making him a fully-fledged minister. While Morton is not a member of cabinet, the promotion also means the Australian Public Sector now has a minister to focus on its needs and reform.

A savvy social media operator who hates red tape and welfare rorts

A father of two and husband to Asta (a former electoral officer for Senator Linda Reynolds who currently works for the WA Chamber of Minerals and Energy), Morton’s months’ old Instagram account is curated with slick video footage promoting government messages including COVID-19 vaccination, the national strategy to prevent child sexual abuse and his prolific appearance in the newspapers (he regularly contributes opinion pieces for the West Australian). 

 

 
 
 
 
 
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A post shared by Ben Morton (@benmortonau)

Morton describes his family – primary producers who hailed from New South Wales and turned their hand to several industries in pulpwood, citrus and dairy – as ‘hardworking Australian’ business people guided by values of self-reliance and determination. He said his mother was a ‘ten-pound Pom’ who immigrated to Australia with her husband and children and embraced Australian values ‘while still remaining true to her northern English heritage’.

Morton grew up as a kid from Wyong on the NSW Central Coast and admits he was ‘not the most academic’ but always ‘wanted to revolutionise things’. He was one of the first in his family to attend university, graduating with a bachelor of arts from the Australian National University. 

He points to his experience attempting to qualify as a bus driver (but being knocked back from carrying passengers due to his youthful age at the time) as fuelling his ‘anger for needless complication and red tape’. 

The bureaucracy of the social welfare system in particular is a special pet peeve of the new minister, who said in his maiden speech that the legislation dealing with Australian welfare is dealt with under five acts exceeding 5,000 pages in total. The complexity of the system meant that taxpayer funded systems were being abused by some citizens who saw ‘the safety net as a hammock’, he added. 

“I hate waste and mismanagement and I hate needless complexity and regulation because the more complex something is the more expensive it is to administer,” Morton said. 

“I am a compassionate conservative and I am proud that Australia has a safety net to support those in need but, sadly, our welfare system fails many,” he went on, explaining that he did not consider taxpayer funded social security as a right but a privilege that should be afforded only to those in genuine need. 

“In too many cases taxpayer funded programs trap people who are otherwise able and willing to work.”

In his maiden speech, Morton also described the issue of teen suicide as life-shaping, with disturbing rumours of a pact among some of his peers to end their lives moving him to participate in representative forums where young voices on the issue could be heard. A youth suicide forum was convened with more than 200 local youths in attendance, and Morton says the event broke a ‘wall of silence on the issue’.

But Morton’s compassion for the down-trodden comes to a screeching halt for people he sees as rorting the welfare system. The scourge of addictive drug use, including dependency in Australia on crystal methamphetamine (more commonly known as ice), is something Morton views as ruining lives and in some cases further risks abuse of the welfare system.

The privilege of social security demands responsibility and obligation on the part of recipients, Morton said, adding that ‘working-age welfare should not be compensation for the situation someone finds themselves in’. 

“The success of our welfare system should not be assessed on how much money we spend. Success should be measured by the reduction of welfare dependency in our community,” Morton declared in his maiden speech, saying the solution to so many problems laid outside policy silos. 

“By using data, we will determine the real effectiveness of our welfare system and assess whether it is actually making lives better or making lives worse.”

Morton also endorsed the LNP government’s trial of a cashless welfare card in the East Kimberley and in Ceduna, arguing that the program should be rolled out to other communities with a view to ensuring that ‘the lazy application of cash’ is not expended on drugs or alcohol.

“If you loathe waste and mismanagement and you want your taxes spent responsibly, I am here for you,” Morton said. 

“[…] If you look forward not backwards and if you make a contribution to our nation’s future, I am here for you. And, if you want the very best for Australia, I am here for you.”

From 2004-2007 Morton worked as a federal government advisor under John Howard, at which time he returned to work as a bus driver before going on to become the state director of the Liberal Party in WA. He briefly worked for one of Australia’s largest home builders, BGC, as a senior manager before entering politics. 

Performance in government

In parliament, Morton has chaired the joint standing for electoral matters in the national capital and external territories (February 2017 to 1 July 2019). He also served on the standing committee for social policy and legal affairs (September 2016 to February 2017), and on the select committee on intergenerational welfare dependence (June 2018 to 2 April 2019).

According to The Guardian, Morton was linked to four clubs in his electorate of Tangney who were the recipients of a $38,800 Stronger Communities grants scheme. The scheme depends on local MPs to assist with deciding which groups are able to apply for the scheme. 

Morton told the paper that at the time the sporting clubs expressed interest in the grants and were considered for funding, he took steps to avoid any conflict (including choosing not to participate in any of the consultative committee’s deliberations).

The Vote For You platform run by nonpartisan independent OpenAustralia Foundation indicates that Morton has voted against increasing funding for university education, government action on animal and plant extinctions, assisting the arts sector through the COVID-19 pandemic, and a royal commission into violence and abuse against people with a disability. He has also opposed a federal anti-corruption commission.

He has not voted against his own party since 2016, and during his parliamentary career endorsed drug testing welfare recipients, increasing scrutiny of unions, establishing an Australian Building and Construction Commission, and privatising government services.

The minister was approached for an interview for this story but did not respond by the time of filing. 


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