PM and Waleed’s fiery exchange
"Does the Liberal Party have a problem with Islamophobia?"
This was Waleed Aly's opening shot at Scott Morrison - and it set the tone for a tense and fiery 30-minute interview between the pair.
In a special, commercial-free live interview on tonight's episode of The Project, the Prime Minister looked frustrated as he went head-to-head with Aly on a range of issues.
Over the course of the live interview, Mr Morrison talked over Aly, dodged questions numerous times and scoffed in the interviewer's face.
He denied that his party had a poor track record with engaging Australian Muslims, rejected claims that he urged his party to capitalise on Islamophobia in 2011, and refused to rule out preferencing One Nation last at the federal election.
ON ISLAMOPHOBIA IN THE LIBERAL PARTY
Aly hit Mr Morrison with a string of questionable actions by his own party members towards Muslims, naming Tony Abbott, George Christensen and Peter Dutton as among those who had previously made Islamophobic comments and endorsed far-right rallies and commentators.
But Mr Morrison denied the Liberal Party had a problem with Muslims. "I don't know if Australians understand Islam very well … and that can often lead to a fear of things you don't understand," the Prime Minister said.
"In politics I think it's important that we have disagreements but I wish we could disagree better."
Asked again whether the Liberals had a problem with Islamophobia, he said the party was "made up of a lot of individuals … and they have a lot of opinions".
Mr Morrison, in turn, accused Aly of implying that "Muslims couldn't feel safe because they had a Prime Minister who had somehow been prejudiced against them" during his emotional monologue on the night of the Christchurch shootings.
"That's not the implication I was making," Aly responded.
ON CLAIMS MORRISON WANTED TO 'CAPITALISE' ON ISLAMOPHOBIA
The conversation then turned to a Sydney Morning Herald report from 2011 quoting unnamed sources to the effect that Mr Morrison "urged the shadow cabinet to capitalise on the electorate's growing concerns about 'Muslim immigration', 'Muslims in Australia' and the 'inability' of Muslim migrants to integrate".
"You called it a smear and a lie," Aly said. "Who's lying?"
Mr Morrison responded: "I can only say anyone who may have told the journalist the smear in that way. There were a number of people in that meeting who have gone on the record to support that that didn't happen."
Mr Morrison said he did discuss Muslim immigration in that shadow cabinet meeting, but denied it was in the context of capitalising on community fears. "I was acknowledging that there were those fears in the community and we had to address them - not exploit them," he said.
"What I'm saying is that I was concerned about those fears in the community and that it has always been my practice outside the Parliament and inside the Parliament to address those.
"The report is so at odds with my experience and actions and I think that speaks for itself."
ON PREFERENCING ONE NATION
The one question Mr Morrison couldn't answer was whether he would preference One Nation below Labor and the Greens at the next election.
Mr Morrison repeatedly responded that he would "not be doing any deals with One Nation".
But Aly insisted that wasn't his question, restating that he wanted to know if the Liberal Party would put One Nation last.
He noted that One Nation leader Pauline Hanson had previously called Islam a "disease that needs to be vaccinated".
Aly suggested it would be a "strong act of leadership" for the Prime Minister to confirm he wouldn't preference the party ahead of Labor or the Greens.
Mr Morrison refused to do so. "All I'm saying at this stage is that we'll never do a preference deal with One Nation and we'll settle on everything else at the time of nominations closing," Mr Morrison said.
ON RHETORIC AROUND ASYLUM SEEKERS
Aly also asked Mr Morrison whether he thinks it's a "problem" to talk about asylum seekers through the "prism of them possibly being rapists, murderers and pedophiles".
"That's only relevant if it's in cases we're talking about - that it's what is known about the actual individual," replied Mr Morrison. "We're not going to sugercoat to the public the implications of laws passing parliament."
Aly hit back saying he was asking whether the Prime Minister believes it's acceptable to "frontfoot that description" when there are "so few of them in that category".
Mr Morrison addressed the medivac bill in response, saying, "You've got to be honest with people... if a bill that was put forward and supported by the Labor Party was going to create risks for managing the transfer of people in the community, I'm not going to say those risks do't exist. There are real risks. There are very real risks."
However, when repeatedly asked by Aly to clarify how many murderers, rapists and pedophiles were known among that group, Mr Morrison couldn't give specific numbers.
"I know there's a number, I don't have that number," Mr Morrison said, although he did claim there were "close to 60" with "serious character concerns".
He instead accused Aly of "sugercoating" the issue. "You're saying there was no risk. There was risk."
At the end of the interview, Mr Morrison said Australia was "the best immigration nation of any country on earth" and that he "wants it to stay that way", regardless of anyone's "race, ethnicity or religion".
PM SLAMMED FOR 'AGGRESSIVE' BEHAVIOUR
Many on social media did not take kindly to the Prime Minister's conduct during the interview, saying he had an "aggressive" attitude and came off as a "bully" through his body language.
Aggressive, talking around questions, arrogant, bemused: if he loses the election, the Project interview will become part of Scott Morrison’s legacy. It will be a quintessential part of how he is remembered, for however long that memory may be.— brad esposito 🍃 (@bradesposito) March 21, 2019
Astounded by #theproject interview between Waleed & @ScottMorrisonMP. PM has no gravitas, no authenticity & is so achingly thin skinned I don't know how he has survived in politics. If he hadn't already he just lost Libs the election. They're anachronistic in such a damning way.— Corinne Grant (@corinne_grant) March 21, 2019
Waleed was cool, calm and collected, came with facts and had prepared probing questions. From the other side we got bluster, arrogance, constant interruptions of the interviewer, and rambling, sometimes incoherent, “stories” and a whole lot of smirking. #TheProjectTV #TheProject— Lauren Hill (@lozzhill) March 21, 2019
Aside from his body language, his refusal to commit to preferencing One Nation last that sparked a strong response on Twitter.
This was a key test, on national television, for Morrison to stamp his foot down re: flirting with One Nation and putting them last on HTV cards. He's failed abysmally #auspol @theprojecttv https://t.co/xXVhJksjA3— Kemal Atlay (@kemal_atlay) March 21, 2019
However, Mr Morrison did win some praise for agreeing to appear on the show in the first place.
Good on ScoMo for doing this - it’s certainly walking into hostile territory.— MortyAU (@MortyAU) March 21, 2019
Agree or not with his politics, it’s good to see a pollie taking a hard interview