Don Harwin, the retired NSW Liberal moderate and ally of Gladys Berejiklian, has a message for the political pundits: don’t write off Scott Morrison yet.
“I’ve known Scott Morrison for a very long time. I worked with him closely particularly back in 2003 during that state election campaign,” he says. “He will have a plan. He’ll be working to it. He’ll know he’ll be blown off course every now and then, but he knows what needs to be done in an election, and he’s run pretty good governance, and he’s entitled to be judged on his record of governing.”
As Harwin makes clear, he won’t be joining retiring Upper House MLC Catherine Cusack in condemning Morrison’s leadership and factional power games.
Former Liberal minister Don Harwin at the National Art School ArtBar & Kitchen. Credit:Sam Mooy
Asked if he would vote for Scott Morrison, yes or no, he doesn’t hesitate. “Yes.”
Has he witnessed any behaviour by Morrison that would justify an accusation of bullying? “No.”
Will Morrison win? “In terms of the polls, he’s more or less in the same place we were sitting three years ago. It will be fair to say the prime minister, having been in office longer, has a slightly harder road to hoe. But I think only a fool would write him off at this stage.”
It’s been two weeks since the MP farewelled the NSW Parliament, and two days since the former arts minister was named as a board member of the Australian Council for the Arts for a three-year term, among a rush of party appointments before the election.
Harwin takes his seat at the cafe at the National Arts School after his career swap. He is sporting a neat stubble beard and suit jacket with kerchief.
The NAS Art/Bar and Kitchen is a casual hangout for students and artists within the sandstone walls of the Old Darlinghurst Gaol. There is no menu to speak of – the eclectically decorated cafe serves barista coffee and largely vegetarian and vegan fare at student prices. Harwin orders a cappuccino.
The special of the day is a wholesome Mediterranean mezze plate with beetroot dip, pickles, sesame avocado, baked pumpkin, bocconcini, and warm pita bread, graced with a single lamb skewer hot off the grill. We both opt for it, perfect for a cold day.
The Mediterranean inspired mezze and lamb plate. Credit:Sam Mooy
“My life has been really changing quite dramatically since December when I ceased being a minister,” Harwin starts. “It seems my life has been in continual flux since then, and it hasn’t really settled down to know how it will be in the future. At home, I have unpacked boxes everywhere. I’m trying to work out how to fit 23 years of stuff I want to keep which filled two offices into one little house.”
Outside, rain falls in puddles around the former cell blocks that radiate from the watchtowers, while inside, knots of students talk volubly, oblivious to Harwin’s presence.
And yet, he is one of the reasons they are here. As a minister, he stood in the way of the site’s handover to the University of Western Sydney, drove its recognition as an organisation of state significance, alongside institutions such as Carriageworks and the Museum of Contemporary Art, and signed off on its 45-year lease. No longer did the art school have to go cap in hand to beg for annual funding. He also helped get its liquor licence.
Lunch at National art School’s ArtBar & Kitchen, 156 Forbes St, Darlinghurst
In its 100th year, the art school’s multi-stage masterplan awaits budget approval, filed under unfinished business, along with Harwin’s plans for a CBD theatre district and the acquisition of the art deco Roxy Parramatta and Minerva theatres.
His five years as arts minister were transformational – Harwin delivered record capital works spending for the Australian Museum ($50.5 million), Powerhouse at Ultimo ($480-$500 million), Sydney Modern ($240 million) and Walsh Bay Arts Precinct ($370 million), and saved the Theatre Royal.
But they were not without controversy. Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s Emma Dunch resigned in December claiming she was subject to a “politically architected ‘hit job’ of the highest order” following a series of media leaks. Harwin said he had no hand in them. He was criticised in a report by the auditor-general which examined the $100 million Regional Cultural Fund.
While grant-making was “robust and produced transparent and defensible recommendations” Harwin and Coalition deputy leader John Barilaro were found not to have followed independent recommendations in more than a fifth of the cases, compromising the integrity of the process.
Harwin insists the spending was justified, with much of the money reallocated to smaller facilities and volunteer-run museums in regions like Lockhart, Binnaway, and Kyogle during the COVID-19 economic downturn.
“They didn’t rate so highly with the peer assessors but in fact they are damn good projects. I think if I’d explained it, if I’d given written reasons for why I did it, a lot of this criticism would have been avoided, but I was advised not to by [the NSW government’s arts agency] Create NSW.”
In his new life, Harwin does not miss the bells of Parliament summonsing members to vote, nor the rough and tumble of political life.
“Politics is a contact sport, and it can get pretty rough,” he says. “Behaviour that most workplaces would regard as unacceptable is just a fact of life. One of the truisms of political life was spoken by Winston Churchill, ‘The opposition occupies the benches in front of you, but the enemy sits behind you’. Someone reinterpreted that as, ‘In politics, if you want a friend get a dog’. Even those who come closest to you in terms of thinking within your party can actually be your bitterest rivals. Because after all, they are after the same thing.”
Harwin doesn’t own a dog and doesn’t say who or what he might be referring to. His forced resignation from cabinet in 2020 when police charged him with travelling from Sydney to his second home of Pearl Beach in breach of lockdown orders was an early warning of shifting political loyalties. He was reinstated three months later when the Director of Public Prosecutions withdrew the charge.
Don Harwin opening the Theatre Royal in November 2021, saved from becoming a food court. Credit:Edwina Pickles
“I now look back on that whole episode as my practice run at retirement,” he says, chiding the Herald for its publication of a photograph showing him buying a birthday present for his elderly father before lockdown. Regrets? He says he has none. “If you get consumed with regrets or the need to pursue vendettas it just takes years off your life. I’ve never done that.”
Harwin made special mention of his parents, pillars of the Anglican church watching in the public gallery, in his March 22 valedictory speech farewelling a 23-year parliamentary career. They were the reason he took up public life.
“I know you worried that politics would crush me,” he said in Parliament. “It was not easy for you, particularly so soon after I came out to you, but your prayers have always been stronger than the efforts of the haters that have tried to drag me down.”
Harwin’s interest in politics began at the University of Sydney studying law and economics and sparring on Student Representative Council with the likes of Labor’s Anthony Albanese. He ventured into the Young Liberals movement, becoming its state president from 1988 to 1990.
As an adviser to Peter Collins, Harwin interviewed a young Armenian woman for a part-time role in the Willoughby electorate office. After Gladys Berejiklian joined the Young Liberals in 1996 Harwin says he cleared the way for her to obtain the state presidency, before her preselection to the once blue-ribbon seat in 2003.
Midway through lunch he picks up his phone prompted by a social media news ping. Premier Dominic Perrottet is quoted as describing the long-running internal Liberal battle over federal preselection as a “debacle” for the party. “No comment,” says Harwin when asked for his opinion.
In 1999 Harwin entered Parliament with only one other Liberal newbie, Daryl Maguire, the new member for Wagga Wagga. At the first party meeting after the Liberal’s election drubbing, then-leader Kerry Chikarovski welcomed Maguire but not Harwin.
It was at that point he says he realised he needed to win party respect, and put together Shelly Hancock’s 2003 campaign to win back the seat of South Coast from Labor, the only electorate the party won from a Labor sitting member between 1991 and 2011. Harwin became president of the Legislative Council on the election of the O’Farrell government in 2011 and was elevated to the ministry in 2017. He made way for new faces in Dominic Perrottet’s new ministerial team in December, having read the writing on the wall.
And, no, he says he did he know about the affair between Berejiklian and Maguire which landed both before the Independent Commission Against Corruption. “Stuuuunnnnned,” was his reaction to the news, and he takes no further questions about his friendship with Berejiklian.
Harwin came out in 2014 while president of the Upper House but had already made it clear to the party room that he would reserve his right to cross the floor on matters of conscience, voting to equalise the age of consent, on adoption rights and other matters benefiting the LGBT communities. He had come out 20 years before to his family.
“I’m from a very religious family, and it took some time for my parents to get used to it. Having done what I did in 1994 it ended up bringing us a lot closer.”
The affirmative vote on marriage equality was an “extraordinary moment for me” but marriage has “passed me by”. “My life has largely been dedicated to my career, and I’ve very much put my personal life at a distant second.”
Harwin is an avid collector of art, a frequent attendee of NAS graduate shows, concerts and opera. He’s feted by the likes of Archibald prize winner Ben Quilty, who regards Harwin as by far “the best minister for arts in my lifetime”. A reversal of government plans to relocate the Powerhouse Museum to the Parramatta riverfront has muffled but not extinguished criticism of the project, inside and outside of Parliament.
As minister, he was a low profile donor not a subscriber to arts companies, but that will change as he pursues additional industry and superannuation board positions.
On the parliamentary register his interests are listed as political history, psephology (there is little he doesn’t know about voting patterns and elections), film and, surprisingly, rugby league. His grandfather Tom Killiby was a foundation player for the St George Dragons.
“Rugby league is pretty much a second religion in my mother’s family, and it would be fair to say I’m not as fanatical as I was.” He doesn’t play. “It’s fair to say I’ve never excelled at any sport.”
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