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PM Scott Morrison wisely holds back after Anzac slur by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Scott Morrison has adopted a simple motto since becoming Prime Minister: “Don’t hasten to failure.”

It seems an obvious and elementary maxim, but it is an important guide for instinctive politicians like Morrison.

His inclination is to go with his gut. As a minister, he was often persuaded by reflex, sometimes to his detriment.

As Prime Minister, he is learning quickly that instinct is a good primary guide but it needs to be tempered first by a clear understanding of consequence.

Morrison’s response to the incendiary threats from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan this week showed he is learning to engage the wisdom of that new dictum at crucial times.

Foreign affairs officials called the Prime Minister’s office late on Tuesday, the moment the post in Ankara had warned them of Erdogan’s spray.

I’m told Morrison’s initial reaction was to hit back strongly. He was angered by the threats. Who wouldn’t be? He wanted to show Erdogan in no uncertain terms that Australia will not tolerate leaders who threaten our lives.

The instinctive response would have been to make a captain’s call there and then, turfing out the Turkish ambassador, recalling ours and igniting a full-scale diplomatic war.

Instead, he hit the phones. That swift but extensive process of consultation opened a window on his developing approach to leadership.

One of the first people he called was Angus Campbell, the chief of the defence force, a man whose counsel Morrison places in the highest regard.

The safety and security of the thousands of Australians about to embark on the annual “pilgrimage” to Gallipoli was at the front of their minds.

And the serrated symbolism of Erdogan delivering his threatening tirade in a mass rally at Canakkale, the traditional staging area for expeditions to Anzac Cove, wasn’t lost on them.

Morrison had a similar conversation with AFP Commissioner Andrew Colvin, adding his counsel to Campbell’s on the security implications of the various diplomatic and political responses he had at his disposal.

In the hours before his midday news conference on Wednesday, Morrison also spoke with a range of Turkish and other Muslim leaders he’d built relationships with in the immigration portfolio.

They included Dr Jamal Rifi, one of the leading figures in the reconciliation efforts after the Cronulla race riots which erupted in Morrison’s Sydney electorate of Cook two years before his time as local member.

Another was the chairman of SBS, Dr Has Delal, a long-time leading figure in multi- cultural and multi-faith organisations.

There were many more calls, including to Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Defence Minister Christopher Pyne, but the counsel had a common theme.

The main objective had to be to bring the temperature down.

Any escalation of tensions would risk increasing the security risk for Australians at Gallipoli and elsewhere in Turkey.

As much as the Turkish community leaders had assured Morrison that Erdogan’s inflammatory rhetoric was rejected by their members here, it was the impact it could have in stirring anti-Australian sentiment among violent extremists inside Turkey that was the main problem.

Morrison described the threats as ‘highly offensive, highly reckless’ and ‘an insult to the memory of Anzac’. Strong words.

Morrison hauled in the Turkish ambassador to give him the rounds of the kitchen in private. One observer at that meeting told me: “The PM gave him a nice old roasting.”

But he stopped short of taking punitive diplomatic action, at least for now, giving Erdogan time to “clarify or withdraw” his comments.

At his news conference, Morrison described the threats as “highly offensive, highly reckless” and “an insult to the memory of Anzac”.

Strong words.

He then declared that “all options” were on the table. Asked to clarify what “all options” meant, he said it meant “all options”. That was an overreach. His office scrambled to assure journalists he’d meant all “diplomatic” options, not economic or military. That was a diversion from this motto. A case of words used in haste.

But the balance of tough talk and restrained action seems to have had the desired effect.

Erdogan has begun to pull back. He now claims he’s been “taken out of context” — the popular excuse of leaders who can’t bring themselves to admit they’ve stuffed up.

There are other lessons from this, too. An image of Senator Fraser Anning was flashed on the big screen alongside Erdogan while he was in mid-rant.

The accompanying text told the crowd that he was the “racist” who’d blamed Muslims for their own deaths in Christchurch, implying that this was the general view held by Australians.

It shows, as if we needed to be reminded, that nothing is said in isolation in the internet age of instant worldwide communications. The worst utterances of the most egregious knuckleheads can be weaponised to unfairly damage our international image.

One senior government official quipped that maybe we should send Anning as a special envoy to meet Erdogan: “They deserve each other.”

But perhaps it would be best if we don’t hasten to failure on that one.

Mark Riley is the Seven Network’s Political Editor. He is the 2018 Walkley Award winner for commentary writing.

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