Scott Morrison may have surrendered the election this week. In a speech meant to reset the government's path to victory in May, he effectively permissioned Labor to claim that the election would be a referendum on pandemic management, particularly over the past few months. He made it virtually certain that the focus of the campaign will be on the past, rather than the future, because he doesn't have a future to describe. And he left open a more fundamental issue - his own character, his personal record, and his fitness for the task of leading Australia over the next three years.
Each of the consequences was the exact opposite of what his speech had intended. He had reviewed his government's management of the pandemic, and awarded himself high marks with some allowances for mistakes. But he did it only to make the issue a general non-event. He created mini-narratives to show himself as listening and forward-thinking - bonuses for full-time aged-care workers working in an industry dominated by casuals, Band-Aids on the Great Barrier Reef, incentives for entrepreneurs trying to develop their high-technology ideas, and the hope, as he put it, of having an unemployment rate with a 3 in front of it. Having raised such aspirations, he pretended they were, in effect, already achieved, just like his projected budget surplus for the year ahead just before the last election. Here, we were being invited to say, was a dynamic man with a plan.
But by the time his performance was over, he had failed to put the past into a comfy coffin, or to do anything much to paint a rosy picture of the future, or to turn the agenda on to both the shortcomings of Anthony Albanese and the Labor Party or his party's sterling qualities, including his own leadership, and the calibre of his ministers. By default - or by his incapacity to close any of his sales - he made himself, his performance and his record - all matters of the past - the glittering things voters were being asked to admire. None are strong selling points - least of all from a spruiker who can no longer seem to make luck or words work for him.
He could blame only himself by becoming bogged down by questions about apologising for his own actions or omissions, or simply regretting they occurred. Combative non-answers, at this point, are code words for "yes". Likewise with his customary prevarication, evasions and refusal to give ground on other questions, and with his setting the stage for blaming any failings of the campaign against COVID on the federal Health Department (he thinks he should have had the ADF involved from the start). In due course, depending on where he is and what is currently happening with virus variants that are hard to predict, we can confidently expect he will also blame state health departments, premiers and chief ministers, and even some carefully chosen scapegoat federal ministers, in efforts to deflect blame from himself.
Only a complete makeover (Scott not being Scott) and a new frankness and directness with voters could make a difference now. I doubt he has it in him.
The mongrel question came at the end. Morrison was asked to comment on remarks attributed to former NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian in a text to a Liberal minister saying that Morrison was a horrible, horrible man, given to seeing matters only in party-partisan terms. An exchange, going back to the bushfire times (when Morrison had openly clashed with Berejiklian) to which the unnamed Liberal minister had responded by suggesting that Morrison was "psycho". In politics, one hears worse, in strictly off-the-record observations, whoever the leader might be. But this was, or was said to be, an exchange evidenced in text, deliberately leaked at the worst possible moment so as to humiliate and embarrass a leader in trouble with his party and the electorate. It was a hit job, consciously timed, and an epic piece of bastardry, deliberately designed to shake and undermine confidence in his leadership. It was playing with his head. Morrison may have a tough hide, not to mention the capacity to shrug off bitter attacks. But he knows when his enemies are manoeuvring, and that most of his enemies are behind him, not in the other party he is facing in the House of Representatives.
The NSW Liberal Party is in a very embarrassing factional war, not only about which candidates should represent the party at the next federal election, (and even the state election that follows after). Morrison has always been an intense player in the party power struggles of his home state, not least from the time that he was the party's state director, and his personal coup in snatching a preselection after the chosen candidate was anonymously defamed. The allegations, leaked to a newspaper which will always do the Liberal Party machine a favour, were false, but able to be refuted only after the party had taken fright, called a new contest excluding the previous winner, and selected the "safe" Morrison instead. It has been Morrison's faction which has been making most of the trouble recently, or, at least, doing the most to disturb an uneasy peace between the moderate faction (from which Berejiklian came) and the hard-right faction (from which her successor, Dominic Perrottet comes). Morrison belongs to a second right-wing grouping with close ties to the Pentecostal movement. Its chieftain, Alex Hawke, is a Morrison government minister.
This faction is accused of holding up party preselections for so long that it might be too late for them to have them carried out, according to party rules, before the federal election is upon us. In that case, the factional Daleks can sort out by themselves - without the unpredictable inconvenience of branch plebiscites - who should get the nod. Not only would this resolve the unfortunate situation of three sitting members who might actually lose party endorsement if it were up to a vote of local members - including the Environment Minister, Sussan Ley - but it would allow particular friends and relations of some of the factional chiefs to apportion the vacancies by agreement among each other. In most cases, those the factional chieftains - or Morrison himself - would like would be unlikely to have won their place by normal processes. Morrison has been threatening intervention by the federal branch of the party, but he also lacks the numbers there.
Given the way that some factional Daleks play ... the idea of it being a power play, with the PM only as a collateral casualty, cannot be discounted.
One can see the text leaks as a carefully chosen hand grenade thrown into this messy fight. Those who see it explode will always have theories - if only by the cui bono rule - about who leaked them. It was not necessarily the unnamed minister - or even someone on his or her behalf - given that such correspondence, in politics, is almost always seen by more than sender and receiver. Likewise, as carefully worded denials by players - including Berejiklian herself - demonstrate, many will have reasons for not wanting to be conscripted into the front line of defence. Everyone suspects that the unknown mischief-maker has more ammunition, some for secondary targets.
It is not yet clear if the attack was on Morrison personally - as Liberal leader and Prime Minister, soon to be involved in an election campaign - or as a warning to players, and a particular faction, in a bitter struggle for power in the NSW branch of the party. Given the way that some factional Daleks play - that they would rather lose an election than surrender a piece of practical power in their own arena, or to allow a rival to be one-up - the idea of it being a power play, with the PM only as a collateral casualty, cannot be discounted. But it was certainly a major act of disloyalty. And it certainly had the effect of taking all the attention away from the goods and the inspiration on offer - such as it was - and on to issues of Morrison's personality, his character and the solidarity, loyalty and unity of purpose of his team.
It was not as if Anthony Albanese was in desperate need of the boons Morrison was bestowing. The week had begun with fresh opinion polls indicating the gap between Labor and the Coalition was widening, in two-party preferred terms, to 56 to 44 per cent. The same polls suggested that Albanese's personal standing with voters was improving and that Morrison's was in decline. There are some people, including myself, who bear deep scars from overreliance on polling results at the last election, and, on this ground, caution must be exercised. But pollsters held inquests into their 2019 failures, and have changed, and almost certainly improved their sampling techniques. The results, moreover, are broadly in line with the feel that many experienced observers have for the popular mood, and the way the players are performing.
One should also remember the events of 1993 - when the polls indicated, wrongly, that Labor was in a for a beating. Three years later, John Howard defeated Paul Keating comfortably. Some observers thought Labor had entered the 1993 campaign well behind, largely on the ground that a majority reckoned the party had "had its go", had more or less run out of puff and ideas, and that it was time. But during the campaign, largely about a GST, Keating persuaded voters to defer this judgment on the grounds that a Liberal government under John Hewson was too risky, compared with the devil they knew. Three years later, Labor lost not only on its instant merits, but with the "bonus" to the Liberals of the deferred retribution of 1993. If there is a parallel with today, Morrison's 2019 "miracle" deferred an electoral judgment due the Coalition, but is unlikely to sandbag anything like enough seats this time around. Even more than 1993 to 1996, the past three years may have confirmed that the Coalition has run out of an agenda, a sense of direction, or even an appearance of calm control of events.
If, as I think, Morrison and his Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, deserved credit for their initial 2020 response to the coronavirus, whether in their health precautions or in their flexibility in applying Keynesian principles to the problem of massive job losses and a serious reduction in demand, both pretty much squandered this credit in 2021. First, they completely mismanaged arrangements for securing vaccines and distributing them, initially to high-risk cases. Second, they progressively made their health policies hostage to a theory of "getting the economy going again", regardless of the health risks or costs. In the process, because many premiers would not go along with the Commonwealth's ideas, they lost a good deal of control over pandemic measures but were ultimately responsible for prolonged lockdowns and increased mortality. They failed to anticipate both the Delta and Omicron variants of the virus, each of which caused dangerous resurgences for which existing strategies were ill-adapted.
One has to be fair to ministers and officials who failed to predict novel effects from novel events. But even making proper allowance, pandemic management ended up as a classic example of a characteristic - and characteristically inadequate - Morrison style of coming late to a problem, being slow to appreciate its dimensions, and failing to take decisive action. They also showed other characteristic Morrisonisms - government by announcement, slogan and PR blather, with all too little attention to the substance or the follow-through; refusal to admit either error or indifferent performance, even as others were belatedly fixing things; and a willingness to throw unlimited public money at political fixes, while being mean about public needs, public poverty and impacts on particular groups of vulnerable people.
The Press Club package also contained another spectacular mistake, encapsulated by the two $400 bonuses to be distributed to some aged care staff. The biggest story over the Christmas break - and the biggest headache for leaders and administrators actually focused on the pandemic, rather than political pandemic pyrotechnics - was the high strain being placed on doctors, nurses and health workers by Australians getting severe forms of COVID and requiring hospitalisation and intensive care. Mercifully, this increased demand at no stage seriously imperilled the supply of hospital beds and facilities. But it taxed, far beyond reasonable limits, the capacities of increasingly exhausted staff. Some of these staff were themselves catching COVID and, initially at least, had to go into isolation, thus being unavailable to assist their already overtaxed colleagues. Others had reached the point, after continuous overtime, double shifts and little relief, where they were hardly able to carry on, and some left the sector. The refusal of ministers and health bureaucrats to admit how much the system was stretched, and the dimensions of the crisis being faced, also sapped their morale. In time, it was also aggravated by the pretence of some of the politicians and health bureaucrats that staffing problems could be managed if sick and infected health workers carried on; if isolation and testing standards were lowered, putting everyone at increased risk; and if classes of potentially infected patients, such as returning travellers, effectively saw standard isolation rules waived.
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While this was occurring, millions of Australians were searching for rapid antigen tests that were almost entirely unavailable, thanks to the negligence of both the federal and state governments, but particularly the federal government, in preparing for "living with COVID". The shortage of RATs combined with the resurgence of the disease caused many Australians to go into lockdown on their own (sensible) accord, in spite of the increasingly laissez-faire and "let her rip" policies being urged or applied by the Prime Minister and his ministers, some premiers, the News Corp propaganda machine, and some, but not all, business lobbies. Yet again, the imagery showed a government not in charge of events, being in denial about obvious problems for far too long, and acting too late and in too limited a fashion once the problem was ultimately appreciated. Increasingly, too, a government which had not hesitated to throw money at big business - including many billions given away by Frydenberg to businesses not properly eligible for the handouts - was suddenly and publicly very mean with help for ordinary members of the public, even to groups such as the disabled and teachers. The belated focus on fiscal prudence, and the need to find a business solution involving the profit motive to the provision of RATs, sat uneasily alongside the government's willingness to hurl money at advertising campaigns, the hydrocarbon industry, and iconic environmental assets (which got some PR gloss, but no systemic help in coping with climate change).
Nothing much is going Morrison's way. The Djokovic visa affair looked simply incompetent, and may yet undermine efforts, routine for any election these days, to suggest that Labor is weak on border control. Neither Morrison nor his Defence Minister Peter Dutton are as well positioned as they would like to be on hostilities with China (or now perhaps with Russia on the border of Ukraine), but it hasn't been for want of effort by those urging more tension with our chief trading partner. Alas, our domestic belligerence is unlikely by itself to provoke an international crisis, or to deeply disturb popular complacency. Which is just as well, given the state of some of our instruments of war, and some of the warriors in or behind them.
Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times.
Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times.
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