Paul Bongiorno
No political jab to inoculate Morrison

The handling of the Covid-19 pandemic is rapidly becoming a political crisis for the federal government. It’s no longer the circuit-breaker that restored the Coalition’s fortunes after the Black Summer bushfires, it has morphed into an indictment of Scott Morrison’s failure to deliver on his promises to keep Australians safe, with an early return to accustomed prosperity.

Already shattered is the boast of “underpromising and overdelivering” on the number of Australians who would have been vaccinated by now. Three million short of the target is no near miss. Ham-fisted attempts by Morrison and his ministers to variously blame the states or the Europeans succeeded only in spotlighting Australia’s own shortcomings.

It came to a head this week when The Australian published its quarterly consolidated Newspoll results. The headline screamed: “Coalition in election peril after hit in resource states.” It certainly didn’t make for happy reading for a prime minister who is ageing before our very eyes – something not unusual for leaders as they navigate all sorts of trouble on their watch. And Morrison is having more than his fair share. His opponents certainly – but even some of his own side – believe that rather than enhancing his standing, his crisis management is diminishing it.

This is something Morrison can ill afford, as he is far from out of the woods on the rape and misogyny allegations rocking his government. Not too far from the scene is the destructively divisive issue of energy and climate policy. It flared again this week in Morrison’s home state of New South Wales, featuring his deposed predecessor Malcolm Turnbull.

True, according to Newspoll the prime minister ends the quarter still well ahead of Labor’s Anthony Albanese in the approval stakes, but he has been steadily losing ground. This echoes Labor’s research that finds the prime minister’s support is “a kilometre wide and a millimetre deep”. And it goes a long way to explain why Labor is in a tight election-winning position on the two-party preferred. Albanese takes great heart from the fact that his party’s primary vote is consistently higher than it was at the 2019 lineball election.

This Newspoll finding is in the context of the pandemic, which has seen incumbents in Western Australia and Queensland retain power in landslides. While some of Albanese’s naysayers say Labor should be streets ahead given Morrison’s travails, the opposition leader’s caucus supporters say this is a blinkered discount of the pandemic factor. The fact that Labor federally is, at this stage, more than competitive is a remarkable result the doubters claim they are pining for. None of this is to write off Morrison’s chances. Unexpected – surprising even – things can and do happen in politics.

Morrison, of course, is well aware of his vulnerabilities. He is the consummate political animal, his instincts honed as a Liberal state campaign director.

On Monday he saw it was time to staunch the bleeding over the vaccine rollout failures. His starting point was to deny reality. Who he thinks he is impressing by claiming Australia has been performing exceptionally is a mystery. According to adjunct professor in health strategy at the University of NSW, Bill Bowtell, we rank 90th in the world for the rollout, “sandwiched between Bolivia and Albania”.

It has become a trademark announcement strategy. Health Minister Greg Hunt triggered a stampede of older Australians rushing for their vaccinations last month. A multimedia fanfare claimed “a momentous day” as the government embarked on “the largest ever logistical exercises ever undertaken”.

It was botched.

Not enough vaccines were available, general practitioners who were to be on the front line of the rollout were told little or nothing. Their clinics were swamped with callers. The government’s website was no help at all, referring to private medical providers who then had no option but to advise a later call back when they actually knew what was going on and – more to the point – how many vaccines they would be receiving.

When Morrison and his ministers blamed Europe for failing to supply the contracted 3.1 million vaccines, Brussels contradicted them. It admitted to withholding 250,000 shots but denied the three million figure. The states were quick to disown responsibility for the shambles with both the Queensland and NSW premiers reminding midweek news conferences that they were responsible for only 30 per cent of the rollout while the Commonwealth was responsible for the rest.

Bowtell, in a radio interview, warned that the virus was “mutating faster than we in Australia are vaccinating”. Still, with 97 per cent of Australians unvaccinated, a new travel bubble with New Zealand was announced. There was a huge caveat that another outbreak in either country could see the borders slammed shut again. The tourism industry is calling for a faster rollout through mass vaccination centres to follow the success of the United States and Britain in achieving the required numbers. It is a stark reminder that failures in managing this pandemic have a huge financial impact that undermines any claims to superior economic management.

Morrison says the problem is supply – Australia doesn’t have what is needed for the forecasted rollout numbers to be achieved. So three months after vaccinations started in other countries and one month into our slow and fraught program, it is obvious our government’s planning last year was woefully inadequate. The former head of the federal Health Department, Stephen Duckett, wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald that the politicians should “invest less in hype and photo opportunities and instead focus on actually managing the rollout”.

The vaccine imbroglio pushed out the government’s timetable to finally announce its response to the Respect @ Work report, which has been taken off the shelf after 14 months of inattention. Morrison arranged for the cameras to come into the first meeting of his women’s cabinet taskforce and his minister for Women, Marise Payne, was even given a speaking part, but just what they decided was, again, a second-order issue.

That void was spectacularly filled by the release of sacked Australia Post chief executive Christine Holgate’s submission to a senate inquiry. Holgate says she never agreed to resign over her gift of Cartier watches to senior executives as a bonus for securing a lucrative contract for the government-owned business. She accuses the Liberal government appointed chair, Lucio Di Bartolomeo, of lying to parliament and “unlawfully” standing her down at the direction of the prime minister. And Holgate says Morrison humiliated her in parliament, causing her “the most harrowing 10 days” of her career.

Morrison attempted to brush aside the criticism, saying it was up to the senate inquiry to sort out the different versions. He noted that Holgate had resigned. But Labor’s Michelle Rowland accused the prime minister of double standards when he defended Christian Porter and argued for the sort of due process “that was denied to Ms Holgate”. Rowland said there is “one rule for Liberal mates and another for everyone else”.

Morrison’s problem is that TV news bulletins this week reran the vision of him bellowing in parliament that Holgate should stand aside pending an inquiry. “If she doesn’t wish to do that, she can go,” he said. Hardly a good look in the current heightened sensitivity to the bullying of women, particularly in the workforce.

When it comes to showcasing the prime minister’s political skills, the past few weeks haven’t inspired confidence. And Morrison will need all he can muster to steer the government through the other vexed contemporary issue of climate and energy policy. Labor is determined not to make it easy for him.

Armed with the broad approval of Labor’s national conference, Anthony Albanese is confident he can avoid the trap of playing off coal jobs against climate change action. It’s a conflict that came into sharp relief in the byelection campaign for the NSW seat of Upper Hunter vacated by Nationals’ MP Michael Johnsen, who is accused of rape and other lewd behaviour. Johnsen has denied the rape claim.

The confluence of explosive issues saw former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull sacked from his new position as chair of the Coalition government’s Net Zero Emissions and Clean Economy advisory board. Just as the Berejiklian government’s cutting loose of Johnsen stands in complete contrast to Morrison’s treatment of both Porter and backbencher Andrew Laming, so too has been the state government’s commitment to net-zero emissions, until now.

NSW Environment minister Matt Kean was forced to remove his mentor and long-time friend Turnbull after ferocious pushback from his party’s conservatives and the Nationals, aided and abetted by The Daily Telegraph. Turnbull, Kean said, was too polarising in the heated election atmosphere.

Turnbull’s sin – apart from being Malcolm Turnbull – is that he gave a forthright interview on ABC Radio urging a moratorium on new coalmines in the Hunter. Turnbull’s position was based on analysis by The Australia Institute that found a glut of mines, some of which are either mothballed or losing money already. The Murdoch tabloid ignored the facts, instead claiming Turnbull was putting 12,000 putative coal jobs at risk, never mind the threat to thousands of other jobs in agriculture, viniculture and even renewable energy.

What that does for the Liberals’ credibility in their Sydney heartland seats is a live question. It is not only a state issue. When it comes to Morrison’s turn, however, he will – as he is doing on the vaccine rollout – push credulity to claim his performance is world-leading.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 10, 2021 as "No political jab to inoculate Morrison".

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