Paul Bongiorno
Morrison in damage control

Scott Morrison is flailing about as he struggles to get back on the “narrow path” he keeps talking about to deliver him another election victory. Nowhere is this more obvious than the desperate damage control he embarked on earlier this week, when it was obvious he had misread the mood of the nation. Most particularly, what had escaped him was the deeper concerns of people in states free of Covid-19.

It was a contrite Scott Morrison who on Tuesday blitzed the radio airwaves in Hobart, Adelaide, Perth and Brisbane. He was on air to offer a new, conciliatory message. While we are all on a journey to a safer future, thanks to vaccination, he said, “we are starting from different places”. Rather than deny the bleeding obvious, as he seemed to the previous week, he was now stating it. He said: “There isn’t a common Covid position across the country”, just a common destination.

On Perth radio he even praised West Australian Premier Mark McGowan for keeping his citizens safe and claimed an almost special relationship with him. This was despite the premier describing Morrison’s demands for border openings as “madness”. No doubt the prime minister has a keen eye to holding his 11 of 16 seats in what has hitherto been a stronghold state.

The background to the flurry of radio appearances was the judgement in the prime ministerial bunker that they had got the messaging on “learning to live with Covid” horribly wrong. Morrison’s problem is he is running out of time on his own admission to get it right.

There was a brutal reality check when the Newspoll returned its biggest two-party preferred gap in almost four years. The 54-46 per cent result would be wipeout territory if repeated at the election.

And make no mistake: the prospect of facing the voters any time soon is weighing heavily on the prime minister’s mind. At Tuesday’s government parties room meeting, Morrison told his troops, “The election will come sooner than you think.”

He hastily covered this slip, adding “because time moves fast”. The official briefer said Morrison “wanted to make it very clear to you [the media] that his view had not changed”. In fact, Morrison went on to say in his leader’s report, “You get elected, you go the term and you do the job.” He stressed, “You do it in what feels like a very short time.”

His political opponents were bemused last week by what they saw as Morrison’s unmistakable attempt to influence Newspoll as it went into the field. There was a new tack to convince voters the government was on their wavelength. And it was precisely here that for several days the prime minister overstated the promise to end the exhaustion of debilitating lockdowns by holding all the states to his national cabinet plan to lift restrictions and open borders.

Morrison made no fine distinctions. The 70 and 80 per cent fully vaccinated national benchmarks for getting “out of the cave” applied everywhere. On cue, the government’s media cheerleaders began describing the premiers of Queensland and Western Australia as holdouts, breaking their national cabinet undertakings and thwarting liberation.

Largely overlooked was the fact the Liberal premiers of Tasmania and South Australia were similarly wedded to stringent border restrictions and lockouts. When the nation’s most popular premier, Mark McGowan, took offence at being called a “cave dweller” and said opening his borders while one million of his citizens were unvaccinated would mean many deaths, Morrison began stressing the word “safe”.

The prime minister is now insisting he was proposing “safe openings”. Indeed, he is even pointing to the significant caveats in the Doherty Institute modelling before opening even at 70 or 80 per cent vaccination.

Of course, it all depends on what you mean by safe openings. Michaelia Cash, the attorney-general and most senior WA Liberal in the federal cabinet, has ventured a learned opinion that she at the same time concedes is political poison.

Cash, generated a lead story in The Australian by warning state governments – read, her own – that their constitutional power to shut borders will diminish once the nation hits an 80 per cent vaccination rate. Cash is of the view that the arguments that led the High Court to strike down billionaire Clive Palmer’s attempt to prise open Western Australia’s border have shifted. Since then, vaccines have arrived, making the necessity to lock out other Australians proportionately much less a threat once the majority inoculation benchmark is achieved.

Maybe, but Cash doesn’t have the courage of her convictions. She later told ABC Radio that the Commonwealth would not be mounting any litigation to test her view.

No matter. Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party has already foreshadowed such a challenge through its newly minted parliamentary leader, Craig Kelly. Palmer’s previous legal frolic turned out to be an embarrassing enterprise for Morrison. It was so discomforting that the prime minister has apparently expunged from his memory the fact his government spent $1 million “in support of the position of the plaintiffs” through then attorney-general Christian Porter.

Legal observers were of the view the Commonwealth intervention gave Palmer’s case a respectability their own barrister had failed to establish. But Morrison denied in parliament that his government had “pursued the matter”. This was a half-truth at best and led to opposition leader Anthony Albanese saying it was another example of “this prime minister never accepting responsibility”.

The Liberal wipeout in the subsequent WA state election, due in no small part to its identification with Palmer’s campaign, has now left Morrison wedged between the freedom warriors on his right and the calmer demands of the rest of the country. Midweek he assured parliament that he won’t be repeating Porter’s ill-judged intervention, in which he had attempted to legally force border openings.

There are other shifts, too. The invincibility of the Delta variant in Victoria means the states are reluctantly facing the fact that returning to zero community transmission may be impossible. Like Premier Daniel Andrews, McGowan accepts we will have to live with the virus – but not before 80 per cent double vaccination of their state’s population for anything like a return to pre-Covid normal.

The issue of closed state borders may resolve itself in the months ahead, although with the looming federal election partisan interests inevitably mean the politicians will be looking to pick fights.

One fight Morrison is keen to avoid is within his own government. And to do it he is going to disappoint business. Business leaders backed by overwhelming public support are demanding vaccine passports and mandatory jabs for high-risk workers.

The boss of Virgin Australia, Jayne Hrdlicka, is unapologetic in mandating vaccination for her staff. She says “safety can’t be compromised”. She hopes borders will be opened by Christmas, but she is aware this is not a zero-risk proposition and says her staff and customers “will need to be protected”.

Hrdlicka, like other executives, would prefer the prime minister to show national leadership and mandate a standard. Instead, he says it’s a state matter. The reason he’s hiding behind the premiers’ skirts is the threatened revolt on his backbench if he dared legislate anything that looked like compulsion.

Victorian backbencher Russell Broadbent says seven Liberals would not support such moves, a position supported by retiring Brisbane Liberal Andrew Laming. They are flying the flag of civil liberties, but the evidence of the YouGov and Resolve Political Monitor polls is that an overwhelming majority of Australians insist on their rights to go about their daily lives more safely, even if vaccines are not 100 per cent effective.

Morrison’s election urgency talk was backed by Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce in the party room, warning MPs that they can’t waste a minute of the next six weeks when parliament is not sitting. The takeout of one backbencher was that while Joyce seemed to be foreshadowing a January or early February poll, a November one was more likely. If he’s right, we will know by the end of the month – just three weeks before an election countdown would need to be triggered.

Epidemiologists such as Professor Tony Blakely are predicting that Victoria’s outbreak could peak at 2000 infections a day in October. That’s the month that New South Wales, too, is bracing for the worst. Premier Gladys Berejiklian is warning her state’s hospitals will be under extreme pressure to cope with infections peaking there. It also happens to coincide with projections NSW at least will have reached 70 per cent double-dose vaccination.

But reaching that figure nationally is surely more problematic. As is his custom, Health Minister Greg Hunt is bullish about reaching 80 per cent by Christmas. If he’s right, any consolation of reaching the target will be swamped by what the Treasury is bracing for: the second worst quarter of negative economic growth since 1932. The worst was the June quarter last year, at the depth of the pandemic’s first wave. There is no escaping the economic carnage being caused by the prolonged lockdowns in NSW and Victoria.

Economist Stephen Koukoulas says Australia may have avoided a technical recession by not recording two quarters of negative growth, but there is no avoiding the fact the nation is in the grip of an economic crisis.

There are arguments over what Treasurer Josh Frydenberg should do about it. Koukoulas says he should offer more relief and stimulus than he has this year. But the question is: Can Morrison afford to wait to see how bad things get on the health and economic fronts before he subjects himself to the judgement of the people? 

   Listen to Paul Bongiorno discuss the week in politics on our daily news show, 7am, wherever you get your podcasts.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 4, 2021 as "Bordering on farce".

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Paul Bongiorno is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a 30-year veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery.

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