Paul Bongiorno
Scott Morrison’s rebranding mission

Scott Morrison hates the pejorative nickname that has taken hold on social media. “Scotty from Marketing” was conferred on him by the satirical magazine The Betoota Advocate. The moniker has gained currency because it captures the growing gap between the prime minister’s performance and his salesmanship of it.

Back before tobacco advertising was banned, we had stark examples of how marketers think and operate. For decades their products were condemned as hazardous to users and directly linked to lung cancer and other diseases. But in the hands of the creative thinkers at some advertising agencies, Peter Stuyvesant cigarettes became the gateway to the glamour of the international jetset. Marlboro cigarettes with their iconic cowboy Marlboro Man became a reaffirmation of a smoker’s rugged masculinity.

A marketer doesn’t change the product but simply looks for another way to persuade the customer that it is more than it really is. Midweek, the prime minister fronted the National Press Club and bravely tried to sell the message that he and his government were on the job – responding to catastrophic bushfires and the record drought, already heroic in their actions to reduce emissions. Oh, and the government had nothing to apologise for with its $100 million sports grants program, even though the auditor-general found it to have been a political slush fund of dubious legality.

Asked about his performance over the past two months and what he would have done differently, Morrison’s answer, in a nutshell, was: nothing. He took refuge in the eternal present where yesterday no longer exists. He said, “What I tend to do is focus on the tasks that I need to do each and every day.” He went on: “What I’m focused on right now is obviously responding to a series of crises.” Morrison particularly wanted to assure Australians in drought-affected areas that he hadn’t forgotten them “for a second”.

Dairy farmers, including Robert Miller, whose family have been on their land near Milton on the New South Wales south coast for generations, were looking for more than glib assurances. Miller, whose property was ravaged by fire in the new year period after years in drought, told the ABC’s RN Breakfast the climate is changing. He said his family’s properties had not been affected by bushfires in the previous 160 years. He said federal leadership is required and climate policies need to change. Like many on the fire-ravaged south coast, Miller said the government has been slow to react.

Miller said, “Literally, we’ve had no federal assistance whatsoever.” He has been in unprecedented drought for the area for the past three years and is still waiting for the promised $75,000 drought assistance to arrive. It would help, although it still wouldn’t meet his devastating losses. For example, replacing fencing destroyed by fire would cost $150,000, according to Miller. He said he’s hoping “the criteria for these fires is a bit easier than for the drought”.

Further south, the experience of the Longstocking Brewery at Pambula suggests this is a vain hope. Director Peter Caldwell says his brewery, unlike other buildings in the area, was spared. But, regardless, the business has suffered a 90 per cent downturn, losing $30,000 of revenue a week. He has had to sack 13 casual staff.

Caldwell told The Saturday Paper that when the prime minister announced “a comprehensive suite of measures to immediately support impacted small businesses” on January 20, the brewery director immediately applied for the $50,000 on offer. He was told that because his business had not burned down, he was not eligible. So, he then sought to apply for the $500,000 interest-free loan, only to be told he first had to have exhausted all his available funds and meet five other stringent conditions. “On the one hand I had to show I was virtually insolvent, while on the other I had to demonstrate a capacity to repay the loan,” Caldwell said. At the same time, the government had not yet worked out a process for the loans.

The thinness of Morrison’s scene-resetting spiel was surely not the advice one of Australia’s foremost marketing experts, Russel Howcroft, would have given at his pre-Christmas briefing to the prime minister’s office. He was wheeled in to help them work out how to better sell policies, particularly on climate change. The Australian Financial Review reported that Howcroft, a regular panellist on the ABC TV show Gruen and now chief creative officer at PwC Australia, conducted a session for the PMO. Scott Morrison didn’t attend. Maybe if he had he wouldn’t have flown out the following day for a secret family holiday in Hawaii while the nation’s largest city was encircled by a mega fire that had been burning for seven weeks.

At least Morrison now finally accepts the nation he was elected to lead has several crises on its hands, but he made no attempt to explain why he and his government were so ill prepared for them. There was nothing to rebut criticism from his dumped predecessor Malcolm Turnbull, who told a BBC interviewer last week that he couldn’t explain why Morrison didn’t meet the former fire commissioners who wanted to see him in March last year to discuss the gravity of the threat. Perhaps things would have been different if Morrison had consented to the meeting. Surely, for example, he would have allocated the $11 million funding for more firebombing aircraft before the forecast catastrophic fires and not three months into the conflagration.

Labor’s Anthony Albanese said the main takeaway from the prime minister’s press club speech about addressing constitutional arrangements for calling out the military was not necessary. He said what is required is “called leadership. It doesn’t need legislation. It requires a leader who is prepared to act.” And he cited Kevin Rudd’s mobilisation of the defence force “the very next day” after Victoria’s Black Saturday catastrophe.

When Morrison did act, it was only as a kneejerk reaction to the enormous political pressure his misjudgements had precipitated. One well-placed source in Canberra says what we have seen in recent weeks is the largest troop deployment since World War II. We can be grateful there is no invasion threat on the horizon because no immediate response would be available. Pilot hours are exhausted and budgets are being hastily diverted. It’s hardly the calm, methodical response Morrison likes to boast about.

Albanese said he wrote to the prime minister on November 22 calling for a special Council of Australian Governments meeting to discuss steps towards a “new national strategy for disaster preparedness”. In December, Turnbull agreed on ABC TV the arrangements were no longer fit for purpose and that they posed a threat to Australian security.

At the press club on Wednesday, Morrison made what sounded like an almost heartfelt pledge when he committed to do more to keep Australians safe in light of what is happening. But he won’t do anything that threatens jobs or the regional economy – read: coal seats, principally in Queensland. This is a simple restatement of his election formula, designed to placate climate change denialists in his government and to keep on side the Queensland Liberal National Party that played a crucial role in his election victory. There was no hint of a fundamental rethink on emissions reduction targets.

This is a fundamental misreading of the broader electorate’s mood. The latest Essential poll found 71 per cent support for a zero carbon pollution target by 2050. There is pushback within cabinet for recommitment to this goal even though it is in line with our Paris climate conference undertakings. Sixty-two per cent in the poll want no new coalmines in Australia, and 81 per cent support accelerating new industries and jobs powered by renewables.

Late on Wednesday morning, the prime minister’s office gave notice of a hastily convened news conference in the parliament courtyard. Speculation in the press gallery was that Morrison would be announcing the resignation of embattled Agriculture Minister Bridget McKenzie. The pressure on her for ignoring an independent merit-based process and instead brazenly handing out millions of taxpayers’ dollars to electorates identified by the Coalition’s marginal seats campaign was becoming more intense by the day. The leaks had grown to a flood – from her former office as Sport minister, as well as from the Health Department and Sport Australia.

Instead, the prime minister, flanked by the Health and Foreign ministers, announced an evacuation of Australians caught in the coronavirus-quarantined Chinese city of Wuhan and the province of Hubei.

Morrison even thanked Qantas for being willing to be the commercial partner in bringing these people from China to quarantine on Christmas Island. He may have jumped the gun. The airline’s chief executive, Alan Joyce, told the media Qantas’s 747s can’t land on Christmas Island and nothing had been finalised. But the announcement had done its job: McKenzie was knocked from the headlines and Morrison was once again the action man, back on his horse and coming to the rescue of Australians.

The trouble now will be restoring the trust a vast majority of Australians – 69 per cent according to an Ipsos poll – have lost in the way our democracy works. To sell that message though, you might need to change the product.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 1, 2020 as "The Marlboro Man rides again".

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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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