Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Scott Morrison’s quest for immunity

There’s an old saying in politics, “Never waste a good crisis.” And it’s crystal clear Scott Morrison isn’t wasting any moment where he can be seen responding to the threat coronavirus – or COVID-19, as it’s now known – is posing to Australia and the world. It stands in stark contrast with his derelict early response to the bushfire emergency.

On Tuesday, flanked by the treasurer, Health minister and the chief medical officer, Morrison told a news conference at Parliament House that he could assure Australians “we are not immune to the coronavirus and its impacts, but we are as best prepared as any country can be in the world today”. As proof of that claim he pointed to the success of exemptions to the travel ban from China since February 1. Thirty thousand people were allowed to return to Australia from China and there has been “no human-to-human transmission of the virus” outside those quarantined on Christmas Island and in the Northern Territory who came from Wuhan or the cruise ship Diamond Princess. Fifteen of these people have now been discharged after recovering from the virus. There are seven remaining mild cases, the PM said.

Morrison said the government was acting with “an abundance of caution”. A caution, however, with an economic cost, thanks to travel bans on 70,000 Chinese students blocked from their university studies and thousands more Chinese tourists who have been forced to cancel holidays. The university sector has its fingers crossed many of these students won’t take up the option of studying in countries such as Canada, which did not impose travel bans.

The World Health Organization did not call for such bans. One expert in communicable disease control from Exeter University in Britain, Dr Bharat Pankhania, told ABC Radio there’s no need to panic. The coronavirus is here, he said, and “most people who get infected will get well”. Dr Pankhania believes that “closing borders is not a good act … because we want society to continue as normal as possible”. Effort should be directed at preventing infection. But at the political level no one is arguing with the government’s travel restrictions or other measures – even though the choice of Christmas Island raised eyebrows because of the expense to make it somewhat fit for a purpose it was never designed for.

That gives the prime minister a free run to repair his image with his frequent briefings designed to show he is in charge and finally on the job. However, Newspoll this week suggests Morrison still has a lot of ground to make up. He is still paying the price for taking a Hawaiian holiday while Sydney was surrounded by unprecedented bushfires. His net satisfaction improved from minus 22 to minus 20, within the poll’s margin of error. One backbencher said no previous prime minister has recovered from such a parlous state. In parliament though, Morrison seems confident his troops will stay behind him all the way to the next election. That’s something he predicts will not be the case for Labor’s Anthony Albanese. The PM’s gibe came when Albanese challenged him to a debate at the National Press Club on climate policy. Morrison said there would be such debates in the election campaign but he doubted Albanese would be his opponent.

Albanese, while slipping in Newspoll, is the preferred prime minister for the third survey running, something Bill Shorten didn’t achieve. Albanese’s approval rating is a far less threatening negative five. There have been some rumblings within the caucus over the opposition leader’s decision to throw down the gauntlet to Morrison by committing Labor to net zero emissions for Australia by 2050. The argument is not with the policy but with the timing of the announcement. Understandably, there are some in the party who have reservations. One is Joel Fitzgibbon, who suffered a huge swing against him in his Hunter Valley coal seat when the party took that target, and a 45 per cent emissions cut by 2030, to last year’s election.

But their jitters may be displaced. The government was quick at the beginning of the week to run the same arguments against Albanese it had against Shorten. It accused him of pushing a reckless jobs- and economy-destroying policy. By midweek, however, it was backing off. The retreat came when the prime minister was asked whether he supported the New South Wales Coalition government’s commitment to the same 2050 target. Morrison said the main difference was that NSW had a plan, whereas federal Labor did not.

Labor backbenchers interjected, calling for him to “table your plan”. And this is where it gets confusing. Morrison says he has a plan, but the question is for what? Net zero by 2050? Next week, Angus Taylor, the Energy and Emissions Reduction minister, is expected to unveil his technology “strategy” to help “the world”, but not necessarily Australia, get to net zero as the science demands. Everybody, including Malcolm Turnbull, who was prime minister at the time Australia signed on to the Paris agreement, thought Australia had already committed to this target in 2016.

In a hard-hitting speech to a conference of energy executives this week, Turnbull said the net zero emissions target by 2050 was not optional unless “the Canberra bubble” wanted the planet to face an “unthinkable, catastrophic apocalyptic scenario” of warming by 3 degrees Celsius or more. He said the “fires of this last summer will seem like a very, very mild experience compared to what a 3 degrees Celsius [warmer] world will look like”.

But the assessment of Labor hardheads is that the public’s attitude to climate change is fickle. They point to Newspoll’s finding that 56 per cent blame failures in hazard reduction as the main contributor to the bushfires, while only 35 per cent blame climate change. Social media was flooded with the hazard-reduction message, something Morrison pushed hard as he tried to minimise the impact of global warming.

Whatever rumblings Albanese has suffered, they pale into insignificance when compared with the trouble Morrison is in with his Coalition partners, the Nationals. There is enormous pressure on Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack to rule out the 2050 target and also to back his climate-science-denying minister for Resources, Keith Pitt, in underwriting new coal-fired power stations. In other words: get taxpayers to subsidise an energy source that the private sector, including local proponents of the Collinsville coal-fired power station, cannot or will not finance.

Fitzgibbon, Labor’s Resources shadow minister, gatecrashed Barnaby Joyce’s doorstop on Monday. He tried to say Labor is going “to reach out” to primary producers and other stakeholders to help determine interim targets on the way to achieving the 2050 commitment. A red-faced Joyce bellowed this was “pig manure”. After Fitzgibbon departed, Joyce said he and others would make sure the 2050 target would not be accepted. It was a scarcely veiled threat to cross the floor.

Labor is now trying to move the arguments away from the costs of its policy to job opportunities and to the greater cost of failing to mitigate climate change. It’s a cause Greens leader Adam Bandt took up when he quoted a Melbourne University analysis that the estimates of damage from the summer’s unprecedented firestorms range from $4.4 billion if narrowly confined to physical assets “to a more credible $100 billion if we include tourism losses, human health and ecological destruction”. The government’s $2 billion emergency recovery allocation is woefully inadequate.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, upon his return from a G20 finance ministers’ meeting in Saudi Arabia, said the economic hit from the coronavirus outbreak would be worse than the bushfires. There were warnings the “shutters could come down on the global economy”. In just three days, as COVID-19 spread to more countries, $129 billion was wiped off the Australian sharemarket.

Morrison said what he described as “the health crisis” isn’t limited to the education and tourism sectors but is economy-wide – disrupting supply chains, manufacturing and construction. The news conference was a softening up of the electorate for an “unforeseen” contraction in the economy putting the much-touted “back in the black” budget surplus in doubt.

Morrison ruled out Labor-style global financial crisis stimulus spending, saying: “We are not a government that engages in extreme fiscal responses.” He said the government was “very limited” in what it could do and was looking to encourage domestic consumption.

Economist Stephen Koukoulas says the government seems to be waiting for something to turn up. According to him, “with wages flatlining”, people banking their tax cuts and retail struggling, the government should do things such as raise Newstart to pump buying power into the hands of those who will spend it immediately. He says “waiting 10 weeks till the May budget” is a prescription for a slide into recession. Had Labor adopted the same attitude in the wake of the global financial crisis, business collapses and job losses would have been severe.

The question is will Morrison fail this new test of leadership or claim virtue for delivering a budget surplus that ignores the declining wellbeing of voters?

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 29, 2020 as "Morrison’s quest for immunity".

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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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