Paddy Manning
Circling sharks and political distancing

The first flush of success has faded into a pandemic pallor with Covid-19 hotspots breaking out in Melbourne and Sydney. And the worst, no doubt, is yet to come. As a second wave of infections takes hold, Scott Morrison’s performance in the top job is being questioned in a way it hasn’t been since the summer bushfires. The prime minister went out of his way to be seen watching his NRL team, Cronulla, get thrashed by the Penrith Panthers last Saturday at Kogarah Oval, surrounded by assorted fans and hangers-on. At a time when community transmission is ramping up, there was the predictable and immediate censure on social media.

Morrison may have declared “we are all Melburnians now” but his beery footy scarf-twirling contrasted sharply with images of the Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, locked down in the study he shares with his wife. Perhaps that’s just what Morrison intended, but there will be blowback if New South Wales, like Victoria, is forced back into harder lockdowns.

The Sharks game marked the beginning of a week of lighter duties for the prime minister, who asked for some understanding from the media as he took a working break with the family at a hideaway on the outskirts of Sydney, where he planned to “wet a line or whatever the girls want to do” during the school holidays.

Sensitive to any accusation that he absconds during a crisis, as when he took the family to Hawaii during summer while smoke and megafires ravaged the country, Morrison was careful to point out he would still be on deck: “[I] won’t be standing aside from the tasks I have each day. We have the capacity now with technology where I can be with them where they are and at the same time continue to take the briefings and the calls and meetings that I need to … just because I am not standing in front of a camera it does not mean I am not behind my desk or doing what I need to do on a daily basis.”

Nobody would begrudge the PM a bit of quiet time off with his family, after the incredible stresses of the past six months. And even if his appearance at a rugby league match was a bad look, the opposition did not seek to make political mileage out of it. Perhaps because Anthony Albanese had gone to see his beloved Rabbitohs play Wests Tigers in Parramatta the previous night. “You’re allowed to go the footy,” the federal Labor leader told Brisbane Radio 4BC’s Neil Breen on Tuesday. “And I certainly haven’t been critical of Scott Morrison for going to the footy.”

Keen to put some prime ministerial distance between himself and Lockdown 2.0, Morrison has been at times in danger of looking like the prime minister of NSW. At a recent press conference, he thanked Victorians for “your patience” and “their patience”. Clearly, he would like everyone’s focus to remain on Premier Daniel Andrews, whose government has blundered badly with lax management of hotel quarantine for returning Australians.

In this respect, the fast-and-loose national cabinet has proved a boon for Morrison, who has used the new structure to both corral the premiers and, when it suits him, play them off against each other or the Commonwealth itself. When it’s a good news story, the country’s first ministers are all in it together. When there’s a bad news story, Morrison flicks the hard questions to the states. It’s a clever trick.

This week’s Essential poll showed the first signs that Morrison’s pandemic popularity may have passed its peak. There was a two-point drop in his approval rating for July, to 63 per cent, and his preferred PM score over Labor’s Anthony Albanese also fell by three points, to 50 per cent. More concerning for the Coalition was that voters registered a sharp drop in their assessment of the government’s response to Covid-19, which fell by seven percentage points to 64 per cent – still strong but trending down. Similar drops were recorded in both Victoria and NSW, indicating the sentiment is not partisan. Pollster Peter Lewis wrote the national mood was “showing signs of darkening”.   

The prime minister may have relished a bit of time out of the spotlight when the National Archives on Tuesday released the “palace letters”, sent between the Queen and former governor-general Sir John Kerr in the lead-up to, and aftermath of, the 1975 Dismissal of the Whitlam government – Australia’s greatest constitutional crisis.

Monash University historian Jenny Hocking, who fought the National Archives all the way to the High Court to force release of the voluminous correspondence, wrote in The Age after an initial read that the letters were a bombshell, which confirmed the Queen indeed “breached the central tenet of a constitutional monarchy, that the Monarch is politically neutral and must play no role in political matters. The damage this has done to the Queen, to Kerr, and the monarchy is incalculable.” Nobody knows the significance of the letters, and the contextual documentary evidence, better than Professor Hocking – but that didn’t stop an immediate flare-up of the history wars, broadly along party lines.

Buckingham Palace put out a statement denying that the Queen had any warning of the Dismissal. The Australian, which backed the Dismissal in 1975 in such a blatantly partisan fashion that it caused an uproar among the journalists on staff, declared that the letters “cleared the Queen”. Albanese held a press conference to say the letters reinforced the need for Australia to become a republic. His shadow assistant minister on the topic, Matt Thistlethwaite, said: “Australia must begin a mature and serious discussion about our future constitutional arrangements with a view to having a serious discussion about amending our constitution to finally appoint an Australian as our head of state.”

When? Sometime after Covid-19, and after a First Nations Voice to Parliament and constitutional recognition. A non-binding plebiscite on whether Australia should have its own head of state – should that remain ALP policy and should Labor win an election – is clearly many years away.

For his part, Attorney-General Christian Porter, describing himself as a constitutional conservative, told Perth’s 6PR it was “bizarre” to be having a debate about the republic in the middle of a pandemic and recession. The power of the governor-general to dismiss an elected prime minister had been debated ad nauseam, Porter said, but the system had “served us incredibly well. And I think that many people who argue that 1975 … should be an event that pushes us towards a republic don’t like the fact that there’s any degree of unclarity or uncertainty in the system … We know what the governor-general can do, we’ve seen it done and it’s that power that keeps executive governments on their toes.”

The willingness of the political and media class to retreat to their red and blue ideological corners – whether it’s over something a half-century old, such as the Dismissal, or a crisis in the here and now, such as Lockdown 2.0 – doesn’t bode well for the enormous recovery task ahead. So far, the national cabinet, albeit meeting less frequently, has withstood the pressure of the second wave, but cracks are starting to appear as restrictions tighten and borders close, and the prospect of a return to normality recedes. The federal government’s all-in-it-together messaging is fraying. Treasurer Josh Frydenberg this week described Australia as “one country in two stages”, with Victoria and NSW locking back down or tightening certain restrictions, and the rest of the country reopening, as he softened us all up for the difficult and important economic update he will deliver next week.

Consumers are spooked again. Thursday’s jobs figures showed unemployment hitting a 22-year high – suggesting the Covid-19 recession will be drawn-out – and the government’s first official post-pandemic economic forecasts for 2020-21 will no doubt round out the gloomy picture. There is now little doubt that the treasurer will extend the popular JobKeeper program – with payments tiered, rather than struck at a flat rate, and eligibility constantly re-evaluated. The coronavirus supplement for people on JobSeeker will be wound back, but not to the old Newstart level of $40 a day, which was below the poverty line.

Extending income support will cost more – according to the latest bank estimate, perhaps another $40 billion – but this is no time for the government to baulk at the expense. The support, all sides of the debate agree, is simply necessary. At the same time, no matter what figure is announced, the continued support is going to fall short, and more people will join the ranks of those millions of Australians excluded one way or another right from the start. The treasurer will bear no good news next Thursday, and it’s hard to see where the next good news will come from for the government until there’s a vaccine. 

Paul Bongiorno will return next week.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 18, 2020 as "Circling sharks and political distancing".

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Paddy Manning is contributing editor at The Monthly and the author of a forthcoming biography of Lachlan Murdoch, Sly Fox, to be published by Black Inc.

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