Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
The wheels fall off Morrison’s bus

Scott Morrison emerged from last Friday’s meeting of his national cabinet a defeated leader. His hastily constructed vehicle to co-ordinate a coherent response to the coronavirus pandemic crisis had fractured.

The prime minister announced that the notion of “100 per cent, absolute consensus on any issue” is not the way ahead. The notion was his entirely but if consensus meant everybody agreeing with Morrison, it was always doomed to failure. In the virtual cabinet room are not ministers of his government who owe their positions to him and broadly share his political world view. Rather, they are leaders in their own right of six states and two territories. Adding to the degree of difficulty is the fact these leaders’ constitutionally defined roles guarantee their sovereign rights.

This, after all, is the dynamic of the 119-year-old Australian federation. It demands of a prime minister the skills of negotiation and persuasion that can achieve the required consensus to advance the national interest. Colleagues say these qualities do not come easily to Morrison, someone with a reputation as a lone ranger. The complex structure of the national cabinet also requires the prime minister to keep his skin in the game and not take cover in that other legacy of the federation so beloved of politicians: the blame game.

Making a virtue of necessity, Morrison told the gathered media after the national cabinet meeting that “not everyone has to get on the bus for the bus to leave the station. But it is important the bus leaves the station, and we all agree on that.”

Morrison said he was proposing a “hotspot” definition for infection outbreaks to facilitate the management of the pandemic. This would restrict closures or lockdowns to local areas and minimise disruptions to the business of the nation. The prime minister claimed he had seven of the eight leaders on board, heading to a destination of a pre-Christmas opening of their borders. Only Western Australia would not be getting on the bus.

But later that night, Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk tweeted she had not agreed to the federal government’s hotspot definition. She also signalled that Christmas was not a sure thing: “I agree with WA – our borders protect our health and our economy.” 

By Sunday night Morrison had abandoned any pretence of consensus with Victoria’s Daniel Andrews. The premier’s road map out of stage-four lockdown was slammed in a statement from the prime minister and his most senior Victorian colleagues, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and Health Minister Greg Hunt.

The extended lockdown and the benchmarks for containment of the virus were described as “hard and crushing news for the people of Victoria”. The blame was laid squarely on the state government for the “impact and costs that result from not being able to contain outbreaks of Covid-19, resulting in high rates of community transmission”.

There was no mention of the more than 500 coronavirus deaths in aged-care homes funded and regulated by the Commonwealth. A Guardian Australia investigation found that as of Monday this week, 228 of those deaths in Victoria were residents in just 10 aged-care homes.

With about four weeks to go before the delayed federal budget is unveiled, the ministers’ joint statement said Victoria will impact the national economy “in further job losses and loss of livelihoods, as well as impacting on mental health”. And, not to be missed, these decisions are “solely” the work of the Andrews government.

On Monday, Morrison wheeled out the new secretary of the Department of Health, Brendan Murphy, and Minister Hunt to further attack the Andrews road map. The pretext was the reannouncement of Australia signing up to two Covid-19 vaccines – if and when they become available. It didn’t take long for the PM to hit his straps, though – he hoped Victoria’s plan was “a worst-case scenario”, he said, a starting point for how “this issue will be managed”.

Hunt quoted leading experts querying the basis for the plan proffered by the premier and his chief health officer, Brett Sutton. It was an impressive line-up: from the University of Melbourne, Tony Blakely; from the Australian National University, Peter Collignon; and from the Doherty Institute, Jodie McVernon. Both Collignon and McVernon, along with Dale Fisher, an Australian infectious diseases specialist now based in Singapore, doubt the need for the severity and time line of the Victorian restrictions.

Murphy agreed with the prime minister’s characterisation that New South Wales was the “gold standard” when it came to contact tracing and containment. He said over “many, many years” there had been advanced investment in public health in NSW. He said Victoria had played urgent catch-up and was now in a better position. His faint praise ended with a backhander: “I hope that they can feel confident with the strength of their position to take a somewhat less conservative approach to their restrictions.”

Morrison offered a thinly veiled threat that he would be pulling back on federal support for Victoria. He said he was hoping to see soon the state’s “support plan” to mitigate the economic consequences of “the measures that they have put in place”.

This angered one of Labor’s most senior Victorian MPs, former opposition leader Bill Shorten. On Channel Nine’s Today, he shared Morrison’s hope that the plan was a worst-case scenario and the restrictions would be loosened sooner. He said he had been inundated with complaints, especially from small business looking for relief and support. But Shorten also praised Andrews for giving it “100 per cent” in the fight to contain the virus.

Shorten said Victorians have conflicting feelings about their plight: “they are angry” about the lockdowns but they also want to see the health threat handled. They want to see the infection numbers come down.

“Morrison was trying to abdicate his responsibilities,” Shorten told me, adding that the prime minister’s approach excises Victoria’s six million people from the rest of Australia. “A majority of the taxes Victorians pay go to Canberra,” he said.

On Monday, Morrison held a phone hook-up with his Victorian MPs and senators. Some praised his attacks on Andrews, while others were more wary of his strategy. One urged the PM to visit the state – something that could be difficult if he wants to avoid having to self-isolate upon returning to Sydney or Canberra. Besides, a visit would undermine the prime minister’s attempts to distance himself from the mess – something he is desperate not to own any part of.

Morrison’s business allies were strident in their criticism of Andrews. They seem oblivious to the need to keep the community’s resolve strong if the Covid-19 curve is to be flattened to manageable and sustainable levels.

The Labor premier, however, found unexpected support from two former federal Liberal leaders: former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and former opposition leader John Hewson.

Turnbull, on ABC TV’s Afternoon Briefing, said there was a lot of blame to go around for Victoria’s predicament. “But they are where they are, and so the question I think that … could be asked of Scott Morrison is, what would you suggest Andrews should do differently right now?” he said.

Dr Hewson tweeted: “No more cheap shots. If Morrison doesn’t like/accept Andrew’s [sic] pathway let him detail his alternative for which he can then be held fully accountable – be sure to focus on aged care his clear responsibility.” Hewson wondered whether it was just an “amazing coincidence” that the attacks on the Victorian premier from business and some media were “all singing off the same page of dot points”.

Former Victorian Labor premier Steve Bracks wrote a scathing counterattack to Morrison in The Age. Bracks opened by quoting the prime minister’s statesmanlike invocation of “the spirit of JFK” when Morrison told the country, “We are all Melburnians now when it comes to the challenges we face.” That was when Victoria re-entered stage-three lockdowns in early July. “How quickly that spirit evaporated,” Bracks wrote this week. He accused the prime minister of being slow to react and lead by example.

A source familiar with national cabinet’s decision to allow the states to run hotel quarantine says that choice was a case in point. When the premiers met with Morrison about quarantine back in March, the prime minister came to the table with no plan. He was relieved when Andrews suggested the states could take over the management and cost for the Commonwealth, the source says. This function – as Turnbull reminded viewers on Monday – was constitutionally Canberra’s. It surprised some at the meeting that Morrison didn’t at least have a version of the Christmas Island and Northern Territory quarantine arrangements he had earlier enacted for Australians caught in China and on the Diamond Princess cruise ship.

This week, Andrews defended his road map while acknowledging the anger and frustration in Victoria. He said if these emotions were like a vaccine “then we would all be in a much better position”. He said it was not accurate to say he had chosen one way to go from 50 options, arguing that the danger of opening too early is a yo-yo effect of repeated lockdowns as infections surge again.

On the issue of contact tracing, he said that “is not a vaccine either. It is about limiting the spread.” And the lockdown is about avoiding the sort of outbreak that saw more than 700 infections in one day. While the numbers jumped around this week, the trend is going down. “The strategy is working,” Andrews said.

The fact is that Morrison’s “gold standard” NSW is one super-spreader away from a disaster on the scale of what we’ve seen in Victoria. Physician and ABC health reporter Dr Norman Swan says NSW’s performance is as much good luck as good management. Premier Gladys Berejiklian is more aware of the risk than the prime minister appears to be. She says “touch wood” the rate of community transmission stays very low.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 12, 2020 as "The wheels fall off Morrison’s bus".

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