Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
PM hits spin cycle again on rollout

At the Liberal Party’s recent annual gabfest in Canberra, the prime minister morphed into one of recent history’s more comical figures as he waxed lyrical about his government’s amazing successes.

The figure that sprung to mind was “Baghdad Bob”. That was the nickname given to Saddam Hussein’s information minister, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, back in 2003. This was a man whose daily TV briefings became almost a comic routine as he predicted the failure of the United States invasion, even as American tanks appeared in the background.

In Canberra last weekend, as the new “Kappa” strain of the Covid-19 virus invaded a still largely unvaccinated Victoria forcing a statewide lockdown, Scott Morrison declared victory. Not total victory – anything could happen – but his government has delivered a world-leading outcome, he told his troops. He did recognise the states’ contribution, stressing that “we’re all in this together”, but as the week unfolded that gloss began to fade.

Morrison made special mention of Health and Aged Care Minister Greg Hunt, who was thanked for his dedication: “Australians are safer today than they otherwise would have been, were it not for your skill and your leadership.” But it’s a leadership that preferred misleading spin on how successful the vaccine rollout has been, especially for aged and disability care facilities. Hunt had to correct the record when his department’s evidence in estimates exposed his shonky numbers. He claims it was an inadvertent mistake this time, but what he cannot deny is his tricky use of numbers on many other occasions.

The prime minister’s entire spiel was backward-looking. He spoke of the billions spent last year and took credit for the days when there was no virus detected anywhere. The role luck played with the microbe not escaping the hotel quarantine arrangements earlier was not acknowledged. These arrangements remain dangerously inadequate because the latest outbreak shows only one person needs to catch the bug in hotel quarantine in Adelaide, bring it unwittingly into Melbourne and carry on with a very active life in the community across several suburbs.

By midweek that single infection had grown to a cluster of 60. This virus had entered the high-risk settings of aged-care homes, where staff and residents were left exposed by a vaccine rollout that simply failed to deliver what the federal government had promised.

Morrison made not one mention of quarantine or vaccine difficulties in his paean to Liberal excellence. There were no admissions, and certainly no apologies for things not going anywhere near as well as the prime minister repeatedly keeps telling us they are under his government.

Not surprisingly, at the federal council meeting, the delegates from all over Australia – except Victoria – gave the party’s government leaders an enthusiastic reception. There were standing ovations for Morrison and South Australian Premier Steven Marshall, with whoops and hollers reserved for New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian. Tasmania’s Peter Gutwein was absent.

Berejiklian’s popularity, according to the prime minister, is due to her gold-standard ability to keep Sydney and her state open, despite outbreaks and local lockdowns. But it is impossible to believe that even Saint Gladys could keep Sydney open if she had more than 350 exposure sites all over the metropolitan area and beyond.

As Melbourne went into its second week of lockdown – with restrictions in the regions loosening – the chief health officer, Brett Sutton, sounded an ominous warning for the whole nation. With only 2 per cent of the population fully vaccinated, and now facing a new strain that can spread through “fleeting contact”, drastic action is needed. If the virus were allowed to spread unchecked as in other countries, Sutton said, “many people will die”.

Yet another hotel quarantine failure in Perth this week had Premier Mark McGowan calling for the Commonwealth to get serious about purpose-built facilities. McGowan nominated Christmas Island, which was used early in the pandemic for Australians evacuated from Wuhan in China.

Queensland government sources say the proposal for a federal facility at Toowoomba has been discussed at state and federal officials’ level. However, Commonwealth Department of Health officers told senate estimates this week they had not been asked to evaluate the plans, which are detailed and, according to one familiar with the project, “an inch thick”.

Morrison certainly didn’t take the opportunity last weekend to make an announcement about Victoria’s proposed special purpose quarantine. Instead, he and his treasurer rejected Victoria’s pleas for help with income support. Josh Frydenberg told concerned backbenchers that the state Labor government “ran a pretty desperate attempt to smear us, when in reality the numbers tell a very different story”. The numbers he quoted were all relevant to what he rolled out to the states last year. What he and Morrison appear to be missing is that Victoria and the nation are facing a different situation now and the race against the virus is stalling.

There was a more conciliatory tone from Canberra as Victoria plunged into another week of health incarceration. But the federal government still preferred to bask in the results of its mammoth spending last year that went a long way to produce strong recovery in economic growth for the March quarter. The Victorian lockdown – costing an estimated $100 million a day – may dent the nation’s future performance.

Morrison assured the government party room that attempts to blame the Commonwealth for the lockdown in Victoria are not fooling the public. He needs to spend a morning listening to talkback radio in Melbourne. Many callers to the ABC and commercial programs alike understand vaccination and quarantine are the only solutions to avoid crippling lockdowns. And even before the latest outbreak, Victorians, like Australians everywhere, were experiencing difficulties in getting their jabs.

Berejiklian’s frustration with the federal vaccine rollout saw her pre-empt Canberra and set up mass vaccination hubs. Victoria shares her frustration. It responded to the Commonwealth’s failure to vaccinate those on the front line in aged care by announcing a five-day vaccination blitz, allowing these workers to jump the queue at state hubs.

One NSW health official says that the only way to have the entire nation vaccinated by the end of the year is for Morrison to sideline his preferred private GP rollout and make millions more doses available to the states. The federal opposition says the supply is there; it’s the rollout and management that are gumming up the works. Shadow Health minister Mark Butler says there are 1.4 million doses now available every week. He wonders where they are going.

In interviews earlier this week, Finance Minister Simon Birmingham pleaded bad luck for many of the problems with the vaccine rollout. His honesty in even admitting there have been problems was refreshing, but stubbornness and incompetence cannot be ruled out as factors. Stubbornness in the Morrison government not more urgently upgrading quarantine around the nation as the premiers, the opposition and epidemiologists are urging. And incompetence in the vaccine ordering and delivery.

Maybe the Liberal machine, and even Morrison himself, realises a rush to the polls isn’t the best strategy – considering the shambles, and the arrival of a variant even lockdowns are struggling to contain.

But at the Liberal council, party federal director Andrew Hirst told delegates the election would be within the next 12 months, and they had better start preparing. At Tuesday’s party room meeting, the prime minister, for the third consecutive time, “announced that the election is next year”, according to the official briefing. And he reminded colleagues, especially those who read his “within 12 months” last week as wriggle room to go early, that he “has never said anything different”.

The next election was certainly on the mind of former attorney-general now Industry minister Christian Porter. At the kerbside media conference after dropping his defamation action against the ABC, Porter said he fully intended to contest the next election and represent the people of his marginal electorate.

Whether the voters of Pearce believe his claim that the national broadcaster regretted publishing a “sensationalist” article against him is yet to be tested. But what we do know is that Porter has not subjected himself to cross-examination under oath, something the prime minister previously welcomed as the appropriate remedy to the historic rape allegations against him.

The original article has been updated to say the ABC regretted that some readers may have misinterpreted it as an accusation of guilt against Porter.

Morrison is now left pretending the matter has been settled and will go away. He used his numbers in parliament to shut down a Labor call for an independent inquiry into whether Porter is a fit and proper person to be a cabinet minister.

Porter, in claiming a win, ignored the reality that he received no apology, the contentious article is still online, he received no damages and he is still desperate to block the ABC’s court defence details being published.

As spin goes, it is of a piece with the success of the vaccine rollout and quarantine arrangements.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 5, 2021 as "The only thing the Morrison government is on top of is spin".

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