Paul Bongiorno
Morrison plays the other race card

The setting for the government parties room meeting back in Canberra after the winter break was depressing. It wasn’t hard to see it as a metaphor for the deep hole in which the Morrison government finds itself.

Held in the cavernous, almost empty Great Hall, with lockdowns in New South Wales and Queensland meaning numbers were substantially depleted, and those there wearing masks and sitting on socially distanced chairs, some saw the spectacle as an omen of their post-election prospects.

Having spent the past 46 days either in quarantine or isolation, Scott Morrison began his leader’s report thanking everyone for their loyalty. He reminded the assembled members and senators that they were a winning team. And, he said: “Good teams know how to win when they’re behind.” Pushing the football imagery, he said: “We are a good team and good teams know how to win when they are behind in the heavy weather on a hard and muddy track. That’s how you know you are a good team.”

Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce took his inspiration from Peter Bol’s win in the 800 metres semi-final in Tokyo. He said: “The place you win a race is at the end, using tactics.” Joyce noted that the Australian athlete made his move 80 metres from the end – and said that’s how the government would win the election.

Having spent the first four months of the year assuring Australians the vaccine rollout was not a race, Morrison is now in the race of his political life. On Monday, in an “exclusive” opinion piece for The Australian, he said we now need 70 per cent of our population aged over 16 vaccinated to start saying goodbye to lockdowns. He said, “When we hit 80 per cent, lockdowns should become a thing of the past.”

The head of the government’s vaccine taskforce, Lieutenant-General John Frewen, is confident we can hit the 70 per cent mark by the end of the year. Few, if anyone, in the government party room think even the miracle-working Morrison can win the next election if the rollout hasn’t hit 80 per cent before Australians vote.

Their apprehensions are vindicated by the latest Essential poll, which shows a dramatic slump in support for Morrison’s handling of the pandemic. In March his net approval – the positives over the negatives – was plus 58. Now it is plus three.

Research in Sydney and Melbourne by political strategy company RedBridge, reported in The Australian, found “significant angst” over Morrison’s handling of the pandemic. The deteriorating situation in NSW and “the incoherent vaccination rollout” were “exacerbating voter concerns”.

Morrison drew derision from his political opponents and despair from some of his colleagues when he ended his “exclusive” call to arms by claiming “our gold medal run to the end of the year is now well under way”. He said, “Our Olympians in Tokyo have given us the perfect inspiration to get this done.”

That inspiration has come very late. Unlike those who have done the nation proud by their skill, competence and planning, the Morrison government has been noteworthy for its failure to emulate our champions.

The Doherty Institute’s director of epidemiology, Professor Jodie McVernon, warned that even with 70 per cent of the population vaccinated, the prediction of only 16 people dying would depend on “effective tracing, testing and quarantine arrangements in place”.

Eighteen months into the pandemic, the country still has only one purpose-built quarantine facility at Howard Springs in the Northern Territory. This was the only facility thought safe enough for our returning Olympic athletes to use, a sure indictment of the Commonwealth’s lack of initiative in discharging its constitutional obligations. Even now the federal government is only at the planning stage for purpose-built facilities in Melbourne and Brisbane.

Lieutenant-General Frewen is giving regular briefings on the vaccine rollout, lending the credibility of his uniform and medals to his political masters. Midweek he said it was “mathematically possible” to achieve the 70 per cent and even 80 per cent vaccination targets needed to “live with the virus”.

But the general admits that to do this he will need to overcome vaccine hesitancy and rejection found among a significant minority. Some polls suggest it could be as high as 20 per cent of the population.

It was into this space that Labor leapt on the eve of parliament resuming. Armed with figures showing that vaccination uptake is dividing along socioeconomic lines, Anthony Albanese proposed a cash incentive of $300 for everyone who has already received or is willing to receive a double dose by December 1.

It is clearly of real concern that Sydney’s west and south-west, the epicentre of the worsening Delta outbreak, have the lowest vaccination rates in the state. It is no coincidence these are areas of great ethnic diversity, a younger demographic and lower incomes, often earned though casual and insecure work all over Sydney.

The Labor leader’s initiative, which he claims credit for as an economics graduate who understands how cash incentives influence behaviour, led to some of the most incoherently hypocritical debate for some time. And that’s saying something.

Morrison and Frewen are both on the record this week supporting the idea of lottery prizes or other benefits to get people vaccinated as soon as possible. But when Albanese asked the prime minister in parliament if he would adopt Labor’s proposal, Morrison said it was a bad idea and quoted infectious disease expert Dr Peter Collignon. He did not, however, go on to quote Collignon’s view that “not enough vaccine is the main issue, not hesitancy”.

Morrison bellowed that Albanese’s proposal was “an insult to Australians”. This is the same person who, as minister for Social Services, legislated a “no jab no pay” policy, withholding family benefit payments to parents who did not vaccinate their children. Somehow Morrison tried to claim this was not an incentive to influence people’s behaviour.

But it takes some chutzpah to reject Albanese’s $6 billion idea as a reckless cash splash in line with Labor’s stimulus measures during the global financial crisis. Morrison railed against “their last untargeted, ill-disciplined fiscal recklessness”. He said the Labor Party had learnt absolutely nothing.

The attack may have had some credibility if he had not presided over the estimated $25 billion of JobKeeper money that went to businesses and companies that did not need it but sent it to their bottom line, paying themselves bonuses and dividends.

Labor defends itself for wanting to give $2.5 billion of the $6 billion to people already vaccinated, saying it is stimulus for the economy that will flow through to businesses badly hit by the recurring and lengthy lockdowns. The government made a similar point about the benefits of JobKeeper – rorted or not. The quantum, though, is substantially different. The $25 billion creamed off by businesses in JobKeeper is almost $9 billion more than Labor spent on its entire $16.2 billion GFC schools building program.

Morrison’s performance on the first sitting day was ragged and nasty. He accused the Labor leader of “thought bubbles without thought” and claimed Albanese hadn’t “bothered to speak to Lieutenant-General Frewen or to seek a meeting with him. He cancelled his meeting even yesterday.”

Albanese called “Liar” across the dispatch box and was asked to withdraw by the speaker. In a personal explanation, he later outlined his engagement with Frewen to arrange a briefing. His version was supported by the general on morning TV and the two men met on Thursday.

Morrison’s use of Frewen in this crass piece of politics realised the fear many have, including some in the military, that this appointment could damage the reputation of our defence forces.

Following on from the ugly question time, Finance Minister Simon Birmingham criticised the Albanese cash incentive for not being needed now, but conceded if the rollout stalls later, something like it may be necessary.

Some on the Liberal backbench suspect Albanese’s “cash splash” was under active consideration by the government anyway and the Labor leader was being cheekily pre-emptive.

For his part, Albanese says Morrison’s record in the pandemic is to act consistently too late and with responses, especially this year, that are too little. He says he wouldn’t be surprised if Morrison picked it up in a month’s time and claimed it as his own.

Victoria’s sixth lockdown, imposed on Thursday, is just another dramatic confirmation of Australia’s failure to protect its citizens with an urgent and timely vaccination rollout.

What is certain is that if the rollout doesn’t pick up pace, no one will be surprised at what a desperate Morrison would do to save his bacon.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 7, 2021 as "Morrison plays the other race card".

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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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