Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
On a wing nut and a prayer

Wishful thinking and an incompetent handling of the pandemic over the summer have shattered the chances of Scott Morrison pulling off another improbable election win.

What I would call the “Ellis factor” may yet save him, but it is a long shot. By that I mean voters applying the same tolerance for failed behaviour that my two-and-a-half-year-old grandson Ellis applies to himself. When his father admonished the miscreant for jumping up and down on his grandparents’ furniture with the punishment of “no Icy Pole for you”, Ellis shot back, “But I’m good now.”

Scott Morrison’s problem is he can’t even claim he’s “good now”. Worse still, there is a pattern to his inept crisis management. Australians as they go into this election year were supposed to be relaxed and comfortable after enjoying the freedoms that their governments, state and federal, had given them just before Christmas. The opposite is now true. The warnings of experts that our world-beating vaccination rates were not enough to ensure anything approaching a safe return to almost normal have been sadly and disastrously vindicated.

The prime minister was pinning his hopes of political revival on Australians putting behind them the horror of the past two years, triggered in no small way by the Commonwealth’s botching of the vaccine “strollout”.

A bullish Morrison had the pandemic in the rear-view mirror. He spoke confidently of getting government “out of people’s lives and off their backs”. He was the chief urger for the states to dismantle safeguards such as mandatory mask-wearing and social distancing. Most egregiously, the failures in the vaccine program were replicated in the scarcity of rapid antigen tests to keep a check on the spread of the virus.

Midweek, with polling evidence piling up that voters were marking him and his government down severely for its handling of the pandemic, there was a mea culpa of sorts. An almost breathless prime minister admitted on the Omicron variant that while “we knew it was contagious, but we didn’t quite know then how severe it could be”. It was a steep learning curve over seven dreadful weeks.

It was no consolation to the families of the more than 600 Australians who have died from Covid this month alone, at triple the pace of the Delta wave. Morrison blithely says we should “respect the virus and not fear it”.

While the prime minister claims Australia is doing better than most of the rest of the world, since we began letting it rip our rate of infections per 100,000 has now surpassed the United States’ and Britain’s. By midweek, the federal Health Department reported that total Covid-19 cases in Australia had topped 1.5 million, with a daily average over the past seven days of about 100,000.

It is difficult to see how the further easing of isolation rules and the ditching of the requirement for workplace RATs, as Morrison is urging, will make people safer or overcome supply shortages caused by sick drivers and workers.

Morrison, as is his style, is very keen to share the blame for the dearth of RATs with the states and territories. He boasts of ordering 75 million RATs in December and providing 10 million to the states. This has left former Health Department secretary and chair of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Jane Halton unimpressed. Halton told the ABC that Australia needs at least 300 million test kits and last week said the country was unprepared for the pandemic.

Her view is certainly shared by voters unable to secure the tests and, in many cases, hit by price-gouging when they can manage to find them. According to Nine newspapers’ Resolve Political Monitor poll, this crisis is being blamed primarily on Morrison and his government. There has been a 5 percentage point collapse in the Coalition’s primary vote, with a 3 percentage point rise in Labor’s. This is the first time in this poll that Labor has been ahead, although Newspoll has shown the opposition six to eight points ahead for much of last year in the two-party preferred. Resolve does not distribute preferences, but its pollster says the latest findings show the prime minister has a lot of ground to make up.

In a weekend interview Morrison was confident he was on track to win the looming election. He said, “I know all the things I have to do. I know what the path looks like. And I’m walking it.” This smacks more of hubris than anything else. Some on his backbench are yet to be convinced. They fear that waiting to the very last minute to hold the election won’t help. May 14 or 21 at the latest are now the most likely options he is considering.

The Novak Djokovic imbroglio, rather than being a triumph, has only served to highlight the government’s incompetence: first granting a visa and then taking 60 days to messily revoke it. Despite overwhelming public support for booting out the unvaccinated tennis world men’s No. 1, it has reopened damaging divisions on the government backbenches. Anti-vax champions in One Nation and Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party believe it plays into their hands. That may be wishful thinking, but it leaves Morrison looking helpless and unwilling to bring his recalcitrant MPs and senators into line.

This election year the prime minister faces the people with his credibility battered and against a wily opponent who is not as mistrusted as his predecessor. One Labor strategist says there is a firm view in the electorate the prime minister is “an incompetent bullshitter”. This perception hinders Morrison’s ability not only to promote his cause but to effectively attack Anthony Albanese. As well, Morrison is proving to be his own worst enemy.

The prime minister’s point-blank refusal to provide RAT kits free to everyone, as they do in Britain, the US, Germany and Singapore, puts him at odds with overwhelming public opinion. The Resolve poll is broadly in line with one taken late last week for The Australia Institute on this point.

The institute’s survey found 72 per cent of Australians believe the government should provide the tests to everyone free of charge, and that includes 66 per cent of Coalition voters. More than half (53 per cent) believe governments had failed to plan adequately over the past two years and the problems could have been avoided. The Resolve poll finds a lion’s share of the blame is sheeted home to the Commonwealth.

While some are critical of Albanese for taking four weeks to arrive at his view that the government “should be providing free rapid antigen tests across the economy”, he did get there. He says the failure to have a good supply of these tests readily available has caused economic restraint and cost jobs.

In that he has the support of the economist and former Reserve Bank board member Warwick McKibbin. In a terse Twitter post, McKibbin said the federal government should purchase the tests and provide them “without charge to all Australians. PERIOD.” He said the health and economic benefits were clear. The distinguished professor’s frustration was palpable. He observed: “This is a global pandemic with serious human and economic implications for all Australians. It is not a photo opportunity.”

Morrison’s stubbornness on RATs is matched by his refusal to come to the rescue of small enterprises suffering from what Business New South Wales says is a “shadow lockdown”. Chief executive Daniel Hunter called for a reintroduction of JobKeeper for those hit hardest in hospitality, tourism and retail.

Morrison and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg are more willing to boast about the support they gave at the beginning of the pandemic and talk up the less generous relief and loans currently on offer. Of course, JobKeeper is a running sore for the government thanks to its refusal to claw back a staggering $20 billion it overpaid businesses. That sum could purchase 1.6 billion test kits at a full retail price of $12.50 each. It is the equivalent of more than 60 RATs for every Australian.

After Morrison’s 2019 victory no one is prepared to write him off. This makes Labor the underdog, which the published opinion polls don’t support. It suits Albanese just fine. What also suits him is the belief in the Liberal Party that he is unelectable. Australian political history is littered with “unelectable” prime ministers and premiers. Although, as one nervous Labor insider points out, they are invariably Liberals.

Albanese spent a very successful 10 days campaigning in Queensland from Cairns to Brisbane. He visited 20 towns and cities and assured coalminers, beef producers, farmers and cane growers he was no threat to them. He generally received favourable or at the very least neutral coverage in local media: print, TV and radio.

Another indication he is being taken very seriously is the fact major media outlets assigned crews and journalists to cover the trip. The Australian and Nine newspapers reported matter-of-factly that he ruled out raising any taxes and rejected a Warren Buffett-style wealth tax for the mega-rich. It upsets progressives, but the Labor leader is sick of the party losing. Unlike Ellis and Morrison, Albanese believes he deserves the Icy Pole.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 22, 2022 as "On a wing nut and a prayer".

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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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