Politics Opinion

China may be Morrison's last hope for re-election

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Prime Minister Scott Morrison will soon be facing an election where his failures may see the end of his role as leader (Screenshot via YouTube)

Having failed Australia through environmental and health catastrophes, Scott Morrison will likely focus on saving the nation from China to win re-election, writes Paul Begley.

TO ANYONE paying attention, it’s now increasingly clear that, like his U.S. mentor Donald Trump, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has never been genuinely interested in becoming involved in the public health dimension of the COVID-19 pandemic and that remains true today.

When it was apparent to anyone who was half awake earlier this year that vaccination was the most urgent issue on the national agenda, the Prime Minister assured us repeatedly, despite not ordering enough vaccine supplies, that vaccinating Australians was “not a race”. He belatedly realised that line hit a wrong note, but there’s little doubt it’s what he meant.

There has been only one race on Morrison’s mind for the past three years and it’s the race towards his re-election as God’s chosen one. He’s aware God alone won’t get him over the finish line in front, as he showed in 2019 when more than $700 million was splurged on sports and car park grants to marginal electorates to assist the divine cause. However, it’s a race in which he holds a strong hand because although the election must be held before May 2022, the starting pistol is in his hand and he can decide when to pull the trigger. And he knows the Murdoch press and Clive Palmer’s war chest are on his team.

On the bothersome matter of the virus itself, the PM reminded us again recently that it’s not something that should trouble us. We must not fear the virus, he insisted in a major speech about his National Plan in August; those who do fear it are “cave dwellers” stuck in the “darkest hour that comes before the dawn”. Good Australians fix their sight on the dawn by following the National Plan. There will be those who seek to undermine it but he insists they come with sinister motivation.

Anyone who thought the National Plan is about the virus needed to do a swift mental reset when the brand-new NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet all but overruled the health considerations of the pandemic within the first few days of taking office, doing so with the enthusiastic approval of the PM. We have an economic crisis, said the ex-state Treasurer and that crisis trumps public health. Perrottet got it.

The National Plan is a re-election plan, pure and simple. Public health is an irritating distraction as we emerge from the darkest hour but it must not prevent the glow of the Morrison dawn from breaking through.

By contrast, the Victorian Premier, Daniel Andrews, followed the Morrison National Plan to the letter by relaxing lockdown orders on Friday as soon as 70 per cent of Victorian adults had been vaccinated. Behaving as if it were the PM’s public relations arm, the Herald Sun all but ignored Premier Andrews and ran a front-page story under the headline ‘Fast-track Freedom’ that focused on Morrison’s role in ending the lockdown and welcoming Victorians to enjoy his freedom to have fun rather than the Premier’s spoilsport restrictions.

Much has been said about Scott Morrison’s capabilities as a blame shifter when things start to point to him being the cause of a problem. Not so much has been observed about his ability to reset narratives so that his flaws are overlooked and his contribution to positive political outcomes are accentuated. His narrative resets are often so neat in hindsight that they give cause for wondering whether they were scripted from the beginning or adroitly recast when things start to go pear-shaped.

Take the vexed matter of national quarantine. No one disputes that quarantine is a federal issue. That being the case, early in the current pandemic before Delta, there may have been good reason to think the Morrison Government would assume its constitutional responsibility for quarantine, spare Australia from inevitable contagion by preventing the virus from spreading and take well-deserved credit for doing so.

But that is not how a Machiavellian mind works. Morrison knows from first-hand experience that winning credit for preventing a disaster is problematic. Not long ago, he played a part in making sure that Kevin Rudd was given no credit for the swift injection of spending capability that helped prevent the fallout other countries suffered in the immediate wake of the 2008 Global Financial Crisis.

Despite the world’s credit-rating agencies holding Australia up at the time as an exemplary economic manager with a triple-A credit rating, Wayne Swan became the focus of a relentless political blitzkrieg by the Abbott Opposition in association with the Murdoch press over a so-called “debt and deficit” train wreck, with a 2010 post-GFC national debt of $191 billion and a 2013 budget deficit of $19 billion.

By 2014, Joe Hockey was allowed by the same Murdoch tabloids to borrow massively to raise the national debt to $319 billion. His successor as Treasurer, Scott Morrison, borrowed further to raise it to $501 billion in 2017 and $561 billion by December 2019 before the onset of the pandemic under Treasurer Josh Frydenberg. Under Frydenberg, it now stands at a massive $834 billion and the Treasurer is talking generously about tax cuts for the wealthy.

The horror of a $191 billion national debt was a Murdoch con in 2010 but it worked to alarm a malleable tabloid audience who are now spared the knowledge of what it means to be burdened by a national debt heading into trillion-dollar territory. If they were to discover that knowledge by other means, they would be reassured by our American media patron that debt and deficit have magically vanished as matters of national concern.

On the quarantine issue, Morrison knew that rather than opting for prevention as Rudd did, there was political merit in letting a disaster get a foothold and enough momentum to cause real public fear, then appear to come to the rescue as the heroic saviour at the last minute. He could see from as early as the Ruby Princess case that infections could spread swiftly in quarantine settings and that it was highly likely things could go badly wrong, even with purpose-built quarantine facilities such as the two in Howard Springs and Alice Springs, both in the Northern Territory.  

He also knew the state governments had a vested interest in making sure the virus was sufficiently well contained within their own jurisdictions so as not to overburden the hospital system as had happened in other countries in those early days during 2020. Morrison did nothing and state premiers could see that he intended to do nothing, other than watch state governments frantically setting up their own makeshift hotel quarantine arrangements to deal with unruly overseas arrivals, in the full knowledge that each state premier would have to get it right or get blamed for whatever went wrong. And there was plenty of room for error, as became apparent in the ill-equipped hotels solution.

It’s now getting on to two years since the pandemic first presented itself and by now, there is orchestrated public confusion on the quarantine issue with state governments perceived as having oversight of the policy area. Federal promises have been made to the Victorian and Queensland Governments but not delivered, so much so that Queensland’s Palaszczuk Government has taken steps to build its own quarantine facility.

As for Morrison, the confusion helps his cause as he switches attention to reaching percentage milestones of the delayed vaccination rollout hoping that most voters have forgotten that he caused the delay in the first place. All this as he brazenly celebrates the milestone achievements towards “freedom”, having done precious little to bring them about.

The dark days of the lockdowns behind him, the next step will be to flick the switch from his domestic record by looking outward to the threatening drums of war beyond our borders. We are not at war with China, of course, but that will not stop the Prime Minister fabricating a narrative with China as our enemy, one that his Government has been fomenting for months.

This is a Prime Minister who has been weak on foresight dealing with bushfires, quarantine, vaccination, robodebt and rape culture within his own Party ranks. But he can find redemption in presenting himself to the voters as a heroic national leader on the front foot who has already taken steps by virtue of his AUKUS statement of intent with the U.S. and Britain to give the appearance of his leadership in containing Chinese belligerence and saving us from the unspeakable horror that a bellicose China would unleash on us.

Paul Begley has worked for many years in public affairs roles, until recently as General Manager of Government and Media Relations with the Australian HR Institute. You can follow Paul on Twitter @yelgeb.

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