Politics Analysis

Morrison's border backflip: PM's 'Teflon miracle' appears over

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Scott Morrison has deflected and evaded significant criticism for most of his tenure (image via YouTube)

It is political orthodoxy that oppositions don’t win elections and governments lose them.

But how do governments lose elections? When their political capital dries up and they are written off by the electorate as illegitimate.

Has Morrison reached that point of no return? 

You might be surprised that the biggest news story last week was not that the Prime Minister was labelled a "psycho" by an anonymous member of his Cabinet.

Despite some journalists’ best efforts at prime ministerial image management, the biggest story wasn’t Morrison’s inappropriate hair-washing cosplay.

No, the biggest story was Morrison’s spectacularly cynical backflip to support the closed Western Australian border.

This story was conveniently downplayed by most news outlets, apart from the outraged Daily Mail and miserable Chris Kenny on Sky News.

It is not surprising that journalists who have supported Morrison’s anti-health restrictions campaign throughout the pandemic are now struggling to work out how to report Morrison’s change of direction.

What’s even more interesting than the media’s stunned-mullet reaction, is that Morrison has climbed quite so quickly off his "live with COVID" mantra. Like a dog with its tail between its legs, Morrison has admitted that a closed border is actually quite a good idea if you’re trying to save lives during a pandemic.

This is of course, what Morrison should have been focused on across Australia from the very beginning.

Morrison’s admission in support of Premier Mark McGowan’s closed border tells us much about the sorry state of Morrison’s prime ministership. For two years of the pandemic, Morrison has opposed policies designed to keep people safe: closed borders and lockdowns, while urging Australians to live alongside the virus.

This backflip was of course not precipitated by any contrite acknowledgement at having got his COVID-narrative wrong. Being the predictably untrustworthy person that he is, Morrison can’t help but qualify his support for McGowan’s policy by saying the border only has to remain closed because the Western Australian health system cannot cope with Omicron.

Like everything Morrison does, his u-turn was a political strategy, responding to disastrous opinion polls and the need to hang onto seats in WA.

But the fact remains that Morrison’s support for McGowan’s closed border shows us Morrison has lost this argument and he knows it. This is no small thing. It’s a watershed moment where Morrison is admitting “the people have spoken, and they do not agree with me”.

Quite the concession on the eve of an election being announced.

Morrison’s reversal in fortunes from the “miracle” man, to a prime minister so maimed by his unpopularity that he is prey to white-anting by Liberal leadership contenders, is a fascinating political phenomenon to observe.

I think of political capital like a ceiling. When the new ceiling is shiny brand new, it is robust enough to withstand a few issues. A crack appears after a misjudged trip to Hawaii during the bushfire crisis. Some water seeps in when vaccines aren’t supplied efficiently. But these problems can be papered over with a bit of public relations, particularly if you’re Morrison and you have the majority of the mainstream media helping you with the plastering and paint job.

What this thin veneer hides, however, is structural damage. In the case of political capital, this structural damage is a trust deficit. A weakened ceiling only needs one big thunderstorm – one more pooled political crisis like Morrison’s failure to buy and supply rapid antigen tests, or the drip of Grace Tame’s steely stare – and the whole thing comes crashing down.

At this point, the ceiling needs to be replaced. It can’t be patched over with a curry night or a Sharks game.

Everyone can see the ceiling is no longer there, can witness the mess it has caused and the situation causes panic for all involved. Is that where Morrison is now?

We’ve seen before what happens to prime ministers when they lose their legitimacy-ceilings. John Howard lost his legitimacy over the WorkChoices industrial assault and his lies about the war in Iraq. Tony Abbott had little legitimacy to lose when he became Prime Minister, and so lost his ceiling rapidly after becoming an embarrassment and a laughingstock, replaced as prime minister only two years into the job.

Like Howard, Abbott was further humiliated by losing his political career through the loss of his safe-blue-ribbon seat.

Up until 2022, Morrison was like Teflon: nothing stuck. But, while it might have looked like his political capital was as clean as a whitewashed ceiling, all the while untrustworthy behaviour, a failure to take responsibility, and evidence of incompetence was piling up, damaging and weakening the Morrison brand.

Despite the lack of media scrutiny given to Morrison’s gigantic backflip on the WA border, I see this as evidence that his ceiling has collapsed and he knows it. When Morrison finally faced some difficult questions at the National Press Club last week, it felt like journalists could smell blood.

Perhaps they can see his crumpled ceiling on the floor, too?

Dr Victoria Fielding is an Independent Australia columnist. You can follow Victoria on Twitter @Vic_Rollison.

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