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MUNGO MACCALLUM: Scott Morrison appeals to Team Australia

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Part of dealing with the coronavirus pandemic has been trying to avoid an economic recession (Screenshot via YouTube)

The bulk of Morrison's cash splash goes to business and is unlikely to trickle down into the pockets of consumers in the foreseeable future, writes Mungo MacCallum.

TO THE MANIFEST RELIEF of the Coalition and its supporters, Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s approach to the coronavirus crisis has been cautiously endorsed by the voters.

They have not yet embraced him; even his most enthusiastic spruikers use phrases like “so far, he had hardly put a foot wrong” — a long way from the unstinting praise he craves. But it is a huge improvement from the shellacking he received after the serial stuff-ups during the bushfire disasters.

Then the feeling was that he had clearly lost control, he didn’t really know what was happening and he didn’t care. But this time, ScoMo has grabbed the initiative; it would be nice to be seen as compassionate and empathetic, but these are optional extras. What matters is that he is seen to have taken charge.

So he can report progress — so far, so good. And this means he can get on with milking it for all it is worth and then some. Last week, we barely saw him off the television, one grave and portentous speech after another, assuring a bewildered public that whatever the situation actually is, he is on top of it — alert but not alarmed, ready for action.

Or, if not immediate action, at least an “announceathon”. To set the scene, Tuesday opened with the announcement that there would shortly be more announcements. And true to his word, he returned on Wednesday to talk about the substantive issue — what his government was doing about the health of a nervous public.

It was not before time; the official response, especially on the key questions of who should be tested and where, when and how it was to be done, had become confused and confusing — in some cases simply unworkable. So arrangements have been re-jigged and ramped up and crucially there is to be a hefty PR campaign, a solution dear to our leader’s heart.

And then came the big one — Thursday was make or break, money day, loads of the stuff to be shovelled out in the hope of averting a recession. A recession is normally defined as two successive quarters of a fall in the GDP. Just about all the economists regard the current March quarter as a write-off — it is too late to save it now. So it will all be up to June and no expense will be spared to push the figures across the edge into positive territory.

This, obviously, is the whole point of the exercise. And for Morrison, it is of paramount importance — not just economically, but politically. Having denigrated and derided the way Kevin Rudd and Wayne Swan had managed to avoid one over the Global Financial Crisis, it would be the deepest of humiliations if one occurred on his own watch years later, an unprecedented full generation of economic growth for Australia, the only country to have ever achieved such a feat.

Actually, he might even get away with it — it appears that the public, clearly panicked by the pandemic, is prepared to be forgiving as the politicians switch policies and directions, break undertakings and promises in the hope they might ride this one out, too. The loss of the long-promised surplus has apparently been received with equanimity.

Explaining away a real recession – with activity going backwards and unemployment soaring – would be tougher, but there are already signs that Morrison is preparing to take out insurance — one of his many tergiversations has been to announce that contrary to his earlier reassurances, COVID-19 is actually a greater threat than was the GFC.

But then, he also says that unlike the GFC, the disruption will be temporary; the economy will snap back, barely touching the ground before rebounding to resume the search for the holy surplus. And this typifies the muddle surrounding Morrison’s Friday announcement, which even his claque in The Australian admitted was a farrago of mixed messages rather than an enunciation of the “clear plan” he was claiming.

He has now effectively followed two-thirds of the Keynesian advice of then-Treasury head Ken Henry in 2008: “Go hard, go early and go to households.” ScoMo has certainly gone hard; the scale of the current package far exceeds what Rudd envisaged, with the likelihood of more to come — scalable, as Morrison calls it, meaning he has no real idea whether it will be adequate or not.

And, for reasons previously mentioned, it is certainly early. But he has squibbed on the households bit — the bulk of the cash splash goes to business and is unlikely to trickle down into the pockets of consumers in the foreseeable future, if it ever does. The only households which will receive a direct handout will be recipients of welfare, who obviously need it, but in the current uncertain times may be reluctant to spend it in the way Morrison hopes.

The whole point of the Rudd stimulus was to instil confidence across the board, which is why the money followed the same path. But Morrison is instilling not confidence but confusion — off-the-cuff changes about travel restrictions, advice to cancel some, but not all, gatherings, daily announcements amounting to overload. It reeks of ad hocery, of reacting to events instead of anticipating them.

A fine example was that when Peter Dutton succumbed to infection, Morrison assured the world that medical professionals had told him there was no need for him to be tested, let alone quarantined, but that he was, after all, not going to the footy as promised because — well, because why? We weren’t told, which leads to the suspicion that there are other things we are not being told either.

And in the end, Morrison resorted to the old standby: an appeal to Team Australia's patriotism — the dubious quality that Samuel Johnson described as “the last refuge of a scoundrel”.

Morrison is not seen as a scoundrel, but he is still a fair way to political redemption. Morrison obviously sees himself as a great leader, omniscient and omnipotent, but he has succeeded only in making himself omnipresent. To get to the next stage he will have to channel the tsunami of announcements into a message which is rational, convincing and trustworthy.

Unfortunately, these are not the traits we associate with the master marketeer.

Mungo MacCallum is a veteran journalist who worked for many years in the Canberra Press Gallery. This article was published on 'Pearls and Irritations' and is republished with permission.

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