MUNGO MACCALLUM: Scott Morrison's snapback might not be so easy

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Support for Scott Morrison may be rising, but whether he can lead us through a post-pandemic period is yet to be seen (Screenshot via YouTube)

Recovering from the social and economic devastation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic might not be as easy as Scott Morrison hopes, writes Mungo MacCallum.

WELL, THAT SHOULD be out of the way for the next four months. Having shrugged off the minor and temporary distraction of Parliament, Scott Morrison can resume doing what he is best at — marketing himself and his often dubious achievements. 

And he has finally got a few to boast about, as the overwhelming public support for his JobKeeper package has now been confirmed in the latest Newspoll. So he has momentum; but, as he constantly warns, this is not a time for complacency. 

Like many alpha predators, ScoMo needs to keep moving constantly to survive. And given that this is, as he realises, essentially a time of consolidation, of waiting to see what happens until about Anzac Day, he will have to find ways to keep himself on the daily, almost hourly, news bulletins in case those punters with more than the shortest of short-term memories remember why they had doubted him for so long. 

Fortunately, there are a few loose ends to tie up. Attorney-General Christian Porter called it a Dunkirk moment, hardly the happiest analogy given that Dunkirk was not a glorious victory but a desperate retreat — a bit like Anzac, actually, but let’s not go into that. 

And, as Labor’s Tony Burke acidly remarked, JobKeeper has left about a million casualties abandoned on the beaches, the hapless lot who are not eligible for the unexpected largesse. While some can be left there more or less indefinitely, there are those who will have to be triaged out, notably backpackers and other temporary visitors who are currently stranded without the means or ability to get home, and rapidly running out of any visible means of support. 

There will be enough tweaking to be done to guarantee a few press conferences. But the main game is sweating on the figures and particularly in the next couple of weeks. 

It is just about time to declare victory over the first wave, the COVID-19 outbreak triggered by overseas arrivals. The clampdown has now been in place for longer than the standard period of infection and while there are probably a few outlying cases to be identified and mopped up, the worst is clearly over — that curve has been flattened

Barring a new disaster, it is unlikely to rise. And we can be fairly sure that there are no more Ruby Princesses preparing to arrive — not even the smuggest of the buck passers in Border Force is willing to risk that. So far so good, but now on to COVID-19: Mark II. 

The rate of increase among domestic positive tests is still fairly slow, but there are more than enough of them and they are sufficiently widespread to start a second and potentially more lethal wave. And they are harder to police and control; not only are many of them appearing from apparently unknown causes, but there is a well-grounded fear that there is a surge of what are called asymptomatic infections lurking among the populace — Typhoid Marys who have no signs of the illness themselves, but can and do pass it on to others. 

This is a big issue for the current fortnight. If this curve flattens, or at least does not start bending more steeply, we can say with some confidence that the measures that are being undertaken, principally isolation, quarantine and social distancing, are working and if they are pursued with due diligence may get us through the initial nightmare. 

But, of course, that will not be the end. Even as we slowly and carefully ease the restrictions, things will be very different. Morrison talks airily about snapping back. But the economy is not like an elastic band that can be stretched to breaking point and then instantly resume its original shape. It is more like chewing gum — it can be moulded, distorted and otherwise maltreated, but no matter how carefully you leave it on the bedpost overnight, it can never be the same again. 

This does not mean revolution, the overthrow of capitalism and globalism, as some would-be Utopians might hope, but it does mean that there will have to be different rules, different standards as things struggle back to some form of coherence. And there will be much pain and gloom in the process; a lot of people and institutions have been damaged during the pandemic and its aftermath will be long-lasting and, for some, traumatic. 

Privileges and even rights will have to be curtailed, budgets and belts tightened. Morrison has suddenly flourished as the Great War Leader, but whether he can manage the period of austerity that will surely follow will be the big political question in the rest of his current electoral term. 

He will not have the advantage of urgency, of being allowed and even encouraged to rush through life-and-death decisions. But if he is serious about snapping back, he will have to summarily remove much of the bonanza he has only just bestowed on the voters. No more free childcare, back below the poverty line for Newstart. And it won’t be just the consumers at the sharp end — industries such as tourism and private hospitals will be back on their own. Taking back government benefits is never popular and it certainly won’t be this time.

In practice, it won’t be quite as sudden as that. The wind-down will come with warnings and a deal of preparation. But come it will, come it must, if Morrison’s newfound credibility is to endure and prosper.

The desire to return to what used to be called normal is strong, even obsessive. This is no doubt why the National Rugby League is moving heaven and Earth to resume some kind of competition by the end of next month. There is little doubt that this is the wrong message for the rest of us, immured in self-isolation. But if it happens, the fans will be hugely relieved, as will the administrators, players, sponsors and any TV network willing to broadcast the matches in the absence of live audiences. 

The games may go on, but if they do they will be scaled down, not quite the real thing, overhyped and in the end probably a bit of a letdown. Perhaps an ominous precursor for ScoMo’s brave new Australia.

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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