The politics of a pandemic: When Scott Morrison lost the plot

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Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons

The COVID-19 pandemic has become a political crisis for Scott Morrison. He will survive for now, but as Dr Martin Hirst explains, he will likely become a victim of the coronavirus soon enough.

WHATEVER NATIONAL CONSENSUS holds at the moment between the Prime Minister and the premiers is fragile. We nearly saw it break right open on Sunday, when Daniel Andrews announced that Victoria was going to close down all non-essential “activity” and shutter state schools for an early and extended Easter break, whether Morrison agreed or not.

Andrews’ language was clear:

“I will inform National Cabinet tonight…”

No asking, no discussion, not taking “No” for an answer. I don’t know what actually transpired in that phone hookup on Sunday evening, but Morrison wasn’t happy when he fronted the press pack.

That night, Morrison was angry, belligerent, unapologetic and rude. He also refused to take any responsibility for the shambolic confusing mess that has characterised the Federal response to the pandemic over the last two to three weeks.

Morrison berated young people, sniped at their parents and essentially said it was our (the public’s) fault that the lockdown measures had to come into force this week.

It was interesting to note former Liberal adviser and now renegade shareholder activist Stephen Mayne attempt to defend Morrison’s poor performance on Twitter:

I couldn’t help but come back with a simple list of things Morrison could have done better.

The PM could have:

  • not behaved like a bullying headmaster from the 1970s;
  • faked some empathy, even the unfunded sort;
  • admitted some earlier mistakes in handling the crisis;
  • agreed to shut schools with some grace, instead of a hollow lecture on the importance of education;
  • refrained from blaming young people; and
  • had a plan in place before talking meaninglessly about “stage one” and “stage two” of the bungled response.

Failing all the above, he could resign. And this gets us neatly to the heart of the matter.

This is a political crisis brought about by Morrison’s own hubris.

He could have been remembered as the Prime Minister who brought the country together at a time of grave national threat. Morrison could have and he should have, but he didn’t because he is incapable of real leadership. The PM’s credibility was shot to pieces when he snuck off to Hawaii in the midst of the bushfire crisis and then had his office staff deny – on the record – that he was there.

Any sensible leader would have learned from that PR disaster, but ScoMo is not that sensible leader.

He is out of his depth in the shallow end of Australian politics and that’s why he had to lean on the premiers and chief ministers for support. Even then, Morrison managed to bungle what should have been a political triumph. He invited the Labor premiers to the Cabinet table, but not the Federal Labor Leader.

At this powerful moment in time, Morrison could have risen above the hurly-burly of politics and cemented his place in Australian history as a statesman. He failed us. He failed the country and he failed himself — miserably.

He could easily have reached across the aisle and invited Albanese to join a dignified united front to tackle the coronavirus and the socio-economic fallout. His inability to do so was a fundamental mistake of leadership. But Morrison is nothing if not a fundamentalist.

The fundamentalist Morrison is, at heart, a culture warrior. He is a man of ideology, not a man of ideas. His fundamentalism and his combative nature do not afford him the mental space to think of coalition-building in the best interests of a confused nation, struggling to come to terms with what is, potentially, the biggest disaster in living memory, at least since World War II.

On Sunday night, Morrison gambled the last pennies of his once substantial political capital and he lost. Whatever happens in the next few weeks and months, ScoMo is a spent force now. He is politically wounded. He has lost control of the narrative and his political assassination is now inevitable.

He will be remembered as the PM who led Australia into this crisis, but he’s unlikely to be the PM who leads us out the other side.

It will be instructive for the next prime minister to unpack where it all went wrong for #ScottyFromMarketing. The problem and the answer are all wrapped up in that singular and devastatingly humiliating three-word title.

Where it all went wrong for Smirko

Scott Morrison is the accidental Prime Minister. He was not supposed to win the August 2018 challenge. Peter Dutton was the anointed successor, but thanks to Mathias Cormann’s inept counting skills and Morrison’s treacherous ambition, here we are.

Let’s never doubt that Morrison wanted Turnbull’s job. He is as ambitious, it turns out, as he is arrogant and aggressive under pressure.

Morrison is also a true-believer and not just in the money-grubbing magical thinking of the Pentecostal prosperity gospel. He is also a believer in the economic voodoo of neoliberal fiscal policy.

He clings, Gollum-like, to the precious illusion of an economic surplus — the one that he famously said he’d already delivered “next year”. Morrison’s policy-thinking is unoriginal and dogmatic. He is a captive to the toxic nostrums of the Institute of Public Affairs — intellectually dominated by the disciples of Hayek, Rand and Friedman. To Morrison and his fundamentalist colleagues, John Maynard Keynes is just another name for "Lucifer".

At his thinking core, Morrison is a Thatcherite wrecker. There is no such thing as “unfunded empathy” and we’ve been starkly reminded of that through the first month of this pandemic.

At every turn, Morrison and his gormless sidekick, Josh Frydenberg, have laid in plans to prop up big business and the shareholders who want their franking credits and their surplus too.

The $715 million going to the airlines will not help the 50,000 workers who’ve been sent home without pay. It will all go to propping up shareholder value so that Alan Joyce and Paul Scurrah get their annual bonuses restored.

There is very little to help the unfortunate souls who are now without an income. The money set aside for welfare payments is quarantined behind so many rules and caveats that you’ll have to be on your deathbed before you’re eligible.

It’s handouts to big business, thoughts and prayers for everyone else and bullying threats for those who dissent.

Policy vacuum in the Canberra bubble

There is a policy vacuum inside Scott Morrison’s Canberra bubble and as Aristotle reminds us, nature abhors a vacuum. The political seals that keep Morrison’s bubble intact are about to be broken under the pressure of circumstance. Morrison will barricade himself inside the bubble for the foreseeable future and the electoral cycle is on his side.

It’s been less than a year since the last election. Let that sink in.

If Morrison survives this crisis, he’s got three more years in the Lodge. But we need to understand Morrison’s days are numbered. The Liberal Party heavyweights will come for him soon enough.

Ironically, Scotty from Marketing has damaged the Liberal brand. He has wantonly spent the last shekels of goodwill in the Liberal Party coffers. He was never up to the job and he is expendable.

The problem we face is that, outside of heavenly intervention, the next Liberal prime minister is likely to be worse. Like the convocation of Hogwarts, it's frightening to mention his name but he is busy gathering the Horcruxes of power behind the curtain.

Dr Martin Hirst is a journalist, author and academic. You can follow him on Twitter @ethicalmartini.

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