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Dan Breden reflects on Scott Morrison’s political revival in a challenging period of Australia’s history.
It’s a strange feeling knowing that your experiences and actions will go down in history. In decades to follow, we will look back and judge the actions that we, as a nation and as humans, make today. Governments will be placed under a microscope for the speed and severity of their measures. Citizens will either be shamed or applauded based on their willingness to sacrifice for the greater good. Countries will be rewarded for their decision-making or mourn thoughtless mistakes.
Australia is a nation reaping the benefits of their swift and decisive measures. Yet again, Australia has proved to be the “lucky country”, in spite of the seemingly incessant wave of catastrophes that have plagued us over the last year.
Let’s first rewind a few months to Australia’s preceding crisis, the bushfires which engulfed Australia on an unimaginable scale. The consequences of the bushfires included more than 12.6 million hectares burnt,the loss of 33 lives and over 1 billion animals. The world was in shock. As the Californian and Amazon fires garnered worldwide attention for their magnitude, Australia dealt with a crisis that was larger than the two combined.
One would think that Australia would have a stringent response plan in place to combat the type of catastrophe that is not unforeseeable in a country of bushland. Unfortunately, this was seemingly not the case. From as far back as April 2019, 23 former fire and emergency service chiefs attempted to warn the government of what firefighters, meteorologists and climate scientists had identified as a looming crisis. However, Deputy Prime Minister, Michael McCormack claimed the linking of bushfires to climate change was simply “the ravings of some pure, enlightened and woke capital city greenies”.
Morrison and his government have consistently understated, underestimated and largely ignored the looming climate crisis, and why wouldn’t he? His convincing victory in 2019 defied all expectations, giving him a mandate for further inaction and delay on climate change. The 2019 election was dubbed “unwinnable” for Morrison, and even pronounced as “the climate election”. It proved to be neither.
A series of political blunders followed, including a short-lived trip to Hawaii and an incredibly mistimed advertisement, living up to his nickname ‘Scotty from Marketing,’ as coined by the highly regarded Betoota Advocate.
Australia rightfully despised the man they had elected just 6 months earlier. Morrison was forced to acknowledge that there were “things [he] could have handled on the ground much better”. The Australian recorded net satisfaction on his performance was at -22, as only 38% of Australians saw him as their preferred Prime Minister. Morrison’s lacklustre response and reluctance to acknowledge the effects of climate change on the bushfires alienated him from the Australian public.
It only got worse for Morrison and the Coalition. The ‘Sports Rorts’ scandal, in which funding was diverted to restore sports clubs within marginal electorates leading up to the 2019 election, further pushed the PM and his party into disdain. It was corruption at worst and woeful misuse of taxpayer money at best.
If someone were to tell me at this point that Scott Morrison and his government would lead Australia to one of the best-case scenarios within the COVID-19 crisis, I wouldn’t have believed it for a second. There were questions about the validity of Morrison’s leadership after the bushfires and I believe I was justified in losing faith. He couldn’t afford to fail the Australian public in successive crises.
Thankfully, he hasn’t, Australia is in an enviable position around the world largely due to our government’s swift and effective response. In as little as 14 days after the confirmation of a new coronavirus, Morrison heeded the advice of Australia’s Chief Medical Officer (CMO) with additional border measures put in place. On the 1st of February, the Australian government announced that foreign arrivals from mainland China will not be allowed entry into Australia. Early, decisive measures were taken and a united front was presented.
Contrasting the bushfire crisis, when party lines divided the government, Morrison has brought together state and territory governments, Labor and Coalition leaders to form a National Cabinet to coordinate their efforts against COVID-19. Speaking on behalf of the cabinet, Morrison gave the Australian public faith that our politicians were serving us before themselves when their support was needed most, “… it doesn’t matter what party you’re in, in that national cabinet. There are five Labor members and there are four Liberals. And we are working together as one united team to deal with the issues that we have been sworn in to deal with”.
The nature of COVID-19 as a public health and economic crisis makes it particularly challenging to save both ‘lives and livelihoods’. Converse to the bushfire crisis, Morrison effectively allowed expert advice and the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee, composed of the Australian CMO and Chief Health Officers of the states and territories, to guide his decision making. Further, Morrison and the Coalition admirably scrapped their decades-long crusade against public handouts, swapping surplus for stimulus.
Three plans comprising over $200 billion in economic stimulus dwarf post-GFC stimulus. The Rudd and Gillard governments spent, on average, about $2,900 per person (in today’s dollars) to keep the economy afloat. The Morrison Government’s pledges so far amount to about $7,600 per person, with more packages in the pipeline. A core shift in policy by the government is to be applauded, putting aside political ideologies in favour of protecting the livelihoods of a nation.
The Australian approach stands in contrast to the patchwork response in the US and the “too little, too late”, response of many European nations. Scott Morrison has reinvented himself when Australia needed him most. A man who continually skirted around the advice of experts and scientists now guides his every move by their advice. A maligned man acting on public outcry now a level-headed leader making informed decisions. A Hawaiian-shirted buffoon now a father-like figure.
It’s clear that the COVID-19 crisis has resulted in a revival of Scott Morrison in the public eye. What isn’t clear is the aftermath of the present catastrophe. Even while ‘political guns’ have been lowered, Scott Morrison is on the television everyday delivering trustworthy information, gaining influence and respect, whilst Anthony Albanese is less visible than ever before.
When the next Federal Election rolls around in 2022, the Government’s response to COVID-19 will undoubtedly colour Australia’s perception of Morrison. By this time, the bungled response to the bushfire crisis will have largely faded into the background of public consciousness. However, the handling of COVID-19 and the subsequent road to recovery will remain at the forefront of voters’ minds.
Morrison and the Coalition will be managing an ongoing health crisis, nursing a hurting economy and attempting to put together a coherent policy profile after utterly abandoning core conservative attitudes towards social policy and stimulus. Whether they do so successfully is still for us to find out. But what is clear is that Australia’s response to COVID 19 is far better off because of their willingness to abandon their ideological values and for that, they should be commended.