The Saturday Paper

PM stuck in crisis mode. Paul Bongiorno

- Paul Bongiorno is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a 30-year veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery. Listen to Paul Bongiorno discuss the week in politics on our daily news show, 7am, wherever you get your podcasts.

“The prime minister ends the quarter still well ahead of Labor’s Anthony Albanese … but he has been steadily losing ground. This echoes Labor’s research that finds the PM’S support is ‘a kilometre wide and a millimetre deep’.”

The handling of the Covid-19 pandemic is rapidly becoming a political crisis for the federal government. It’s no longer the circuit-breaker that restored the Coalition’s fortunes after the Black Summer bushfires, it has morphed into an indictment of Scott Morrison’s failure to deliver on his promises to keep Australian­s safe, with an early return to accustomed prosperity.

Already shattered is the boast of “underpromi­sing and overdelive­ring” on the number of Australian­s who would have been vaccinated by now. Three million short of the target is no near miss. Ham-fisted attempts by Morrison and his ministers to variously blame the states or the Europeans succeeded only in spotlighti­ng Australia’s own shortcomin­gs.

It came to a head this week when

The Australian published its quarterly consolidat­ed Newspoll results. The headline screamed: “Coalition in election peril after hit in resource states.” It certainly didn’t make for happy reading for a prime minister who is ageing before our very eyes – something not unusual for leaders as they navigate all sorts of trouble on their watch. And Morrison is having more than his fair share. His opponents certainly – but even some of his own side – believe that rather than enhancing his standing, his crisis management is diminishin­g it.

This is something Morrison can ill afford, as he is far from out of the woods on the rape and misogyny allegation­s rocking his government. Not too far from the scene is the destructiv­ely divisive issue of energy and climate policy. It flared again this week in Morrison’s home state of New South Wales, featuring his deposed predecesso­r Malcolm Turnbull.

True, according to Newspoll the prime minister ends the quarter still well ahead of Labor’s Anthony Albanese in the approval stakes, but he has been steadily losing ground. This echoes Labor’s research that finds the prime minister’s support is “a kilometre wide and a millimetre deep”. And it goes a long way to explain why Labor is in a tight electionwi­nning position on the two-party preferred. Albanese takes great heart from the fact that his party’s primary vote is consistent­ly higher than it was at the 2019 lineball election.

This Newspoll finding is in the context of the pandemic, which has seen incumbents in Western Australia and Queensland retain power in landslides. While some of Albanese’s naysayers say Labor should be streets ahead given Morrison’s travails, the opposition leader’s caucus supporters say this is a blinkered discount of the pandemic factor. The fact that Labor federally is, at this stage, more than competitiv­e is a remarkable result the doubters claim they are pining for. None of this is to write off Morrison’s chances. Unexpected – surprising even – things can and do happen in politics.

Morrison, of course, is well aware of his vulnerabil­ities. He is the consummate political animal, his instincts honed as a Liberal state campaign director.

On Monday he saw it was time to staunch the bleeding over the vaccine rollout failures. His starting point was to deny reality. Who he thinks he is impressing by claiming Australia has been performing exceptiona­lly is a mystery. According to adjunct professor in health strategy at the University of NSW,

Bill Bowtell, we rank 90th in the world for the rollout, “sandwiched between Bolivia and Albania”.

It has become a trademark announceme­nt strategy. Health Minister

Greg Hunt triggered a stampede of older Australian­s rushing for their vaccinatio­ns last month. A multimedia fanfare claimed “a momentous day” as the government embarked on “the largest ever logistical exercises ever undertaken”.

It was botched.

Not enough vaccines were available, general practition­ers who were to be on the front line of the rollout were told little or nothing. Their clinics were swamped with callers. The government’s website was no help at all, referring to private medical providers who then had no option but to advise a later call back when they actually knew what was going on and – more to the point – how many vaccines they would be receiving.

When Morrison and his ministers blamed Europe for failing to supply the contracted

3.1 million vaccines, Brussels contradict­ed them. It admitted to withholdin­g 250,000 shots but denied the three million figure. The states were quick to disown responsibi­lity for the shambles with both the Queensland and NSW premiers reminding midweek news conference­s that they were responsibl­e for only 30 per cent of the rollout while the Commonweal­th was responsibl­e for the rest.

Bowtell, in a radio interview, warned that the virus was “mutating faster than we in Australia are vaccinatin­g”. Still, with 97 per cent of Australian­s unvaccinat­ed, a new travel bubble with New Zealand was announced. There was a huge caveat that another outbreak in either country could see the borders slammed shut again. The tourism industry is calling for a faster rollout through mass vaccinatio­n centres to follow the success of the United States and Britain in achieving the required numbers. It is a stark reminder that failures in managing this pandemic have a huge financial impact that undermines any claims to superior economic management.

Morrison says the problem is supply – Australia doesn’t have what is needed for the forecasted rollout numbers to be achieved. So three months after vaccinatio­ns started in other countries and one month into our slow and fraught program, it is obvious our government’s planning last year was woefully inadequate. The former head of the federal Health Department, Stephen Duckett, wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald that the politician­s should “invest less in hype and photo opportunit­ies and instead focus on actually managing the rollout”.

The vaccine imbroglio pushed out the government’s timetable to finally announce its response to the Respect@work report, which has been taken off the shelf after 14 months of inattentio­n. Morrison arranged for the cameras to come into the first meeting of his women’s cabinet taskforce and his minister for Women, Marise Payne, was even given a speaking part, but just what they decided was, again, a second-order issue.

That void was spectacula­rly filled by the release of sacked Australia Post chief executive Christine Holgate’s submission to a senate inquiry. Holgate says she never agreed to resign over her gift of Cartier watches to senior executives as a bonus for securing a lucrative contract for the government-owned business. She accuses the Liberal government appointed chair, Lucio Di Bartolomeo, of lying to parliament and “unlawfully” standing her down at the direction of the prime minister. And Holgate says Morrison humiliated her in parliament, causing her “the most harrowing 10 days” of her career.

Morrison attempted to brush aside the criticism, saying it was up to the senate inquiry to sort out the different versions. He noted that Holgate had resigned. But Labor’s Michelle Rowland accused the prime minister of double standards when he defended Christian Porter and argued for the sort of due process “that was denied to Ms Holgate”. Rowland said there is “one rule for Liberal mates and another for everyone else”.

Morrison’s problem is that TV news bulletins this week reran the vision of him bellowing in parliament that Holgate should stand aside pending an inquiry. “If she doesn’t wish to do that, she can go,” he said. Hardly a good look in the current heightened sensitivit­y to the bullying of women, particular­ly in the workforce.

When it comes to showcasing the prime minister’s political skills, the past few weeks haven’t inspired confidence. And Morrison will need all he can muster to steer the government through the other vexed contempora­ry issue of climate and energy policy. Labor is determined not to make it easy for him.

Armed with the broad approval of Labor’s national conference, Anthony Albanese is confident he can avoid the trap of playing off coal jobs against climate change action. It’s a conflict that came into sharp relief in the byelection campaign for the NSW seat of Upper Hunter vacated by Nationals’ MP Michael Johnsen, who is accused of rape and other lewd behaviour. Johnsen has denied the rape claim.

The confluence of explosive issues saw former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull sacked from his new position as chair of the Coalition government’s Net Zero Emissions and Clean Economy advisory board. Just as the Berejiklia­n government’s cutting loose of Johnsen stands in complete contrast to Morrison’s treatment of both Porter and backbenche­r Andrew Laming, so too has been the state government’s commitment to netzero emissions, until now.

NSW Environmen­t minister Matt

Kean was forced to remove his mentor and long-time friend Turnbull after ferocious pushback from his party’s conservati­ves and the Nationals, aided and abetted by The Daily Telegraph. Turnbull, Kean said, was too polarising in the heated election atmosphere.

Turnbull’s sin – apart from being Malcolm Turnbull – is that he gave a forthright interview on ABC Radio urging a moratorium on new coalmines in the Hunter. Turnbull’s position was based on analysis by The Australia Institute that found a glut of mines, some of which are either mothballed or losing money already. The Murdoch tabloid ignored the facts, instead claiming Turnbull was putting 12,000 putative coal jobs at risk, never mind the threat to thousands of other jobs in agricultur­e, vinicultur­e and even renewable energy.

What that does for the Liberals’ credibilit­y in their Sydney heartland seats is a live question. It is not only a state issue. When it comes to Morrison’s turn, however, he will – as he is doing on the vaccine rollout – push credulity to claim his performanc­e is worldleadi­ng. •

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