Scott Morrison: How Australia’s PM rebuilt his reputation

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As Australia exitsits virus lockdown, Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s stock is soaring.

It’s exactly one year since he was re-elected.Online, there are TikToks of teenagers singing his praises. Shock jocks haveapologised for previous criticism.

It’s in stark contrast to how he was viewed duringthe bushfire crisis, where hetook a secret holiday to Hawaii whilethe nation was on fire.

Mr Morrison’s perceivedfailures sparked immense public anger. Citizensswore at him on camera, while firefighters and survivors refused to shake hishand.

Then, as the blazes were dying down in late January,Australia found itself sucked into the coronavirus emergency.

Months later, it has come out on top, seen as aworld leader in its handling of the virus. The nation has recorded fewer than100 deaths and around 7,000 cases.

Only a dozen patients remained in intensive careacross the country as of Monday. The leader’s approval rating stood at 66% –one of the highest for any Australian prime minister in the past decade.

So how did did Scott Morrison turn things around?

Listening to the experts

In facing the virus, Mr Morrison sought out expertadvice, listened to it and acted on it – despite the cost.

This worked, observers say, and the chief medicalofficer Dr Brendan Murphy was never far from his side (or 1.5m at least) atevery major announcement.

It was on his advice that Australia shut its bordersto China when the World Health Organization (WHO) was saying travel bansweren’t needed. Canberra also called it a pandemic before the officialclassification.

“Clearly, yes, you should listen to the healthexperts in the middle of a health crisis,” says Dr Tony Bartone, thepresident of the Australian Medical Association.

“But listening to the health experts can createan enormous economic disruption. And it takes bold and strong leadership tolisten fully and listen early.”

When it became clear local infections wereaccelerating, Mr Morrison acted quickly – spurred on by the leaders ofAustralia’s biggest states. Shortly after case numbers tipped over 1,000, barsand pubs were shut and larger social gatherings banned.

The economic consequences of shutting up shop wouldhave appeared daunting, but he didn’t drag his feet – unlike leaders in the UKand the US, Dr Bartone says.

Instead, he listened to the science – something hewas repeatedly accused of ignoring during the bushfires.

But that was a crisis of a different sort, sayshistorian Prof Frank Bongiorno, from the Australian National University. ThePM’s response was compromised by political baggage.

Scott Morrison’s conservative coalition – in powerfor the past seven years – had long downplayed and even rejected the science ofclimate change.

Scientists and fire chiefs had warned the governmentthat a particularly harsh fire season was in store. They say their calls wereignored.

So when the emergency flared up, critics accused thePM of not taking enough action. They say he was initially reluctant toacknowledge the severity of the environmental disaster, and failed to addressthe underlying cause.

But with a public health crisis, “there wasn’tthat kind of baggage”, says Prof Bongiorno. Australia has an advanced,well-functioning health system primed to respond to outbreaks such as this one.

“No-one has accused the Australian governmentof being hopelessly underprepared for a pandemic,” he says.

‘Incredibly pragmatic’

This once-in-a-century health and economic crisiswas far better suited to Scott Morrison’s style of leadership, experts say.

The rapid pace of developments allowed room forexperimentation, which he embraced.

“He’s a thoroughly professional politician. Hedoesn’t have a big attachment to any policy position and is prepared to throwoff particular positions for pragmatic reasons and move on to somethingelse,” says Prof Bongiorno.

As such, Australians saw its centre-right government– which had for years bemoaned the debt hangover from the global financialcrisis – accept that dramatic spending was necessary.

Charged with the economic health of the nation, MrMorrison funnelled about 10% of GDP into spending – the biggest public spend onrecord.

Decisions included doubling the unemploymentpayment, pledging free childcare and introducing a wage subsidy thatessentially guaranteeing a minimum income.

While there have been problems within theapplication of these policies, largely they’ve received bipartisan support.

In fact, the $130bn (£70bn; $84bn) wage subsidyprogramme – JobKeeper – was proposed by the centre-left Labor opposition duringthe crisis’s early days – and at first rejected.

Then “the news vision of the dole queues forceda rethink”, says politics professor Mark Kenny, a former political editorat the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age newspapers.

ScottMorrison was unafraid to make the U-turn and “voters welcomed thatflexibility rather than punished”.

Theother masterstroke, say observers, was the early move to establish an emergencycabinet with the eight state and territory leaders to make decisions.

Australia is a federation – meaning it’s the stategovernment which control the levers on hospitals, schools, policing, publictransport and other services. Establishing a unified message from all tiers ofgovernment was an inevitable necessity.

But as new restrictions were rapidly rolled out overMarch and April, people also welcomed the collaboration that this approachguaranteed.

Learning from mistakes

Indeed, the strongest criticism of Australia’s PMstems from the early weeks of the crisis, when messages from the statescontradicted Canberra.

Even after the establishment of the NationalCabinet, ongoing disputes over school openings drew bad press.

And crossed wires also led to the biggest failure inAustralia’s virus response: theRuby Princess cruise ship in Sydney.

In late March, thousands of passengers were allowedto disembark and disperse while there were Covid-19 cases on board. That spreadled to 22 deaths, about 700 cases in Australia and more overseas.

While blame has largely fallen on state officials,Prof Kenny suggests the Morrison-led government is also to blame – particularlyas the former immigration minister touted himself as the creatorof Australia’s tough “stop the boats” immigration policies.

“However his government failed to stop the oneboat that actually could cause direct harm,” he says.

Despite this, overall, Mr Morrison appears to havelearned from his horror summer.

There were initial missteps which evoked thebushfire errors – for example, the perception of hypocrisy as the primeminister encouraged people to go to the football while also announcing a ban ongatherings of above 500 people.

But his clumsy explanations of lockdown restrictionsin the first weeks gave way to clearer public speeches.

His blustering, aggressive style also softened asthe virus curve rapidly flattened and a largely compliant population followedthe social distancing regime.

But as Mr Morrison marks his first year as primeminister, observers say the hardest bit is still to come.

The nation may yet need to fend off a feared secondwave of cases. It’s bracing for the virus’ full economic impact. Recovery is afar trickier path to maneuver and future generations may well be saddled withthe cost.

Unemployment is expected to hit 10%, and Australiahas been tipped to enter its first recession in nearly 30 years.

He has two years to go until he has to face thevoters again. Historically, it has been rare for leaders to be re-elected intimes of economic strife.

Can the goodwill carry through for Scott Morrison?

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