We have no reason to believe the Morrison Government’s handling of the unfolding coronavirus disaster will be any better than its handling of the ongoing climate emergency. Particularly not after the Prime Minister’s live address to the nation, dripping with spin and a smothered laugh off camera. Chris Graham explains.
The last time Australia faced a disaster of this proportion (two
months ago) our Prime Minister was overseas on holidays. So, you know, we’re
off to a much better start.
I am, of course, talking about the pandemic that is the
coronavirus, which is wiping trillions of dollars from the global economy, creating
travel bans across the world, and, in the minds of the international community,
forever linking Australians to memes about panic buying and the hording of
As the full impact of the Coronavirus slowly begins to dawn
on an already traumatised nation, our
Prime Minister Scott Morrison took to the airwaves on Thursday to deliver a
live address aimed at ‘calming the waters’. Or in marketing parlance from an Oxford
University research paper, delivering an ‘inoculation strategy’. Irony
Things went pretty much as you might expect when you wheel ‘Scotty
from Marketing’ out and put him in front of a camera.
The broadcast opens with Morrison’s unsettling, trademark
smirk. But like Tony Abbott’s ‘lizard lick’, the ‘Morrison shit-eating grin’ is
just one of those unfortunate quirks. Morrison can’t do anything about it –
there’s not an empathy coach on earth who could make him look like anything
other than a smug prick with a secret.
What happened 25 seconds into the live broadcast wasn’t Morrison’s fault either: “This virus began in China and has now reached some 114 countries. More than 240,000 people have contracted the virus, including 140 here in Australia,” Morrison deadpans.
Cue someone seemingly behind the camera chortling and trying to stifle a laugh. Here it is, in case you missed it.
It’s not clear who is laughing or why, and it only appears on the Channel 7 feed. Ultimately it doesn’t really matter – it’s definitely not Morrison’s fault. Still, it’s very ‘on message’, and in-line with what we’ve come to expect when our Prime Minister tries to take charge of a crisis… a comedy of errors that, if things weren’t so serious, might be entertaining.
Things like… Home Affairs minister Peter Dutton testing positive for coronavirus less than 24 hours later. There’s nothing entertaining about that, of course. I’m sure I speak for a grateful nation when I wish ‘Pete From Security’ well. Or, as my colleague Nina put it, ‘He should go to Christmas Island and ‘isolate’, and take the cabinet ministers he’s mixed with over the last four days with him. And enjoy the facilities – we hear they’re state-of-the-art.’
It’s not really Dutton’s fault either, but still, the Minister most responsible for our borders, and for closing them to people carrying coronavirus, went to America, got the virus, came back and potentially gave it to other senior members of the government. This is the kind of circus we’ve come to expect from a Morrison government in the face of a crisis, albeit in this case, they’ve suspended incompetence for now, and just gone straight to hapless.
Exhibit A would be Scott Morrison’s ham-fisted return from Hawaii late last year, in response to the growing climate emergency. Throughout all of it – the initial lies about where he was, the suggestion people hadn’t died on Kangaroo Island when they had, and his train wreck interactions on the ‘fire ground’ with people who’d just lost everything – by far Morrison’s worst (and potentially most illegal) screw-up was the ad he launched for the Liberal Party, which linked to a page where you could donate your own ‘hard-earned’.
Scott Morrison, holidaying in Hawaii.
Thursday’s live broadcast from Morrison has shades of more
of the same. If you listen to it, he actually doesn’t give you any information
to make you safer. He just tells you how competent his government is, and he
reverts to marketing slang and the day’s chief ‘buzz phrase’ to do it.
Here’s Morrison 50 seconds into the broadcast, which is how
long it took him to devolve the whole exercise into a cheap, overt ‘party
“I want to assure you and your family tonight, that while
Australia cannot and is not immune (sic) from this virus, we are well prepared
and we are well equipped to deal with it, and we do have a clear plan to see
You might remember the phrase ‘clear plan’ from such Liberal
Party messaging as… well, basically every time they’ve ever said anything.
Despite the brevity of Morrison’s speech – it totals
just 605 words – ‘plan’ occurs one in every 100 of them. There’s a “clear plan”
at the beginning, a “plan [with]three goals”, a “national health response
plan”, an “economic stimulus plan”, “targeted local recovery plans”, and
another “clear plan” at the end.
I think he’s saying they have a plan. And a clear one at
Of course, in January, at the height of the bushfire crisis,
the Morrison Government also had a “clear
plan”. And we all know how that went.
In a press
conference earlier in the day, to announce his coronavirus stimulus
package, Morrison mentions his clear plan seven times in the space of less than
two minutes. A few minutes later, in response to a question from a journalist,
he uses “plan” another seven times.
And in his defence, he does have a lot of plans, for everything
from a “clear
plan to reduce power prices for families and businesses”; the “clear
plan” they took to the May 2019 federal election for tax cuts and
infrastructure spending; the “clear
plan to protect Australian families and their communities from criminals
and the menace of illicit drugs, child exploitation and other crimes”. Plus there’s
plan to revitalise the skills sector”. And a “clear plan
to grow Australia’s… tourism industry” (encouragingly, his trade minister had
the same “clear
plan”). That’s not to downplay the importance of Morrison’s “clear
plan” to build a strong economy (although figures from March 2019 showed
the weakest growth in more than a decade. So Morrison responded by reminding
people of his “clear
plan”); plus the “clear
plan to invest in schools, hospitals, and roads” in Tasmania. Oh, and the “clear plan”
to strengthen Australia’s trade ties around the world; and the “clear
plan” in 2018 to “make taxes lower, simpler and fairer”; another “clear
plan” for another strong economy which also contained a “clear
plan” for Australians’ future. And the “clear
plan” to not spend money the government didn’t have.
And then there was the clearest Morrison Government plan of
all… to rort $100 million worth of sports grants to favour marginal, Coalition-held
electorates. It was so clear, it had its own colour-coded spreadsheet.
This is the government leading at us at a time of crisis people, so we probably should ask, what, exactly, is Scott Morrison’s “clear plan”?
Well, ironically, it’s not really all that clear, although it does have three parts. The first is to protect Australians’ health: “Firstly, to
protect Australians, we were one of the first countries to recognise the
seriousness of the coronavirus.”
Were we though? Really? This is one of those statements that
is completely untestable, which is the point of making it in the first place. In
marketing terms, it’s a specific strategy known as “hyperbole”. Having
said that, Morrison then notes his government moved early to establish travel
bans from affected areas (this is true – China was
livid about it); Australians were evacuated from virus hotspots (also
true); 100 pop-up clinics have been funded; there’s been a boost in cash to
public hospitals; and the government has “boosted our National Medical
Stockpile of essential medicines and masks”.
To be fair, all that sounds pretty good, with two exceptions
– the last two parts of part one of the three part ‘clear plan’. Firstly, you
don’t ‘boost’ a National Medical Stockpile after
a pandemic hits. The whole point of a stockpile is to have it ready before a virus sweeps the globe. If you’re
boosting it now, it wasn’t a stockpile, and it’s abundantly
clear Australia was caught out on that front.
Secondly, the boosting of funding to public hospitals is also good, but people might like to ponder why it’s needed now. I’ll come back to that shortly.
‘Part 2’ is to throw money at taxpayers – $750 for “more
than 6 million Australians to spend in our economy now”. This is, of course, precisely
the same sort of untargeted ‘stimulus’ that drew howls of protest from the
Coalition in Opposition, when Kevin Rudd did it in 2009. This was despite the
fact it steered Australia successfully through a global recession. Here’s
Morrison repeatedly rubbishing that strategy over a period of two years.
Part three of the ‘clear plan’ is where things really come start
to come undone. It will “Set Australia up to bounce back stronger when the
crisis is over” and includes a “$1 billion fund to support targeted local
recovery plans”. Over to Scotty from Marketing to explain how: “We can take
this action now because we have worked hard to bring the budget back into
balance, to maintain our AAA credit rating and work with State Governments to
provide a world-class health system.”
For a start, successive federal Liberal governments have not “brought the budget back into
balance”, although they did try by ripping tens of billions of promised
additional funding out of, you guessed it, the health system.
When Abbott won office in 2014, his government not only cut
the CSIRO by $110 million – the key Australian organisation which today
is working directly on the coronavirus – but he tore up an agreement
negotiated by Julia Gillard in 2011 which would have provided an enormous boost
to health funding around the country. So much so that in 2016, ABC
Fact Check reported that the Parliamentary Budget Office estimated under
Abbott’s new formula, the Commonwealth would deliver around $56 billion less to state hospitals from 2017 to
Emergency boosts to health funding, while obviously now welcome,
are a direct consequence of past Commonwealth cuts. Even worse, the new funding
will only return a very small fraction of what the Coalition ripped out in the
first place. It’s basically akin to, dare I say it, starving a nation of toilet
paper for a few years, then, when everyone’s bums get really dirty, turning up with a truckload of TP and doing a public
victory lap while you explain how generous and responsible you are.
As for Morrison’s claim that his government has brought the budget “back into balance”, last year, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg announced a forecast surplus of $7.1 billion. By December 2019, it was revised down to $5 billion. Since then, the bushfires have hit, and now we have the coronavirus. It remains anyone’s guess what the actual surplus will be come May… which is roughly around the time when the coronavirus should really start raging through the nation.
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg. (IMAGE: ABC News screencap)
Regardless, if Morrison and Frydenberg do deliver a 2019-20 surplus in May, then you might want to ask
yourself what sort of a government hordes cash while the nation burns then, and
gets belted by a viral pandemic two months later.
And therein lies the rub. Just like an economy is built largely
on confidence, so too is a government’s capacity to effectively lead. In this
case, to calm fears about an enormous threat that confronts many Australian
lives, and our economy.
Morrison will say his broadcast was designed specifically to
do that – to calm fears, to let people know a steady hand is at the wheel. But as
his handling of the climate emergency suggests, Morrison is the equivalent of a
Most Australians already think they’re being led by a snake
oil salesman, and the live address to the nation yesterday – replete with half-truths
and believable lies drenched in opinion poll-driven slogans – would have done
little to dissuade an anxious nation from that belief.
The fact is, disasters – whether they’re natural or man-made
– are the sorts of occasions that ‘maketh a Prime Minister’. Whatever you
thought of John Howard politically, there’s no denying his response to the Port
Arthur Massacre, less than two months into office, was the sort of leadership a
nation craves in a time of crisis.
Howard delivered a steady, calm response to an unthinkable
tragedy, and he underpinned it with a policy – tough gun laws – which continues
to deliver greater safety and security to Australians to this day.
By contrast, Morrison’s response to the climate emergency was to bluff and blunder his way through it, and privately pray for a distraction. That might sound cynical, but to accept you should have confidence in this government to ‘deliver us from evil’ – a plague of biblical proportions – you have to believe that there aren’t numerous people deep within the Liberal Party already licking their lips, Tony Abbott-style, at the ‘opportunity’ that has presented itself.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison, former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, and current Home Affairs minister Peter Dutton, pictured in October 2015. Dutton and Abbott are recorded on microphone insulting Pacific Island leaders and joking about the effects climate change.
If you don’t think that’s likely then you don’t know anything about modern Australian politics, or the Liberal Party. Lest we forget that while Australia was burning, one of Morrison’s key advisers was busy backgrounding journalists that they should pin the blame on the NSW government, rather than the feds.
Equally, if you think that deep within the Labor Party there
aren’t also numerous people cursing the coronavirus not for who and how many it
will kill, but for its timing and its potential political capital for an
incumbent government, then you know nothing about them either.’
The point being, we’re in serious shit, and we’re being led
by a man and government with a serious track record of buckling in the face of
By now, you should have an understanding of just how much serious this virus is. But here’s some sobering figures if you’re still wavering. Guardian Australia is reporting that NSW Health is preparing for 8,000 deaths (in NSW alone), with 20 per cent of the population – 1.6 million people – contracting the virus in its first wave, which could last for up to 22 weeks.
To give you some guide, 1,255 people died in 2017 from complications
related to the flu. And 2017 happened to be a particularly bad year – it was
almost three times worse (464) than 2016.
Up to 80,000 people are likely to require intensive care simultaneously
– during a 10-week surge that could represent anywhere between 115% and 330% of
capacity. In other words… serious shit.
Of course, as Morrison himself says, we will get through
this. But jobs are already being lost, our economy is already taking a massive hit,
and many people will die. This crisis will last a lot long than most people
expect – considerably longer than the recent bushfire crisis.
Dr Michael Osterholm, an American public-health scientist and a biosecurity and infectious-disease expert, said earlier in the week, “We’re going to be in this for a while. I keep telling people we’re handling this like it’s a corona[virus]blizzard – you know two or three days, and we’re back to normal. This is a coronavirus winter, and we’re going to have the next three months or more, six months or more, that are going to be like this.”
The bushfire crisis lasted less than two months.
One of the world’s leading authorities on viruses, Michael Osterholm, appear on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast.
So, where too from here? In Dr Osterholm’s words, this is the time for “straight talking”, not spin.
Realistically, we’ll all just have to wait and see whether Scotty From Marketing’s ‘clear plan’ is underpinned by cogent, sensible government policy that makes Australians safer, or whether it’s just more guff from a guy hopelessly wedded to slogans and buzz words.
Personally, I’ve decided to hope for the best, but plan for the
worst because while you can take the Scotty
out of Marketing and put him in The Lodge, I’m not sure you ever take the
Marketing out of Scotty.
We all wait, with bated, coronavirus breath… and wish ‘Pete from Security’ a speedy recovery. But not too speedy. No need to hurry back to work, mate.
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