What has COVID-19 revealed about Scott Morrison and his Government?

In her gripping Quarterly Essay, Guardian Australia’s political editor Katharine Murphy goes behind the scenes to tell the story of the response to the crisis.

The Australia Institute was joined by Katharine Murphy to discuss her essay, and provide her insight and expertise into the man and leader that is Prime Minister Scott Morrison, his blend of pragmatism and faith, and what the events of the year revealed.

Over the course of 2020, Scott Morrison and his government found themselves navigating Australia first through a bushfire crisis, then a global pandemic. As the events of the year unfolded, Katharine Murphy remarked that Scott Morrison is “both a slow learner and a fast learner”.

James Ross/AFP

“I Don’t Hold A Hose, Mate”

At the start of 2020, Australia stood witness as Scott Morrison fumbled the handling of the Black Summer bushfires crisis in full public view. In a crisis managed largely by the states, he found himself stranded. This was for a variety of reasons, but one — that the Liberal Party really struggles to talk about (or act on) climate change — was a significant part of the fumbling.

“He likes having levers, something tangible to form a narrative around. In the bushfires, of course, there was nothing. So he famously said: I don’t hold a hose mate,”
— Katharine Murphy in discussion with The Australia Institute.

“That statement tells you about how the Prime Minister thinks: ‘If I haven’t got something practical to do here, what am I doing?’” said Murphy.

The principal lesson borne out of the bushfires for the Prime Minister was that you can either be stranded in the Federation, or you can be the leader of the Federation. A lesson that would come to influence the Prime Minister’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“He took the approach of trying to front the Premiers’ collective decisions, and trying to work through a process of collaboration and consensus. It’s how he projected himself as the leader of the country in a crisis where he didn’t have a hands-on role.”

At the start of the pandemic, Scott Morrison seemed to unite the country

The COVID-19 crisis allowed Scott Morrison to access policy solutions that were typically unusual for a Liberal Prime Minister. But as 2020 progressed, and the longer the pandemic went on, he began to face pressure from within the party.

“We’ve seen in recent times his own people, the colleagues in the government, reminding the Prime Minister in so many ways that he’s not the Prime Minister of the Premiers,” said Murphy.

“He is the Prime Minister of the Liberal and Nationals parties, and he needs to articulate that view of the world rather than being the consensus guy — the guy who tries to draw people together across the divide and manage a crisis.

“I think, a part of Morrison still thinks: I’d really like to be that consensus guy. But there are the requirements of ‘the firm’ as well.”

Subsequently, Australians have seen outbreaks of partisan politics — the carpet bombing of Daniel Andrews, the full-frontal border offensive on Annastacia Palaszczuk — reflecting the base of the core Coalition voters.

A core who — in the current environment where many businesses have been destroyed or damaged as a consequence of necessary public-health restrictions — are becoming frustrated.

Where Is Australia Now?

With Scott Morrison back under pressure to stick to the party line, as well as manage a crisis requiring a fine balance of both health and economic measures by the government, Katharine Murphy said,

“We’re coming off a high-point and are on a downward trajectory. That’s what it feels like, and that is a shame.

But if you pull apart the dynamics, it’s pretty easy to understand why that’s happening and where those various pressures are coming from.”

A significant aspect of Morrison’s composition is his religion

Katharine Murphy sees religion as a source of Scott Morrison’s confidence and conviction. Describing him as an enormously confident person Murphy said he envisages himself as both the captain & coach of the country.

“I think his religious conviction sits at the heart of that. I think it’s part of what gives him stability, confidence and a sense of purpose. This sense that humans have a purpose in the grand scheme of things and that it’s the will of God to excersise that purpose.”

While there is no doubt that Australia is thankful for Scott Morrison’s willingness to listen to expert advice in regard to the pandemic, it has created an interesting dilemma when you compare that to another existential crisis facing humanity: climate change.

“The Government has created something of a rod for its own back in listening to experts on the one hand, and not listening enough on the other in terms of climate.”

As one of the key issues to defining 2020, and for years to come, only time will tell if Scott Morrison can balance the will of the Liberal Party with the needs of the country.

Listen to the full conversation with Katharine Murphy, Guardian Australia’s Political Editor, on our podcast Follow the Money.

Read Katharine Murphy’s Quarterly Essay: The End of Certainty here.

Subscribe to the Australia Institute’s podcast series Follow The Money on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or on the Australia Institute’s website.

an independent think-tank based in Canberra > australia.org.au

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