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 toilet-paper.
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 intended.
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’.
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 political’.
“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 Australia through.”
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 that.
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 a “clear 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 2025.191-Sub_Parliamentary-Budget-Office_Redacted-2
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.
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 drunk driver.
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.
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 disaster.
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.
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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