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Political Redemption in Sight for Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison

Amid devastating bushfires earlier this year Morrison’s leadership was in question. His handling of COVID-19 may be his political resurrection.

Joshua Mcdonald
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Political Redemption in Sight for Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison
Credit: Twitter

Less than three months ago it wasn’t difficult to imagine Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison joining the list of the country’s most unpopular leaders. 

His government’s fumbling response to one of the worst bushfire seasons in Australian history, in which 34 people were killed and around 4,000 homes destroyed, united Australians on either side of the political divide in anger.

A Newspoll published in January, as the fires continued to rage, found that 59 percent of voters were dissatisfied with Morrison’s performance. He was also overtaken as preferred prime minister by the leader of the opposition for the first time since May 2019. Analyst Kevin Bonham wrote at the time that it is “the equal second highest such loss in Newspoll history.”

There were other controversies, too. The Liberal Party’s unwillingness to accept that climate change had played a role in recent bushfires, droughts, heatwaves, and floods and will continue to do so was particularly galling. There was the “sports rorts affair,” in which Bridget McKenzie, a senior member of Morrison’s cabinet and the deputy leader of the National Party used her ministerial discretion to favor marginal electorates for funding in the lead up to the 2019 federal election. McKenzie ultimately stepped down, but subsequent evidence suggests that the prime minister’s office was deeply implicated.

Such a track record, coupled with an overall growing distrust in government and institutions, would make navigating a global pandemic extremely difficult for even the most seasoned of leaders. And yet, despite democracies not too dissimilar to Australia’s struggling to implement stringent restrictions on their own populations, Australians have mostly followed the government’s lead, leading to the question of whether trust in Morrison and the Australian government has been restored. 

Recent Newspolls show Morrison leading as preferred prime minister again. His clawing back of public opinion actually broke the record for the largest poll-to-poll gain in confidence in Australian polling history.

It’s not uncommon for people to rally around their leader in times of crisis, but analyst Dr. Kevin Bonham says that it’s not that simple and that Morrison’s rise is reflective of the fact that Australia is doing very well at keeping both the growth of the virus and the death rate down.

“It’s possible that some of the dissatisfaction over the other issues would’ve faded by now and that’s why we’re seeing an increase,” he said. “But I think it’s overwhelmingly due to the current handling of the circumstances.”

Since the economic detriments of COVID-19 became known, federal and state governments have ensured that banks agree to defer mortgage repayments, have provided free childcare, and are subsiding the wages of more than 6 million workers. 

Meanwhile, restrictions set in place across the country have brought enough time for hospitals to prepare. As part of those preparations, Australia has seen thousands of recently retired medical professionals hired back into the workforce, private hospitals brought into the country’s pandemic response plan, a doubling of the country’s ventilator ICU beds and a $31 million contract to a local manufacturer to produce an additional 2,000 by July.

Compared to many other democracies, Australia’s restrictions have been strict and enforced. Traveling overseas is banned, foreigners aren’t allowed to enter the country, and Australians returning from abroad are kept in mandatory quarantine in hotels under police supervision. Social gatherings of more than two people are forbidden and leaving the house is permitted only for essential reasons such as buying food, visiting the doctor, or exercising. 

It hasn’t all been smooth sailing for the government. Authorities struggled in the early days to offer a coherent message on what Australians can and cannot do under new restrictions. The confusion has led to at least a dozen fines given by police being reversed. Then came the reports of senior state and federal politicians flouting their own restrictions. 

Perhaps most damaging though was the Ruby Princess debacle. The cruise ship docked in Sydney in mid-March and allowed more than 2,700 passengers to disembark without proper screening. Twenty passengers have since died, while more than 600 have been infected. A high-stake blame game between state and federal authorities has ensued as state police as well as the state government conduct separate investigations into how passengers were allowed to disembark, given the circumstances. 

Plus, there are still thousands of Australians who are yet to receive any income support from the government and more than a million casual workers who are not eligible for the government’s JobKeeper program. 

For the most part, however, the Australian government’s handling of the crisis has been better than even they expected. Partially responsible, at least, is the rare moment of unity within government. Morrison himself recently said: “There are no blue teams or red teams. There are no more union bosses. There are just Australians now, that’s all that matters.”

Although parliament has been suspended, the opposition is still given the opportunity to lobby and criticize the government when necessary. Just last week Morrison agreed to a Labor proposal for a special Senate select committee to be created to examine the government’s actions in parliament’s absence. The committee is chaired by a Labor MP. 

And unlike during the bushfire crises, when the opposition wasn’t given a seat at the table, Morrison has brought together state and territory, Labor and Coalition leaders to form a National Cabinet to coordinate their efforts against COVID-19. 

Attorney General Christian Porter, recently quipped that “This is parliament’s Dunkirk moment… We get the life boats out and we save jobs and we do it with the simplest, clearest, guaranteed formula that parliament can devise.” 

Also unlike Morrison’s handling of the bushfires is his assurance this time that the government’s response is directed by experts. Since the current crisis began, Morrison has made clear that his government is simply following the advice of the Chief Medical Officer. This is in stark contrast to his refusal to even meet with emergency service chiefs and bushfire experts about the looming bushfire crisis last year.

It’s perhaps too early to assume Morrison has learned from his bungled bushfire response and it’s definitely too early to assume that Australians have forgiven him for it. But Morrison is yet to use all the tools at his disposal and has even planned ahead by creating the National COVID-19 Coordination Committee, which aims to bring the public and private sector together to preserve jobs and maximize economic activity throughout and after COVID-19. This is particularly crucial given that the International Monetary Fund has warned that Australia’s economy is likely to be hit hardest among developed economies. 

Yesterday, Morrison told reporters that the National Cabinet is now focusing on the “road out” instead of the “road in.” While the destination isn’t entirely clear just yet, the journey itself will require at the very least a continuation of current restrictions for the next four weeks but “will also require much more,” said Morrison. 

“If we are going to move to an environment where there are fewer restrictions, than we need these three things in place,” he said. “The first is a more extensive testing regime. Second is that we have an even greater tracing capability than we have now and third, is we need a local response capability.”

Australia already has the highest testing rate in the world, but Morrison says it needs to extend well beyond its current capacity. A prepared local response capability would likely see a multiagency effort in putting localized areas in lockdown when an outbreak occurs. 

Perhaps the main takeaway, though, is the likely connection between a “greater tracing capability” and a recently unveiled app, which will allow authorities to track citizens’ mobile phones and alert anyone who may be infected due to previous proximity to a confirmed case of COVID-19. 

While signing up is voluntary, the government says it will need at least 10 million Australians to do so for it to be effective. For Morrison, while the polls may be showing him as favorable again, the willingness of Australians to heed his most recent call may be the biggest test yet in knowing whether he has in fact regained trust in the public theater.