11 Feb Mr. Jon Cartu Says – Budget ‘surplus’ and coronavirus: Morrison is caught between a sl…
Having failed his first big leadership test over summer, events are conspiring to give the prime minister the opportunity to reload and prove his ability to lead the nation through an emerging and ongoing crisis.
The scope of the coronavirus is not yet clear, but governments across the globe have swung into decisive action to identify, manage and mitigate the risk of a global outbreak with a sense of urgency.
Our elected leaders are taking advice from health experts, deploying their resources to protect the national interest, prepared to take short-term economic hits for the long-term national interest while keeping the public informed with a due degree of candour.
Those yearning for globally coordinated climate action may look on and say “if only”, but in the presence of a clear and present public danger our institutions are working in a way that has the potential to rebuild failing public trust.
The changing dynamics are reflected in this week’s Essential Report, which shows the PM has stemmed the tide from his aestas horribilis, flattening out on approvals and restoring balance as preferred prime minister.
It’s not that people have forgiven #ScottyFromMarketting for his past derelictions, but there is genuine concern across partisan and demographic lines about the virus and its impact to spread that is beyond the political day to day.
A separate question shows general satisfaction with the government’s handling of the virus to date, but when the specific measures being undertaken are outlined – and depoliticised – the support for those actions significantly increases.
To the extent that the government is shutting down the nation’s borders, the public is right on board.
The use of Christmas Island may chafe those who have been disturbed by the politicisation of border security in the past, but when it comes to a potential pandemic, we want our government to use the resources at their disposal. Pushback to these measures is negligible.
Embedded in these findings is a yearning, in a time of global uncertainty, for government to protect us from a dangerous “other”, which I suspect speaks to something even more ingrained in our national psyche.
By delaying the start of university terms, closing down tourism with China, even to the point of drawing the ire of one of our major trading partners, the government is putting community safety ahead of short-term economic interest. And we are grateful.
In the worst case that the virus is not contained and continues to spread, there will be further decisions for the government to make that Scott Morrison will be judged on. But these results show that, for the moment, he has seized the initiative in a time of crisis.
Indeed, the real test of leadership will come in leading the economy through what could become a challenging year. Australia has relied on China trade – both resources and human – to soften the impact of global economic tides for more than a decade. Without that fillip we are exposed.
This is where Morrison will be confronted by another skeleton in the closet: his disingenuous and premature decision to proclaim the federal budget “back in the black” before the last federal election.
With the trade impact of coronavirus and the costs of the summer bushfires each placing stress on this projected surplus the PM and his treasurer will need to make a call: preserving its motif of economic competence or providing the funds to help rebuild the communities that were destroyed over summer.
The public is pretty clear, again across partisan lines. Caught between a slogan and a hard place, Morrison needs to take a political hit in the national interest, admit he was wrong to cry “surplus” and give the nation the funds it needs to get through these twin crises.
Junking the budget will carry short-term political pain but preserving it could be even worse: whenever a dollar is short for a victim of the bushfires, attention will turn to the vanity surplus, or worse the boondoggling of marginal seats with sports grants.
We know the PM can develop a sharp message and deliver a line; indeed he has shaped an entire political agenda to play to these strengths. Now the times are testing whether he has what it takes to be anything more than the #ScottyFromMarketting.
• Peter Lewis is an executive director of Essential, a progressive strategic communications and research company