Federal politics

She’ll be right, mate
On Scott Morrison’s complacency

Prime Minister Scott Morrison gives the thumbs-up. Image via Facebook

In this historic moment, defined by pestilence and grave uncertainty, our prime minister is determined to have our newspapers and evening bulletins resemble Bunnings catalogues and the newsletter of the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Here’s hi-vis Scotty pretending to drive a truck, a tractor, an accordion bus! Here he is hammering a nail into a cloud! And if all this hasn’t convinced you of his competence and cheerful diligence, watch him now give a thumbs-up in a jumbo’s cockpit! I don’t know about you, but the leaked footage of Scotty marrying a shovel moistened these dry eyes.

And sure, most politicians indulge in photo ops, don hard hats, marry shovels, etc, etc. Fine. They’re craven managers of their image – though some more enthusiastically than others. But fuck me if this Morrison bloke isn’t the most cynical, the most profoundly shameless manager of them all. If Rudd were still PM, he might’ve been supercilious in this moment – tarring announcements with jargon, imperiously isolating colleagues – but my God, he would’ve been intellectually responsive and morally serious about something this complex and destructive.

I mention Rudd because I’m thinking of his government’s largely commendable response to the global financial crisis, but really most of Morrison’s predecessors we might assume to have treated us – and the pandemic – more seriously and with greater transparency, with the exception of Abbott who very possibly would’ve adopted Sweden’s ruinous laissez faire model and just let ’er rip.

We have suffered the federal government’s continued neglect of aged care, a blundered vaccine rollout, a refusal to involve itself with issues of quarantine, destructively mixed or muted messaging, and a glib refusal to concede even the slightest fault. How long ago it now seems that journalists were celebrating the pandemic’s silver lining: a chastening of political culture, a sudden seriousness and cooperative good faith between governments and other parties. This week, we debated the semantic implications of what constitutes “a race”. A few weeks before, Leigh Sales remarked that she’d seen vastly more promotional material for Hamilton the musical than she had for our vaccine campaign. (And yes, it’s a fucking race. Against time.)

But now in Melbourne’s 163rd day of lockdown, I still ponder the element of luck. There have been serial federal failures, as there were several grave failures at the state level last year, but cause and effect with this pandemic isn’t as clear as our anger can make it seem.

Such was the gratitude of West Australians – and their comfort with their state’s fortification – that in March they lavishly rewarded their premier with a historic electoral victory. So lavish, that the Liberal party was all but erased from parliament, and a man running on the narrow platform of introducing daylight savings to a state he no longer lived in was elected to the upper house. (Here, surely, was a lesson to the federal government about voter priorities and attention in the age of the coronavirus.)

For a state with still worryingly inadequate quarantine hotels, it seemed to occur to only a few West Aussies that McGowan’s “success” might’ve rested as much on luck as ability. A few weeks after his electoral triumph, the virus leaked from one of those hotels triggering a three-day lockdown. “The infection of the guard (again) in HQ (again) in WA (again) isn’t inexplicable, premier,” tweeted Dr Andrew Miller, the Australian Medical Association (WA) president. “The govt’s own report makes it clear that airborne spread is happening. Using budget PPE while not shifting 30 positive cases to air gapped quarantine is crazy.”

With quarantine hotels – which still function without national standards, and have been averaging a breach every 11 days since November – there remains a sense of “There but for the grace of God go I.”

The theme of our complacency and (geographic) luck was reflected upon this week by the new AMA (Victoria) president, Dr Roderick McRae, in an interview with The Age. He suggested that we had squandered some of our advantages, and that “We were all kind of forgetting that we’re sitting on the safe, relatively isolated periphery of a roaring global pandemic. The iconic Australian ‘she’ll be right’ is very, very dangerous.”

When I read that quote – when I read “she’ll be right” – I thought again of our perpetually grinning leader sitting in the pilot’s seat of a fighter jet, possibly holding a spanner, while elsewhere his aged care minister confessed his rank ignorance of the portfolio, almost a year after the fatal outbreak in Victoria’s care homes and three months after a royal commission’s compendious account of neglect. 

But, yeah – she’ll be right, mate. 

Martin McKenzie-Murray

Martin McKenzie-Murray is the author of The Speechwriter and A Murder Without Motive: The Killing of Rebecca Ryle.

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