October 2020

Comment

The announcement artist

By Nick Feik

Prime Minister Scott Morrison. © Dan Himbrechts / AAP Images

Scott Morrison is good at promising but not at delivering

The prime minister’s leadership in the wake of the bushfire crisis was widely regarded as reactive, evasive and inept. By the end of February, six months after the fires started, only five farmers and small businesses had received anything from the Bushfire Recovery Fund – $400,000 in payouts from a promised $2 billion – and hundreds of thousands of Australians felt abandoned. Stung by the criticism, and facing the new coronavirus threat, Scott Morrison changed tack.

In future, he wouldn’t hide, or blame the states. The prime minister would be proactive, collaborative, present: all the things he’d failed to be during the blackest summer.

He switched to an announcement-based approach to leadership, and it made complete sense. In the current environment, there are no disincentives for doing so. Press conferences are held at short notice with details postponed until later, and inconvenient questions are easily batted away, well after headlines have established an underlying narrative. Outlets rush to break the news first, follow-ups are negligible, corrections are buried, and the media as a whole paints the picture you would expect from an ecosystem increasingly dominated by supporters of Morrison and his government (most notably in the News Corp stable).

It’s all working for the prime minister – he’s a ­self-styled practical dad, an optimist taking care of business. If there are objections or uncomfortable revelations, he doesn’t accept the premise of your question. Next, please. And tomorrow he’ll have another announcement.

The first sign of Morrison’s new approach came in February, when his government released a coronavirus emergency response plan. It said that while the states and territories would be responsible for public health and hospitals, “the Australian Government will be responsible for residential aged care facilities”.

But there’s a big difference between announcing things and delivering on them. This 56-page document, for example, turned out to be so useless that at the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety in August, the senior counsel assisting, Peter Rozen QC, disputed there even was a plan. There was no evidence of one: the sector had been suffering for months from under-resourcing, lack of planning and the underpayment of staff, and, following the deaths of hundreds of aged-care residents, minister Richard Colbeck was stripped of his COVID-related responsibilities.

Morrison announced an initial stimulus package in early March, to cushion the economy from the likely impact of the pandemic, including a $1 billion fund for tourism. The fund never appeared, or at least not for tourism operators. Delving into it in the Senate's Select Committe for COVID-19 in late August, Labor senator Murray Watt questioned several tourism industry representatives: Were they surprised that the “fund has ended up being used for airfreight support, campaigns on eating seafood and securing forest resources? … That a $1 billion tourism fund has been used for a range of things that are not related to tourism?”

“It is an issue of considerable concern to the industry that the $1 billion fund became a ‘not tourism’ $1 billion fund,” replied Margy Osmond, head of the peak industry group for the tourism, transport and aviation sectors.

In mid March, Morrison announced that international borders would be closed and no cruise ships would be allowed into Australian ports, other than four exceptions including the Ruby Princess. There would be “bespoke arrangements that we put in place directly under the command of the Australian Border Force to ensure that the relevant protections are put in place”. The “bespoke arrangements” were never introduced. Instead, a chaotic chain of command resulted in the disembarkation of hundreds of COVID-positive passengers from the Ruby Princess.

Also in March, Morrison oversaw the formation of the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission, a hand-picked board led by mining executive Neville Power to advise on the economic recovery effort. (“Nev, I need you to serve your country,” said the PM.) The long-term impact of the commission is hard to gauge, because its deliberations have been kept secret from the public under the guise of it being a cabinet committee (a contention disputed by constitutional law experts). One thing we do know of this unelected group populated with resources executives is that it has endorsed a plan for government to underwrite new gas pipelines. Funny that.

On March 30, Morrison announced JobKeeper, at $130 billion the largest stimulus package in the nation’s history. At this point, with infection numbers low, there was nothing but praise for the prime minister’s new approach, and why not. Announce today, deliver later; everyone likes decisive leadership. Courtesy of a $60 billion “administrative error”, JobKeeper also became the nation’s biggest ever accounting mistake.

On April 2, free childcare for all! That ended in July after barely two months, when childcare workers were also left high and dry – most were excluded from JobKeeper.

The federal government’s smartphone app for tracing the spread of infection, COVIDSafe, was launched on April 26 with the heartening message from the prime minister: “The more people who download this important public health app, the safer they and their family will be, the safer their community will be.” The app was dutifully downloaded more than 7 million times. As for its actual effectiveness, in the first three months of its use in Victoria authorities didn’t identify a single potential COVID-19 exposure that wasn’t already picked up by manual tracing. At the height of the second wave, the data was so unreliable that they ceased bothering to use it. And no wonder: on many iPhones, for example, it didn’t work most of the time. New South Wales authorities reported that they eventually found two positive cases indirectly via the app, but this was dwarfed by the number of people who, due to a glitch in the app design, received false positives. Emails obtained by Guardian Australia under freedom-of-information laws revealed that alarmed people were presenting to clinics brandishing their phones simply because while installing the app they’d clicked on a banner that asked, “Has a health official asked you to upload your information?” This click took them to a page that stated, “You have tested positive for COVID-19.”

At the National Press Club a few days after the JobKeeper accounting bungle was revealed, and probably not coincidentally, Morrison unveiled JobMaker. The prime minister, a ready schemer and born marketer, had learnt how easy it was to shape the news cycle, and he began to exploit it ruthlessly. JobMaker was an entire agenda, a whole-of-government effort “supporting small, medium and large businesses through skills, affordable and reliable energy, research, access to finance, more efficient taxes, less regulation and workplace relations reform”.

This “historic joint effort between the Commonwealth and states” was nothing of the sort. In fact, it was hard to gauge what it was, other than that it also encompassed initiatives that came under another glib Morrison moniker, JobTrainer. Labor senator Katy Gallagher followed it up with officials from the Department of Education, Skills and Employment in the Senate COVID committee three months later. If JobMaker was a coordinated whole-of-government initiative, she asked, who was the lead agency?

“I’m not sure that there is a specific lead agency,” Deputy Secretary (Skills and Training) Nadine Williams replied.

“Surely someone’s in charge of it.”

“I would say that Prime Minister and Cabinet would be the appropriate agency,” said Deputy Secretary (Employment) Nathan Smyth soon afterwards.

“Have any cross-government arrangements been put in place for JobMaker, such as interdepartmental committees or working groups, that you would be a member of?” Gallagher asked Smyth.

“Not specifically under the name of JobMaker, but there are a number of interdepartmental committees …”

“Okay, but on the JobMaker program there’s no set infrastructure.”

“Not classified, as I said, under that specific term; not that I’m aware of.”

It sounded very much like there was no JobMaker scheme, just a grab bag of talking points collated for media consumption. Later, responding to a question on notice, it was revealed that the first time the Department of Education, Skills and Employment heard of JobMaker was the day the prime minister announced it.

The other major announcement Morrison made in May was the introduction of the national cabinet, which replaced the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) but essentially comprised the same people. Unlike COAG, the deliberations and outcomes of national cabinet meetings – and those of a related assembly of Commonwealth and state chief medical officers – are also now considered cabinet-in-confidence. (“Less paperwork”, promised the PM.) The national cabinet unfortunately did nothing to usher in a new era of federal cooperation. Within weeks, premiers and Commonwealth ministers were taking pot shots at each other over border closures, the prime minister’s office was backgrounding journalists with stories blaming the Victorian government for the new COVID outbreak, and aged-care and quarantine responsibilities were universally disavowed.

Sometimes Morrison didn’t even need a carrot to make an announcement, because a stick – or a China-based scare – worked just as well. In June, Morrison’s portentous press conference prompted a credulous media to launch a hundred headlines about a “CYBER ATTACK”, even though there was no particular incident of cyber-hacking or even a rise in hacking activity to report, let alone new security measures to declare.

HomeBuilder was also announced in June, “to support the 140,000 direct jobs and another 1,000,000 related jobs in the residential construction sector”. Expected to support 27,000 applicants, by mid August it had received only 247 applications and had not paid out a single cent. Negotiating the eligibility criteria was like threading the eye of a needle.

But at least HomeBuilder had criteria. Morrison also announced a $250 million arts rescue package in June but it didn’t have guidelines or application forms until mid August, and no money would be disbursed until November at the earliest – nine months after most arts organisations started haemorrhaging. Even then, $90 million of the promised $250 million was in loans.

At the height of the Victorian second wave in early August, Morrison announced a $1500 pandemic leave payment for workers without sick leave – initially for Victorians, but “if other states or territories want to enter into a similar arrangement, then I’ll be making that offer to the states and territories,” he told Seven’s Sunrise program. Yet when other states requested to join the scheme, they were rebuffed. The announcement had, yet again, been seriously over-egged.

But perhaps the apotheosis of Morrison’s strategy of great announcements was this one: on the morning of Tuesday, August 18, media outlets reported that Morrison had “locked in a coronavirus vaccine deal” with AstraZeneca and planned to provide it free to all 25 million Australians. Morrison was everywhere: in the headlines, on morning TV, giving radio interviews, appearing at a pharmaceutical laboratory in a mask nodding sagely with experts. As if it already existed, he would make the vaccine “as mandatory as possible”. It was a great news story and a triumph for the prime minister.

It took a few hours for the truth to emerge. It wasn’t a deal, but rather a letter of agreement so loosely worded that AstraZeneca’s local spokesperson thought there must be some mistake. “AZ was so perplexed by the PM’s comments,” reported Christine Spiteri in Pharma in Focus later that day, “they even suggested the government may have been referring to a different vaccine developer.” While other national governments had signed multiple deals with pharmaceutical companies, for the production and delivery of vaccines now in development, our prime minister was touting a letter that amounted to an agreement to let Australia produce its own vaccines under proprietary licence, if the government managed to find its own manufacturer, if that manufacturer agreed to work in this way, and if a successful vaccine was actually developed by AstraZeneca. All of which, at that point, was still theoretical. No signed deal, no vaccine, no manufacturer, and no certainty a manufacturer could be secured with the capacity to make a vaccine in the necessary high volumes. (The next day, facing a backlash from anti-vaxxers, Morrison declared the presumptive vaccine wouldn’t be compulsory either.) Morrison re-announced an Australian vaccine deal in September, when supply and production agreements were apparently reached, for an unproven vaccine.

Needless to say, there have been other announcements too; more promises and inspirational platitudes about getting the economy back on track and Australians back into work. But in reality, there has been no “historic joint effort” on job creation or skills and vocational training, no industrial relations overhaul, no broad tax reform and no new infrastructure program, just a reheating of the same handful of ideas the Coalition’s been pushing for years. The economy is heading down the S-bend and public relations exercises won’t help.

Australians have a great piece of vernacular once commonly applied to someone who talks a big game but never delivers on it. They’re called a bullshit artist, but it’s a term we don’t use so much anymore.

Nick Feik

Nick Feik is the editor of The Monthly.

@nickfeik

October 2020

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