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Scott Morrison, a man of inaction?

Aug 14, 2020 • 17m 05s

At the beginning of the pandemic Prime Minister Scott Morrison was keen to project himself as a unifying leader. But as the crisis has stretched on he’s adopted a much more reserved approach. Today, Paul Bongiorno on Morrison’s strategy of inaction and if it will work.

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Scott Morrison, a man of inaction?

287 • Aug 14, 2020

Scott Morrison, a man of inaction?

RUBY:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones. This is 7am.

At the beginning of the pandemic Prime Minister Scott Morrison was keen to project himself as a unifying leader, coordinating the nation’s response.

But as the crisis has stretched on he’s adopted a much more reserved approach, on internal border disputes and aged care.

Today, columnist for The Saturday Paper Paul Bongiorno on Morrison’s strategy of inaction and if it will work.

**

RUBY:

Paul, this week we saw a pretty extraordinary border dispute between three different states. Tell me about what happened.

PAUL:

Well, in a nutshell, what happened was 100 Canberrans with permits to travel from Victoria to the Australian Capital Territory, were stranded for six days as New South Wales, unexpectedly and without warning, changed the rules.

Archival Tape -- Reporter:

“Changes made by Gladys Berejiklian last week meant anyone coming back into New South Wales from Victoria had to arrive via Sydney Airport, not the road border…”

PAUL:

These people had come with their cars packed with goods and chattels, and they had permits which border police said were no longer applicable, and they had to sit there for six days while New South Wales and the ACT, with no help from Canberra, tried to sort it out.

RUBY:

This isn't the first time that we've seen a dispute over borders.

PAUL:

Well, no, it's not. As we know, the prime minister for three months was attacking the states, particularly Queensland and Western Australia, for not opening their borders. Morrison wanted all the states to open their borders, and this campaign went very badly for him.

RUBY:

And what is Scott Morrison saying about the current situation?

PAUL:

Well, Ruby, I think the rub is he's not saying too much.

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrion:

“...to those matters shortly, but I just wanted to start…”

PAUL:

At his Monday courtyard news conference, four days into the New South Wales government's refusal to allow the Canberrans to return home from Victoria despite, as I say, having permits to do so, Morrison again played that role of ‘don't look at me - It's not my fault.’

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrion:

“Well, these are one of the challenges of when borders are put in place between state jurisdictions or at least in the case of New South Wales and Victoria…”

PAUL:

He said it was important for the ACT administration to be engaging with New South Wales to resolve these issues. There was no role for him.

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrion:

“I understand that the New South Wales premier will be anxious in these circumstances. We certainly don't want to see people stranded. But I would hope between the ACT chief minister and the New South Wales premier, they might be able to resolve those matters.”

PAUL:

Scott Morrison didn't pick up the phone to two members of this much important national cabinet, namely the premier and the chief minister. I'm told that he didn't take calls from the chief minister. So he didn't try at all to sort out what was truly a bizarre situation, as I said. I think his reluctance to get involved in the six day border standoff betrays a style of governance that's passive and reactive to issues.

And I've got no doubt it has an eye to quarantining himself from any political culpability. I think it played out most unconvincingly because in a unique sense, the borders of the Australian Capital Territory are his borders.

RUBY:

Right. So the prime minister has sort of vacated the field on this issue of internal borders then, and left it up to the states to work out?

PAUL:

Yes. And it's a change of tack, isn't it? Because for three months, he was very much involved in telling the states to open their borders. I've got to say, in this instance, eventually - it took six days - New South Wales and the ACT did work something out. And unlike the prime minister, the New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian, didn't snub the ACT chief minister, Andrew Barr. Barr was able to get the premier to answer the phone. But I've got to say, she took some convincing.

And to try and convince her, the chief minister offered a police escort non-stop from Aubury to the ACTU and supervised self isolation for 14 days as all the stranded Canberra anyway had already undertaken. But the Premier was concerned they'd need a comfort stop.

So the chief minister nominated one just north of where the dog sits on a box at Gundagai. And I can tell you, Barr even promised to pay for a deep clean once the travellers resumed their journey.

RUBY:

Mm. So is the situation resolved now?

PAUL:

Well, thankfully, yes, midweek New South Wales came to its senses as a relieved Andrew Barr commented when he welcomed the overdue green light for the travellers.

Archival Tape -- Andrew Barr:

“And so I am pleased and relieved that this situation has been resolved. And those people who have been waiting incredibly patiently at the border can travel home. I want to thank them for that.”

PAUL:

But I think the absurdity of the standoff was highlighted by the experience of Victorian MP Tim Wilson. He, too, was caught by the sudden change in health directive as he drove from Melbourne to the ACT to take part in his 14 day self isolation before parliament resumes. Well, luckily for him, hurried phone calls convinced border police that a special deal Morrison had negotiated for federal MPs exempted him from the sudden new restrictions.

Look, apparently it hadn't occurred to the prime minister that this double standard wasn't a good look and it could have been avoided by him picking up the phone to quickly resolve the issue in the first place. I think for a prime minister calling for transparency and better leadership from other leaders, this was a strategic mistake. And I've got to say, it's not the only example when he's demonstrated an unwillingness himself to be held to account.

RUBY:

We'll be back in a moment.

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RUBY:

Paul, we're talking about Scott Morrison's new ‘hands off’ approach to the issue of internal borders. Is he adopting a similar approach to other parts of the pandemic response?

PAUL:

Well, yes, he is, Ruby. On Monday with the special New South Wales enquiry into the Ruby Princess cruise ship quarantine debacle winding up. Morrison was asked why he hadn't delivered the full cooperation to this enquiry. He'd promised not one federal official was allowed to answer the summons to give evidence in person about their key role in allowing passengers off the ship. Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton had said he didn't want his officers besmirched

Archival Tape -- Peter Dutton:

“People within the Australian Border Force who again have gone above and beyond in this response, have really worked day and night to keep Australians safe; I'm not going to have them besmirched on a regular basis by anybody…”

PAUL:

And Morrison played word games.

Archival Tape -- Reporter:

“Why don't you encourage them to come forward and actually testify-”

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:

“I said we would cooperate with the enquiry as we have with other enquiries, and that's exactly what we've done. And so that's what we'll continue to do at the inquest.”

PAUL:

Well, Attorney-General Christian Porter wrote to the Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus to explain that he took a very narrow, legalistic view. He said that the Constitution doesn't allow state enquiries to call federal officials. But of course, this is just an evasion because it is true that the Constitution does not allow them to compel people to turn up. But it doesn't say they can't turn up and give evidence. Porter said, oh, well, they gave written evidence, but it's certainly not the same thing.

And I can tell you the commissioner holding the inquiry, Bret Walker SC, was far from amused, especially as the Commonwealth - and this is how far they went, which hasn't really been reported - threatened to take the commission to the High Court to block the witnesses giving evidence. So they were pretty keen not to cooperate as fully as they wanted everybody to think.

But of course, what the Morrison government had avoided was TV pictures of federal agents in the witness box explaining their bungling. It would undermine a ‘blame the states’ strategy. Now, what Commissioner Walker makes of it, we'll find out more soon enough. He's due to give his findings to the Berejiklian government today, and we'll have to wait for it to release them publicly.

RUBY:

And Paul, there's another enquiry taking place as well at the moment?

PAUL:

Yes, there is, Ruby. And this squarely puts the commonwealth, the federal government in the firing line.
It's the royal commission into aged care. And it's not going to be easy for Morrison to hide from the explosive evidence coming from there this week. Counsel Assisting Peter Rosen QC said the evidence will reveal neither the Commonwealth Department of Health nor the aged care regulator developed a Covid19 plan specifically for the aged care sector.

RUBY:

Right. And aged care is an area where the federal government has overall responsibility. So what has Scott Morrison's response been to the evidence given at the royal commission?

PAUL:

Well, in terms of media management, the last time we saw or heard the prime minister was on Monday as all of this began to unfold during the week, he was tackled about it at that courtyard news conference, you know, especially when he was told that the royal commission had found that 68 percent of Coronavirus deaths, or 213 people at that stage, were from nursing homes, while the prime minister claimed that this was now being addressed. But in a tactic reminiscent of former Prime Minister Paul Keating, Morrison threw the media pack a juicy chunk of red meat to chase in the opposite direction. He said he'd read in some media outlets that our elderly should be offered up to the virus.

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:

“There have been some suggestions. I've read it in pieces that have been read in...in the...the outlet you represent that somehow our elderly should in some way have been offered up in relation to this virus. That is an that is just a hideous thought and absolutely amoral, hideous thought…”

RUBY:

Well, when he referred to media outlets, who was Scott Morrison actually talking about?

PAUL:

Well, none other than News Corp's Andrew Bolt. In fact, the next day, Bolt outed himself as the target

Archival Tape -- Andrew Bolt:

“Scott Morrison is now attacking me for heartlessness, for being amoral, for saying something in my newspaper column today that he stupidly misrepresents”

PAUL:

Bolt threw the chunk of red meat - if I can keep this metaphor going - back at the prime minister. He said, in fact, what is amoral and hideous, is the policy the prime minister supports that turned aged care homes into killing fields and denied the sick a drug that could save them.

Archival Tape -- Andrew Bolt:

“I've got to call this man to account. He is blind to a drug that could actually save lives from this virus. And meanwhile, is dodging blame for the fiasco in aged care homes.”

PAUL:

Now, when Bolt talks about a drug that could save them, he's talking about hydroxychloroquine. Bolt’s boasting of that drug is very Trump-esque. And I've got to say, it was easily dispatched by the acting chief medical officer, Paul Kelly.

Well, not so easily dispatched is the tale of woe unfolding in the royal commission's hearings this week. But the minister charged with defending the government, Richard Colbeck, told ABC's Fran Kelly that the government had a plan and that plan was still evolving.

Archival Tape -- Richard Colbeck:

“Well... we do have a plan, Fran, and that plan has continued to evolve and develop, including incorporating learnings from not only here in Australia. Things like Newmarch House, Dothraki Lodge, but has also incorporated learnings from international circumstances…”

PAUL:

Ruby, one of the learnings, as the minister calls them, surely must be: government actions - or more precisely here, inactions - speak louder than words.

RUBY:

And Paul, do you think that this strategy will work? Will people do what the prime minister is hoping and blame the states or will they point the finger at him when they sense a lack of leadership?

PAUL:

Well, I think it depends in large measure on the role of the media holding power to account. It depends on the parliament and the opposition and then stakeholders, you know, pointing out what's going on. Putting it up in lights.
But I've got a say in Scott Morrison, we have a very nimble, wily political operator. And at times I would say a cynical one. He's shown that he can pivot at the last minute and then explain his tardiness or his coming late to an issue on, you know, being measured and cautious. And if you can believe the Newspoll this week, so far it's working a treat for him. But I believe it's beginning to fray at the edges.

RUBY:

Paul, thank you so much for your time today.

PAUL:

Thank you, Ruby. Bye.

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RUBY:

Also in the news today…
The federal health minister Greg Hunt has expressed cautious optimism at Victoria’s lower coronavirus case numbers.

Victoria recorded 278 new cases and 8 deaths yesterday, a significant drop in the number of new daily cases compared to earlier in the week.
The Victorian government will increase the payment to people self isolating after a COVID-19 test from $300 to $450.

And New Zealand has recorded 13 more coronavirus cases after community transmission was detected again for the first time in over 100 days.

There are now 36 active cases in the country and health officials are scrambling to contain the outbreak.

At the beginning of the pandemic Prime Minister Scott Morrison was keen to project himself as a unifying leader, coordinating the nation’s response. But as the crisis has stretched on he’s adopted a much more reserved approach – on internal border disputes and aged care. Today, Paul Bongiorno on Morrison’s strategy of inaction and if it will work.

Guest: Columnist for The Saturday Paper Paul Bongiorno.

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Our hands-off prime minister in The Saturday Paper

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7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper. It’s produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, and Michelle Macklem.

Elle Marsh is our features and field producer, in a position supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.

Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief.
Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

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287: Scott Morrison, a man of inaction?