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Scott Morrison’s eternal present

Jan 31, 2020 • 13m 47s

As Scott Morrison pivots to the coronavirus evacuation and deploys the military to the fire zone, questions are being asked about the management of both responses.

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Scott Morrison’s eternal present

153 • Jan 31, 2020

Scott Morrison’s eternal present

RUBY:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am, a daily news podcast from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper.

As Scott Morrison pivots to the coronavirus evacuation and deploys the military to the fire zone, questions are being asked about the management of both responses.

In this episode, Paul Bongiorno assesses the prime minister’s attempt to reset his agenda.

Archival Tape -- :

“Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to the National Press Club of Australia.”

RUBY:

Paul, take me, if you can, to the National Press Club this week.

PAUL:

Well, the National Press Club. I'd say it's probably the premiere venue in Australia for senior politicians.

Archival Tape -- :

“Everybody, please join me in welcoming Scott Morrison. Thank you. Thank you very much, SABRA, and thank you for all attending…”

PAUL:

And when you've got this annual event of the prime minister trying to set the agenda, set the scene, get the argument back on his ground, there's always a buzz in the room.

RUBY:

Paul Bongiorno is a columnist for The Saturday Paper. His first piece for the year appears this weekend.

PAUL:

It's a lunch, so there are tables there. And at the tables you've got foreign diplomats, senior ministerial colleagues, staffers, lobbyists and supporters all pay over a hundred bucks, all for the lunch.

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:

“Thank you for all attending here today…”

PAUL:

And of course, you've got members of the parliamentary press gallery and they all get to ask a question each. So it's a real opportunity for a prime minister. And over the 30 years I've been covering prime ministers, each one of them has attempted to seize that opportunity, some with greater success than others.

RUBY:

While he was talking, what was the mood like in the room? Was Morrison convincing?

PAUL:

Well, look, Morrison was bravely trying to sell the message that he and his government were right on the job, responding to catastrophic bushfires...

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:

“Because when the bad times hit and the crises come, you must be prepared… and we have gone into this crisis in that way.”

PAUL:

And I'm really not being cynical here. Morrison was trying to sell the idea that he was already being heroic in his government's response to climate change action to reduce emissions.

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:

“A target that will see our emissions per capita fall by half… Half! … Our 2030 target is set, and we intend to meet it, and we intend to beat it.”

PAUL:

And even said the government had nothing to apologise for with its $100 million sports grants program. Even though the auditor general in a scathing report found it to have been a political slush fund of dubious legality.

RUBY:

And this comes after what you might generously call a difficult few months for the PM.

PAUL:

Well that's exactly right. So the very first question to the prime minister was how he assessed his own performance over the past two months, his own judgements...

Archival Tape -- Press club Member:

“... performance and judgements.. And if you had your time again, what would you have done differently?”

PAUL:

And he actually said, well, to put it in a nutshell, he could do nothing differently.

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:

“What I tend to do is focus on the task I need to do each and every day…. What I’m focussed on right now is obviously responding to a series of crises…”

PAUL:

Morrison took refuge in what I call the eternal present, where yesterday no longer exists. He said that he was focused on obviously responding to a series of crises, not just the bushfires, but the drought as well. In fact, he particularly wanted to assure Australians in drought affected areas that he had not forgotten them for a second, he said.

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:

“Can I assure those Australians in those drought declared areas that we have not forgotten you for a second.. You have been so much in the middle of our thoughts and our plans as a government…”

RUBY:

So Paul, does the government acknowledge that there is a disconnect between what it’s saying and how it’s being perceived?

PAUL:

Well, look, the government clearly has been caught very much unprepared, it's been caught with its pants down and this is a real dereliction of duty.

And interestingly enough, Ruby, we found out this week that before Christmas, the Prime Minister's office engaged Russell Howcroft. Now Howcroft is the former chief executive of the advertising agency, George Patterson Y&R. So they wanted him to come in and he did run a session before Christmas on how to better sell policies, particularly, I understand, on climate change.

Now, the Australian Financial Review reported that Howcroft conducted the session for the prime minister's office, but the prime minister himself didn't attend. Maybe if he did, he wouldn't have flown out the next day for a secret family holiday in Hawaii, as the nation's largest city, Sydney, was encircled by a mega fire that had been burning for seven weeks.

RUBY:

We’ll be back in a moment.

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RUBY:

Paul, one of the things the government is doing to address the bushfire crisis is mobilising the army. Is that a sign that the government's getting on top of it?

PAUL:

Well, at one level, Ruby, I guess it's better late than never, but it's not as simple as that.

Even this mobilisation is further evidence that the government is way behind the eight ball. I spoke to one well-placed source in Canberra who says that while we do have one of the largest troop deployments since the Second World War, we can be grateful there's no invasion threat on the horizon because there would be no immediate response available.

He told me pilot hours are exhausted and budgets are being hastily diverted and rearranged. So it's hardly the calm, methodical response Morrison likes to boast about. It looks more like a knee jerk reaction to the enormous political pressure that he and his government have been facing.

RUBY:

Hmm. Paul, right at the beginning of our chat, you hinted at Bridget McKenzie, what's happening there?

PAUL:

Well immediately what we can say is that she's refusing to quit and refusing to resign, but the pressure is building. And late morning on Wednesday, the prime minister's office set the tongues wagging in the press gallery when it gave notice of a hastily convened news conference in the courtyard.

The speculation was that maybe he'd be announcing the resignation of the embattled agriculture minister Bridget McKenzie, of course the pressure is on her over her ignoring of an independent, merit based process in the allocation of grants to sporting clubs around the nation. Mainstream media outlets have been hammering this story.

Archival Tape of reporters asking questions

PAUL:

And what we saw at the Press Club was the prime minister's inability to give a straight answer.

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:

“Well I just reject the premise of the question, that’s not why we did it…”

PAUL:

In fact, he answered by calling black white and saying that the government had nothing to apologise for in the way in which it handed out these grants.

Archival Tape -- Reporter:

“Why did you do it?”

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:

“To support local communities in the sporting infrastructure that they need to bond together, to be cohesive and ensure that girls didn't have to change out the back of the shed....”

PAUL:

So the truth of the matter is unimportant. It's the government's embarrassment, which, of course, that reaction just leads to further head shaking.

RUBY:

So Paul, what about Scott Morrison’s press conference that people ran downstairs for then - what was that actually about?

PAUL:

Yeah, well, it wasn't about McKenzie as now now obvious. Journalists ran down to find the prime minister, flanked by the health and foreign ministers and the chief medical officer of the Commonwealth. To announce an evacuation of Australians caught in the Coronavirus quarantined Chinese city of Wuhan.

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:

“...Good morning, everyone. I'm, of course, joined by ..”

PAUL:

Morrison even thanks Qantas for being willing to be the commercial partner in bringing these people from China to quarantine on Christmas Island.

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:

“I want to thank Qantas because they have offered their assistance.”

PAUL:

But it seems he may have jumped the gun because the Qantas CEO, Alan Joyce, told the media that Qantas 747 couldn't fly directly from Wuhan to Christmas Island and that there’s a lot of detail had to be worked out and nothing had been finalised.

This tended to show that this was a marketing exercise, an attempt to get in before the Press Club speech and set the headlines for that night away from Mckenzie and away from the government's response to the bushfires and the drought.

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:

“Right now, our focus, my focus is on Australians health and wellbeing at protecting their safety… thanks very much…”

RUBY:

And so that announcement was that people are being sent to Christmas Island, right?

PAUL:

Yep. There could be as many as 600 Australians in this situation, adults and children. One medical expert told me last night, He understands that the island doesn't, for example, have sophisticated laboratories to be able to, deal with tracking the virus and then the facilities to even isolate those on the island who may have the virus.

And already Chinese Australians are saying that maybe it'll be better for them to stay in Wuhan rather than to be brought, to a situation that could be even more fraught than the one they are in.

RUBY:

So, Paul, why is it that Morrison's reaction to the Coronavirus crisis has been so much faster and pretty different to his reaction to the bushfires?

PAUL:

Well, I guess, Ruby, the benign answer is he wants to show the nation he's learnt from his mistakes while not publicly admitting them or less benignly. As I say, it was a piece of media manipulation to try and distract us all from what's really been going on.

RUBY:

So with all of that, what does next week hold?

PAUL:

Well, I mean, we've got Parliament coming back next week. There's gonna be a Senate inquiry into the sports rorts scandal. There's gonna be a budget and the promise to deliver a budget surplus that has to be dealt with. There's gonna be the Council of Australian Governments when he finally sits down with the premiers to try and work out a better national disaster plan.

Mmm just the test of governing well is one that the prime minister has yet to meet.

RUBY:

Paul, thank you so much for your time today.

PAUL:

Thanks, Ruby. Plenty to talk about.

RUBY:

Elsewhere in the news, Australians trapped in the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak will have to pay up to one thousand dollars to be evacuated from the Chinese city of Wuhan, before they will be quarantined at the Christmas Island detention centre for up to 14 days.

Some Australians stranded in Wuhan have raised concerns about the proposed evacuation plan given the closest hospital to Christmas Island is in Darwin, 2700km away.
And in Victoria, the Supreme Court has temporarily halted logging near Healesville in a bid to protect wildlife such as the greater glider.

The environmental group WOTCH said that the summer’s bushfires had placed further strain on threatened species, and argued that areas that had not been impacted by fires should not be logged.
7am is produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bast-OH, 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 Camp-OH 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.

New episodes of 7am are released every weekday morning. Make sure you don’t miss out by subscribing on your favourite podcast app.

I’m Ruby Jones, this has been my first week hosting 7am. Thanks for listening and see you next week.

As Scott Morrison pivots to the coronavirus evacuation and deploys the military to the fire zone, questions are being asked about the management of both responses. In this episode, Paul Bongiorno assesses the prime minister’s attempt to reset his agenda.

Guest: Columnist for The Saturday Paper Paul Bongiorno.

Background reading:

The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is hosted by Ruby Jones. The show is produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, Elle Marsh and Michelle Macklem. 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.

This episode was produced in part by Elle Marsh, features and field producer, in a position supported by a grant from the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.

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153: Scott Morrison’s eternal present