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Scott Morrison’s fortunate disaster

Feb 28, 2020 • 12m 30s

Coronavirus has provided Scott Morrison with an opportunity to re-establish his leadership credentials, but will it work? Today, Paul Bongiorno on how the prime minister is making the most of this crisis.

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Scott Morrison’s fortunate disaster

172 • Feb 28, 2020

Scott Morrison’s fortunate disaster

[Theme music]

RUBY:

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

Coronavirus is on the verge of becoming an international crisis but it could also be an opportunity for Scott Morrison to re-establish his credibility. Today, Paul Bongiorno on how the Prime Minister’s response to the virus is helping him look like a leader, but might ultimately cost him the surplus he craves.

[Music ends]

RUBY:

Paul. What has Scott Morrison been doing this week to reshape his image?

PAUL:

Well, Ruby, there's an old saying in politics. Never waste a good crisis.

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:

“...as each week passes the impact of the virus, COVID19…”

PAUL:

And it's crystal clear Scott Morrison is putting in a 100 percent effort not to waste a moment being seen responding to the threat that the coronavirus is posing to Australia and the world.

RUBY:

Paul Bongiorno is a columnist for The Saturday Paper.

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:

“So Australia, has not been complacent, in fact, Australia has been proactive with the measures that we have put in place in relation to coronavirus.”

PAUL:

On Tuesday, flanked by the Treasurer, health minister and the chief medical officer, he told a news conference at Parliament House that he could assure Australians that the government is prepared.

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:

“And the government’s decisions from the outset have been exercising an abundance of caution… and that abundance of caution, I think, has been rewarded in the outcomes that we have so far been able to achieve.”

PAUL:

He pointed to the success of the travel ban from China since February the 1st.

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:

“Now what that says is, that the self-isolation that we put in place for those more than 30,000 Australians to date has proved to be very effective…”

RUBY:

Can you describe the prime minister's demeanour during that press conference? What was it like?

PAUL:

Morrison was assertive. He was centre stage and he made the bold claim ‘we are the best prepared as any country can be in the world today’. It's a direct contrast, you know, to the accusations, for example, from experts like retired fire chiefs that we were hopelessly underprepared for the catastrophic summer bushfires.

RUBY:

So, Paul, do you think that this is working for him? Do Australians seem to think that Scott Morrison has everything under control?

PAUL:

Well, the latest Newspoll out Monday suggests he's still a long way behind the eight ball, as they say. There was a slight improvement in his net satisfaction rating from a dismal minus 22 to an equally dismal minus 20. One of the Liberal backbenchers told me he's done some analysis on the history of Newspoll and no PM has recovered from that sort of disapproval. They’ve either been dumped by the party room or they've lost the next election. But there was some better news for the prime minister. And that's Newspoll finding that 58 per cent of Australians actually think the lack of hazard reduction was the main contributor to the bushfire catastrophe, while only 35 per cent blamed climate change. Social media was flooded with the hazard reduction message. Labor suspects the bots were put to work. And it's something you may remember Morrison pushed very hard as he tried to minimise the impact of global warming. So his rhetoric in that area is obviously working.

RUBY:

So does that mean that Morrison has managed to contain the debate on climate change and bushfires then?

PAUL:

Well, I think you'd have to say to a degree, but it is a sign that voters focus on climate change as an issue directly affecting them is fickle. The jury's out on whether it will be a vote changer next time. But Morrison knows that this summer means he has to be seen to be doing something real to address Australia's contribution to reducing global greenhouse gas emissions. His biggest roadblock is the Nationals, without whom he cannot govern. And the loudest voice leading the charge is none other than Barnaby Joyce.

Archival Tape -- Barnaby Joyce:

“...no coal miner is going to lose their job but we are going to get to net zero emissions. What a load of rubbish…”

PAUL:

He's threatening to cross the floor and he says there are others who would join him if his leader, Michael McCormack, capitulates to the Liberals. And Joyce is as mad as hell about it as his corridor stoush with Labor's Joel Fitzgibbon amply demonstrated.

Archival Tape -- Barnaby Joyce:

“...what a load of rubbish, what an absolute load of pig manure. He’s going to reach out to you? He’s going to reach out to the coal miners? Don't worry, fellas, we're reaching out…”

RUBY:

We’ll be back in a moment.

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RUBY:

Paul this week, we’ve heard the Prime Minister trying to send out a strong message to seem like he’s in control of the Coronavirus outbreak. But what does the outbreak mean for his government's economic agenda?

Archival Tape -- Josh Frydenberg:

“Thank you very much Prime Minister, the Australian economy has been facing a number of economic shocks that have been beyond our control…”

PAUL:

Well, Ruby, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg on his return from a G20 finance ministers meeting at Riyadh in Saudi Arabia, said the economic hit from the coronavirus would be worse than the bushfires for Australia.

Archival Tape -- Josh Frydenberg:

...and at the G20 finance ministers and central bank governors meeting in Riyadh this issue about the impact of the coronavirus was the top priority…”

PAUL:

And he even had warnings that the shutters could come down on the global economy.

Archival Tape -- Josh Frydenberg:

“...and it wasn’t just those countries that were geographically proximate to China, namely Singapore, Japan and Korea, but it was also economies and countries further afield like Italy…”

PAUL:

This week, as the virus spread to other countries, $120 billion was wiped off the Australian stock market. It was the worst three day performance in four and a half years. Morrison said what he is describing as the health crisis was economy wide.

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:

“This is affecting global supply chains, it’s affecting the building industry, it’s affecting the manufacturing industry, it’s affecting our export industry…”

PAUL:

That news conference, though, was clearly a softening up of the electorate for what he and the Treasurer are calling unforeseen traction in the economy. Putting in doubt the much touted back in the black budget surplus certainly was unforeseen at the time of the April budget last year. Both men were buying some immunity from any failure to deliver that much touted budget surplus.

RUBY:

Paul, the surplus was a huge part of the Coalition's pitch to the electorate, though.
So what happens if they don't deliver it? Is there some sort of plan to try and hold onto it?

PAUL:

Well, you know, the post election analysis by all sides, really, including the ANU pinpointed the April 2019 budget immediately before we went into election campaign mode, it was the turning point for the government's fortunes and its centerpiece was the claim of better economic management. And proof of that claim was ‘we’re back in the black, there's a budget surplus’.

Archival Tape:

“No well we’re back in the black in 2019-20, that’s what the budget is. It's 2019-20. I’m pleased that in the current year…”

PAUL:

So not to deliver it. You'd have to think politically at the very least would be a body blow to their credibility. But Morrison ruled out any Labor style global financial crisis stimulus spending, saying ‘we are not a government of extreme fiscal responses’. And we have the contrast in places like Hong Kong, where everyone in Hong Kong has been given $2000 as a stimulus to try and keep the economy moving there. The economic cost of this virus is worsened by the travel bans that we've imposed on the 70000 Chinese students blocked from their university studies. And the university sector has its fingers crossed that many of these students won't take up the option of studying elsewhere like Canada, which didn't impose travel bans. Hundreds of thousands more Chinese tourists are having to cancel their holidays. In fact, there is an estimate out on Thursday that the tourism sector is bracing for 1.5 million visitors not coming this year. So it's a real risk.

RUBY:

So Paul, when it comes to the travel ban, are the economic impacts worth it?

PAUL:

Well, Ruby, there's no doubt the government's response has made a bad situation economically worse. But look, it's a fine line. And what choice did they have? None of the options are easy and there is public support for it. And the fact is the Labor opposition and others aren't quibbling with the measures being taken.

RUBY:

Was the travel ban necessary?

PAUL:

Well, the World Health Organization hadn't called for such bans. But let's not forget the politics. This is a disaster and Morrison's not letting it go to waste. Australia's chief medical officer, Dr Brendan Murphy, is being wheeled out to give credibility to the response, and the government insists in this instance it is taking expert advice very seriously. We'll see more of these news conferences reassuring the nation that Morrison’s in charge and keeping us all safe.

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:

“And we’ll continue to keep our heads because that’s what the Australian people elect us to do…”

RUBY:

Paul, thanks so much for your time today.

PAUL:

Thanks very much, Ruby.

RUBY:

Also in the news… The Australian government has activated an emergency management plan in response to the coronavirus outbreak. Yesterday afternoon Prime Minister Scott Morrison extended the China travel ban by a further week and said he expected a global pandemic to be declared soon. The Prime Minister said the virus’ rapid spread had prompted this latest action.

And a new report by the UN Human Rights Office reveals the total number of civilian casualties to foreign conflict in Afghanistan over the past decade has surpassed 100,000. It also marks the sixth year in a row where the annual toll has surpassed 10,000. The UN stated, quote: "Almost no civilian in Afghanistan has escaped being personally affected in some way by the ongoing violence."

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.

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, see you next week.

Coronavirus is on the verge of becoming an international crisis but Scott Morrison isn’t going to let it go to waste. Paul Bongiorno on how the virus is helping the prime minister look like a leader, but why it might ultimately cost him his much-desired surplus.

Guest: Columnist for The Saturday Paper Paul Bongiorno.

Background reading:

Scott Morrison's quest for immunity in The Saturday Paper
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.

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172: Scott Morrison’s fortunate disaster