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Grattan on Friday: Descending the COVID mountain could be hazardous for Scott Morrison

Just a year ago, Scott Morrison was on the cusp of achieving what most had believed impossible. His ability as a campaigner, aided by the failure of his opponent to connect with the Australian public and Labor’s over-heavy policy bag, brought him the unexpected May 18 election victory.

Now he is riding another wave of success. But it’s thanks to the strangest and scariest of circumstances.

Morning Consult polling published in the May 9 issue of The Economist shows Morrison, with an approval rating of 64%, heading a selection of world leaders. Behind him are Trudeau (Canada), Merkel (Germany), Johnson (UK), Modi (India), Macron (France), AMLO (Mexico), Trump (US), Abe (Japan) and Bolsonaro (Brazil).

It’s a hell of a way to become top of the political pops.

Without the pandemic, Morrison would likely be going into the second year of this parliamentary term in a very sub-optimal position.

Read more: Grattan on Friday: The delicate art of political distancing during the pandemic

Voters would remember the past year more for his shocker performance during the bushfires, the “sports rorts” scandal and the controversy around minister Angus Taylor than for positive achievements.

In dealing with the COVID crisis, Morrison has succeeded (so far) because of his extreme pragmatism (the government’s huge spend defies its ideology), a willingness to listen, and his ability to learn from mistakes.

He heeded the health experts - though he balanced their advice with his own economic orientation (hence his rejection of the aim of eliminating the virus). In crafting the relief package he heeded Treasury advice.

Having been frustrated by the lack of federal government powers during the fires, and aware that, similarly, in the COVID crisis power overwhelmingly would rest with the states, he established the national cabinet to maximise Canberra’s clout.

He became a devotee of consensus politics, even when that meant embracing disagreement.

He’s used his communications skills to the maximum, and worked hard at switching from arrogance to empathy.

Every news conference, of which there are many (watched live by quite a few of the public) opens with a carefully crafted homily, which often has the feel of a sermon.

These are designed to connect, exhort and set a tone. (“This is a tough day for Australia, a very tough day. Almost 600,000 jobs have been lost,” he began his Thursday press conference about the horrifying figures that will be followed by even worse numbers.)

But extremely difficult as it has been, managing the “hot” stage of this crisis is likely easier than navigating the journey out which, at least for the foreseeable future, will have the virus lurking as activity steps up. As Boris Johnson said, charting his government’s way ahead, “it is coming down the mountain that is often more dangerous”. (He was echoing a similar line from Jacinda Ardern.)

If we think of the parliamentary cycle, where will Morrison be in May 2021, when (at most) the election will be 12 months away?

The unemployment queue will be shortening but still long. Many businesses, especially small ones, will have disappeared. There’ll have been stoushes about the government’s winding back its JobSeeker and JobKeeper programs, and the free child care it is currently providing. Perhaps it will have been forced to modify those wind-backs in some respects.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s budget of October this year would have contained a massive deficit for 2020-21 (Deloitte estimates it at more than $131 billion), after a likely even bigger outcome for 2019-20. The government would be producing a 2021 budget with a deficit, on Deloitte’s forecast, of more than $51 billion for 2021-22.

By May 2021, the government will be having a stab at reforms, the nature and extent of which are at this point unclear, probably even to it. Indeed, Morrison needs to start managing expectations; while every parrot (to adopt a Keatingism) might be squawking about reform, there are no silver bullets.

Read more: First stage of 'road back' will boost monthly GDP by $3.1 billion and jobs by 252,500: Frydenberg

Regardless, some or much of whatever the government does will be contested, by the opposition and by some stakeholders.

If proposals involve political losers, there’ll be blow back. On the other hand, there may also be disappointment from some, especially in business, that the reform agenda hasn’t gone far enough, and concern it doesn’t have sufficient heft to adequately stimulate growth.

To implement reforms, many of which lie in the remit of the states, the co-operation of the premiers will be needed. But political differences are likely to constrain this, even if the national cabinet were to be kept going in some form.

A wild card is whether the trade dispute with China gets worse in coming months. This is of course about a lot more than trade. It will be a serious economic problem if China is determined to punish Australia. Strong exports are being relied on to help us get through the crisis.

Anthony Albanese this week delivered Labor’s broad principles for Australia’s economic recovery. His main message was that we must not just “return to as we were”. Issues such as the excessive casualisation of jobs and jobseekers stuck in poverty had to be addressed, he said.

In short, Albanese is arguing the lessons of the pandemic feed into Labor’s advocacy of a fairer, better society. It was familiar if worthy territory, but with little evidence of any transformational ideas from the opposition.

Read more: Let's “SnapBack” to better society with more secure jobs: Anthony Albanese

The impending by-election in the Labor-held seat of Eden-Monaro will provide an early test of whether Morrison’s good performance over the virus translates into electoral reward. Albanese, however, has more at stake in this byelection than Morrison.

A loss would be a major knock to him personally and to morale in Labor, which has inevitably struggled on the sidelines during the crisis. It would reduce his authority with his colleagues, and sharpen his critics.

Assuming the ALP holds Eden-Monaro, Albanese in the coming two years has to do what Bill Shorten could not: that is, persuade people they can see him as prime minister. Given all the advantages of incumbency, and Morrison’s salesmanship skills, that’s harder than it might sound.

On the other hand, the unprecedented circumstances could as easily assist Labor as help the government.

As an election pitch, Morrison may be able to say, “look how well we handled the health crisis, supported so many people through the recession/depression, spurred economic recovery, and are now repairing the budget”.

But Labor may be able to counter, “Look how many people are still on the scrap heap, especially the young, in an economy where growth is still struggling, too much work is insecure, and some industries – such as tourism – can’t get out of the doldrums”.

Whether voters remember the disasters missed or mitigated, and believe the Coalition is the best manager in bad times, or they are preoccupied with the country’s continuing pain and blame the government for it, could determine the result of the election due early 2022.

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