Thanks to coronavirus, Scott Morrison will become a significant prime minister

Mr Morrison’s reign could be more significant than it otherwise would have been.

A significant Australian prime minister?

Paul Strangio, Monash University

One of Australia’s pre-eminent historians, Stuart Macintyre, once observed of John Curtin, the Labor Party leader revered for navigating this nation through the dangers of the second world war, that he would have made a timid and mediocre prime minister in peacetime; in war he assumed duties no one else could discharge. The occasion found the man.

Scott Morrison is no John Curtin. Yet, because of his incumbency coinciding with what is the most perilous peacetime challenge the country has faced in living memory, Morrison now seems destined to be a significant Australian prime minister.

Remember this is the ‘accidental’ prime minister, who obtained the office almost by default after Liberal Party conservatives botched their assault on Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership in August 2018. He then miraculously survived the May 2019 election largely courtesy of Bill Shorten’s chronic unpopularity and Labor’s poorly calculated campaign.

Fresh from that victory, Morrison’s government spent the following months frittering away the public’s goodwill. It appeared bereft of a discernible policy program, was divided over climate policy, and tainted by the scandal over its pre-election pork-barrelling of community sport funding grants.

Then there was Morrison’s mishandling of the summer bushfires calamity. Put together, it was a record that had the hallmarks of him joining the ranks of the beleaguered set of post-John Howard prime ministers who have each struggled to leave a substantial imprint on the nation.

But now that unflattering history seems like it dates from another age. In the new all-encompassing COVID-19 reality, Morrison has recovered if not the public’s trust, at least its ear, as he has presided over a series of momentous health and economy-related responses to the pandemic – the latest among them the gargantuan $130 billion ‘JobKeeper’ payment. The pace and scale of these actions arguably even puts in the shade the policy pyrotechnics of the famed first fortnight of Gough Whitlam’s government in December 1972.

Timing, in short, can be everything in politics.

It has long been recognised that crises present both an opportunity and a danger for leaders. As Macintyre’s observation suggests, Curtin’s reputation – he is commonly lauded as Australia’s greatest prime minister – sprang from a fortuitous congruence between the challenges he met during 1941-45 and his own leadership repertoire.

On the other hand, James Scullin, another Labor leader who was ostensibly equally gifted as Curtin, had his prime ministership broken by the crisis of the Great Depression. Powerless to arrest the country’s descent into economic freefall, Scullin is typically ranked at the bottom of the heap of Australia’s national leaders.

In other words, while Morrison’s prime ministership seems fated to have an import that was unimaginable only weeks ago, this is no guarantee that it will be remembered as a success. How skilfully his government manages the crisis and the recovery phase will be the true test. It will be months, perhaps even years, before we will be able to fully measure whether Morrison was the appropriate leader for this time.

The political science literature suggests that in a crisis a leader has to perform at least three essential tasks. The first is to authoritatively interpret the causes, dynamics and consequences of the unfolding crisis. The second is to mobilise and coordinate and, where required, recalibrate existing governing systems to facilitate an appropriate response. Thirdly, it must persuasively explain the crisis to the public and the nature of the government’s actions.

Against these benchmarks, the jury is still out regarding Morrison’s response to the COVID-19 emergency. At least initially, and to be fair in common with most of his counterparts internationally, Morrison appeared slow to fathom the gravity of the threat. There are legitimate questions about whether his government’s actions were sufficiently expeditious and proportionate.

In terms of tweaking governing systems, a “national cabinet” (COAG by another name) has been established as the key decision-making forum for dealing with the crisis, and an advisory network of health bureaucrats and medical experts created.

There are also reports of a heavy reliance on treasury officials, the government seeking counsel from an informal group of business leaders, and the prime minister has also brought on board the former Rudd government minister and ACTU chief, Greg Combet, to provide a conduit to the trade union movement. Indeed, it has been striking to note how willingly Morrison has leaned on public service advice in all this. It is a sharp contrast with a prime minister who had hitherto spoken disdainfully of the ‘Canberra bubble’ and also a far cry from his government’s bloody-minded reluctance to heed expert opinion on climate change.

When it comes to public communication, Morrison early on sent out too many mixed messages. He resorted to hectoring rather than informing and calming. But those tendencies have been less evident in recent days, and he appears to be doing much better than during the bushfires crisis when he lost control of the narrative at the beginning and never recovered it.

There will be other things that will help determine Morrison’s effectiveness in dealing with the current crisis, not least his own psychological resilience and the robustness of the personal support network that he has around him. For most of us, the relentless pressures that Morrison and other leaders internationally are enduring at this time are nigh on unthinkable. Part of the legend of the naturally pensive Curtin is that, worn down by the tribulations of governing during war, he literally worried himself into an early grave.

There will also be a question of how Morrison readapts once the worst of the crisis is behind us. Like what happened to Kevin Rudd following the global financial crisis, a potential danger for the future harmony of Morrison’s government is that he will have become habituated to small-circle decision making.

“Events, dear boy, events”, is what the British post-war prime minister, Howard Macmillan, is reputed to have replied when asked by a journalist what he feared most as a leader. Yet unanticipated events can make as well as break a leader. Morrison is currently finding that out – as are we, anxiously looking on.The Conversation

Paul Strangio, Associate Professor of Politics, Monash University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

Do you think Mr Morrison has done a good job throughout this pandemic? What could he have done better? Would you like his job right now, regardless of future notoriety?

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    7th Apr 2020
    I do not trust him anymore than before, strange how money talks, and so his popularity goes up despite the lack of early action for bush fires and now the coronavirus, if there were actions earlier to close our boarders and to test all incoming travelers we would not have had to endure all the restrictions on our movements, economical downfall, loss of jobs and the amount of anxiety people are suffering right now. So why do people think he is better than any other prime minister beats me.
    8th Apr 2020
    Agreed Incognito - a Leopard doesn't change his spots. He had to help everyone who lost their jobs. It also highlights the cruelty of each successive government for the last 25 yeras of the lack of increasing Newstart and now it suddenly doubles when so many are on it. He says it will go back down once the crisis is over - unbelievable! I don't trust him one little bit. He couldn't do any worse than he already had done before this so anything he does is an improvement of his previous actions.
    7th Apr 2020
    He was late acting on this crisis, he made a fool of himself in the bush fire crisis and he prayed for rain. I admit that he has a very hard job dealing with this crisis but too much indecision and mixed messages don't help. To be honest I still don't know if I will be pulled up and fined if I go out to buy fuel for my tractor. Hard to know what the hell is going on and I watch a lot of the news and updates. We need a very decisive leader and at the moment it's all over the shop.
    7th Apr 2020
    Snowflake I had much the same problem but I managed to time a flu jab to coincide with filling a few jerricans of diesel for the tractor at the garage on the way back. As my car became surrounded by squad cars with flashing lights and sirens blaring, sh**ing myself I locked myself in the garage loo. Then on the all clear I realised of course I hadn't checked, no toilet paper!
    7th Apr 2020
    Incognito, I am inclined to agree with you. Its early days yet he joined the 'war' quite late and with a range of inconsistent decisions the key one being his on, off again and back on again compulsory inbound quarantine policy which if maintained in the first place without the not to be repeated Christmas Island showpiece would have saved lives and much of the economy. His government together with the NSW LNP may yet be remembered for 'not stopping the boats' with the Gestapotato missing in action. Oh of course, he's chasing toilet roll panic buyers, they should be easy to sniff out.
    I must admit that things are looking more promising at the moment but its early days yet, lets see how he manages the peace. As one of the cheer-leaders over the past seven years calling out 'debt and deficit,' he may yet stew in his own juice.
    ex PS
    9th Apr 2020
    Don't worry, as long as he keeps asking hinmself " What would Kevin do?" the country will be allright.
    Horace Cope
    7th Apr 2020
    "Do you think Mr Morrison has done a good job throughout this pandemic? What could he have done better? Would you like his job right now, regardless of future notoriety?"

    Morrison has surrounded himself with experts and has taken their advice so it could be said that he has done a good job. He has united all of the states regardless of the politics involved. With hindsight, which is always 20/20, he could have done better but I believe that he has done the best he can with the information available at the time decisions were made. I would not like his job because he has obviously aged since he took on the position of PM.

    I take issue with the headline; it assumes that Morrison was not nor would ever have become a significant PM. That we will never know because the COVID-19 is happening and will always be a part of Morrison's time as PM.
    7th Apr 2020
    Horace, as we know government advisors are selected on their preparedness to tell the government what it wants to hear or to change their advice to fit their narrative. There was plenty of alternative expert advice available including from Prof. Bowtell and Dr. Norman Swan both who advised earlier and more stringent action which may have reduced infections and flattened the curve further. The information he chose to accept and follow was not the only information available. Mr Morrison wouldn't release the briefings so we don't know what advice he received but we do know that while he subsequently changed his mind, initially on at least one occasion he acted true to form and put his personal desire to go to the footy ahead of the health of the nation
    7th Apr 2020
    When this is over he will revert back to what he was before.As always it is the emergency worker that does the heavy lifting with out any praise and a lot less money.He is only a figure head and that is what he will always be just another slick sales person.
    7th Apr 2020
    Agree with you floss. His ratings will drop before the next election as he winds down these stimulus packages, especially reverting the jobless back to the pre crisis Newstart allowance of $45 a day, which is below the poverty line.
    And of course the unemployment rate will be around 10% by then, and they won't be returning the LNP if they find themselves living on poverty rations.
    7th Apr 2020
    Scomo was not trusted before all this, and he has very little choice but to follow the advice of the medical experts, although some of these seem to be involved in talkback radio or journalism. Scomo continually talks about the dollars, rather than the people. That's what drives him - the dollars.

    Or maybe power: his move to not bother with holding parliamentary sessions for months is maybe a bid for dictatorship? Dream on...OMG I want to move to NZ or Canada or or Macquarie Island or somewhere if that happens.

    I hope that his visions of "snapping back" prove to be a delusion. I fear that so many people are still greedy enough to think that there are dollars to be made out of this, rather than learning from it. People are either not very bright, or have short memories, or both. I pity the unemployed, back to $250 a week...
    7th Apr 2020
    Janus, interesting view especially about money. He's the only religious man I have ever heard of talking about being in good financial shape 'on the other side.' I always understood that you couldn't take it with you to the other side, no wonder so many wealthy people are joining the hill-billies in their arm waving chants, sounds like a good investment.
    7th Apr 2020
    Don't count your chickens before they've hatched.
    7th Apr 2020
    Absolutely utter garbage from who knows who and as I was taught..Academic’s breath hydrogen the rest of us are the beautiful Oxygen ..
    7th Apr 2020
    Interesting to see on 7 late news the way different countries have handled things and now China is lifting restrictions after 2 months so why is Australian pollies keep saying could be six months! Some countries are lifting restrictions after one month, Sweden did not have lock down, South Korea wore masks but kept the economy going. Singapore was going well until they let some people back into Singapore so have now gone to lock down again. I really don't think Australians are not going to cope for much longer, we love our freedom too much and especially getting out to beaches and nature.
    7th Apr 2020
    I suggest that Covid-19 is to Scott Morrison what the Tampa was to John Howard. An accident of fate that delivers an opportunity to show toughness and leadership. I cannot forget our PM failed leadership during the bushfires but it is obvious he (or his minders) learned a valuable lesson in time for the Covid-19 crisis. Then there is a lack of discernible policy in regard to climate change. I am still not impressed.
    7th Apr 2020
    He didn't "survive" the election, he bought it with millions of our taxpayer dollars through his cynical sports grants to marginal electorates. He is a thug and a liar and a hypocrite, and will be remembered as such.
    8th Apr 2020
    Spot on Colours
    8th Apr 2020
    What a curious mish/mash of an article. Then I see that it's written by an Associate Professor from Monash University and it all makes sense.
    Scott Morrison was not an "accidental" Prime Minister, his team won the election fair and square. No accident there. He did not mismanage the bush fire "emergency", he was forced into taking a role where it was not the province of the Commonwealth Government as each State Government was caught by a cascade of poor Parks and Forestry management policies dating back decades.
    The present Covid19 "emergency" has unfolded globally in strange ways that have not followed "rules" of the past. Different countries have responded differently following the recommendations from their own "experts" and while some appeared to be winning at some stage in the pandemic, none have won Gold medals so far. Australia has been saved the extreme ravages that some other areas have suffered largely because our climate has held us in a better condition. The presently apparent continuing improvement in the "fight" against Covid19 is probably in spite of much that the State Governments are jackbooting onto us.
    The test for the Prime Minister will be in getting the States to acknowledge that they each present different situations for the disease management and treat it appropriately.
    The egos of the respective Premiers are driving them all to be seen to be doing a "better" thing by the social media every day, often at variance from what the advisers to the PM would prefer to see happening.
    Just bear in mind that what is right for Cape York may not be right for Apollo Bay, or Broken Hill. The specifics of what the PM does now will be forgotten by most long before the next election.
    8th Apr 2020
    What I want to know is where all the money is coming from to pay for NewStart and all the other payments for loss of wages etc. that are being doled out? Are we going to be in hock to the private sector for years to come or even overseas investors?
    Then there's the question of cashless transactions by making everyone do on-line banking and tapping cards - pretty hard for older people without mobile phones or credit/debit cards. This is the same as when we heard about the 'paperless office' when computing first came in. Now we use more paper in the office because it is so much easier to print again if you make a mistake. Pity they aren't making more toilet rolls instead.
    Can't see how Australia can be rich enough to do this when every other country in the world is fighting the same fight and trying to prop up their own economy.
    I'm happy all these people are getting some monetary help but I worry about how empty our coffers will be by the time we defeat this virus.
    8th Apr 2020
    G'day Teacher, I too have been wondering where all the billions of dollars are coming from and how will they be repaid? Perhaps the LNP will not fight the next election too hard and let the ALP win and let them know the feeling of winning an election but earning a massive national debt.
    8th Apr 2020
    I hope they borrow the dosh in Australian dollar denomination. Borrowing in US$ or Euro could cost us a whopper if the $A goes down further.
    8th Apr 2020
    How can you trust someone who has postponed parliament until August! Lets bring back democracy, please sign petition:
    8th Apr 2020
    Incognito, its a prime example of how parliamentarians repeatedly prove they are there for themselves and not the people. They have denied many other part-time workers payments in todays bill but when asked if the Finance Minister believed that as parliamentarians were being 'stood down' until August if they should be put on stand-down pay he said 'the amount is so little it wouldn't make any difference.' Strange that because I don't know of any other part-time workers on the same pay and benefits as him and I think it makes a big difference to them!
    Sorry I forgot during the stand-down Pollies won't be getting travel and accommodation allowances when visiting Canberra to pay for the mortgages their spouses have on the properties there which they rent to the MP's while in Canberra, yes that's tough!
    pedro the swift
    8th Apr 2020
    He is on the same level of stupidity as Trump. I suspect Trump is coaching him. I'm surpried he hasn't taken to government by twitter like trump yet.
    8th Apr 2020
    Well he was using the same "jobs, jobs, jobs" at elections. I think Trump proclaims to be a Christian too.
    8th Apr 2020
    Pedro, how could he go on Twitter and still keep everything secret?
    9th Apr 2020
    Morrison and Frydenberg will go down in history as having designed the clumsiest most inept and costly financial rescue package imaginable. Already it is admitted that around one million employees may receive up to double their normal wages while three million will miss out. An employee will only need to work the number of hours the grant pays for under their award while the employer for whom the work is being performed pays nothing. The scheme is open to massive rorts which will make the private training academy scheme where tens of $millions of our money was stolen and thousands of students left high and dry, look like petty cash. Who will monitor and check the validity of claims, how will they check that employer claims are getting through to individual employees? As one scheme is run by the ATO and another by Social Security how will they prevent double dipping? We’ve already seen an attempt at that coordination in the ill-fated Centrelink debt recovery letters. This is part of the ill-conceived cash splash largesse which we will all be paying for, for the rest of our lives and form part of Morrison's legacy. It also highlights the hypocrisy of this government that it has doubled the job seeker allowance so admitting that they could not live on the previous $40 per day they continually argued for, yet at a time when their travel and job seeking costs are far lower..
    Meanwhile when we have millions sitting idle with no work we have farmers and growers complaining that fruit and vegetables will rot in the paddocks due to a shortage of pickers at a time when our food security could not be more vital and we have to rely on the overseas back packers who the government is telling to go home. They can’t move to the areas they are needed, they need to quarantine for 14 days when they can get there, who pays for this? If they can get there, no suitable individual (quarantine) accommodation is available when they arrive, is our Agriculture Minister fixing this?
    Frydenberg was asked this morning about the plane load of emergency medical supplies being flown in from Wuhan the original epi-centre of the virus and what we are doing about national self-sufficiency in manufacturing key supplies? He said 'we are too busy focussing on the financial package to think about that.' Yet we have a complete government still being paid, we have an Industry minister, who is that what is she and the other 75 government MPs and ministers doing and the 1.2 million Federal and State public servants, are they all focussed on the financial rescue package?
    A leader is judged on the sum total of the team’s output and is only as good as that team and his ability to delegate and motivate all members to make their respective contributions. As the thousands of firefighters who could hold hoses proved, it’s not all about him!
    9th Apr 2020
    Well said Spartan, Fryburger is frying away tax payers money, should we not be spending more on making masks so people can wear them and get back to work?
    9th Apr 2020
    The old adage comes to the fore regarding this article .. "The People get the Government they deserve" and just highlights the apathy and ability to believe everything about this particular event that is fed to them by the mainstream media ...

    One thing will not be any different in all this ... the super rich and elites will get richer .. Us lowly people on the lower levels of the food chain will once again do the heavy lifting and will be so very interesting when the event ends .. just how many restrictions will actually be lifted ... totally ...

    The people in the know are already making moves to ensure they retain or increase what they already have .. Just look up what Branson has done with his "tax haven" money ...

    Oh and keep believing what the media are feeding you daily .... I have a feeling you won't all like the eventual outcomes from this event ...
    9th Apr 2020
    Yes I agree the people have been stooged big time, biggest "plan-demic" ever! Bill Gates stand to be the richest person in the world, "donating" investing millions (petty cash to him) to make billions or trillions from his vaccine machine. I wish more people can see through this whole thing, but they are falling for it hook line and sinker. The truth will come out eventually. I fear the powers at be more than the virus, we will have a big fight on our hands to regain back our democracy and freedom.
    9th Apr 2020
    Oh and I wouldn't trust any of them whatever their party alliances are .. I wouldn't let them handle the household budget never mind the countries budget ...
    24th Apr 2020
    There are huge problems and traumas associated with jobkeeper.
    1. An employee can submit the form to their employer but for a plethora of reasons the employer does not register or perform the next steps with the ato. Employee is then in limbo.
    2. The employer has to find the $750- per week during the interim until funds flow from the ato with the resulting possible bankruptcy
    3. The employer may register etc and later be excluded by the ato and thus lost all that amount in the interim.
    Those are the ones that just come to mind now. There will be many others !!

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