News Paul Bongiorno: Prime Minister is riding high, but it’s not getting any easier in ‘next phase’

Paul Bongiorno: Prime Minister is riding high, but it’s not getting any easier in ‘next phase’

Scott Morrison will be well aware of what effect this week's decisions could have on his government. Photo: AAP
Twitter Facebook Reddit Pinterest Email

Scott Morrison and his Treasurer Josh Frydenberg are hoping against hope that their capitulation on keeping the job subsidy scheme JobKeeper and the beefed-up unemployment benefit JobSeeker will win wide approval.

The decision to release the broad outline of how both schemes will be  modified after September on Tuesday is curious.

It is curious for a couple of reasons: They could have done it before the Eden-Monaro by-election where anxiety over continued support was a red-hot issue, or they could have waited until the mini budget on Thursday.

The by-election is a missed opportunity, but there is speculation the bring-forward announcement is good news they wanted separated from the bad news of the biggest budget deficit ever recorded.

Thursday must indeed be a grim news day.

But the announcements are an acknowledgement that the coronavirus crisis is far from over, indeed it may just be gathering a new head of steam.

And Mr Morrison knows it.


He says we are entering another phase but it’s difficult to know “how many phases there will be, because there are so many uncertainties with COVID-19”.

The latest Newspoll suggests that the Prime Minister’s near-record approval ratings have finally translated into a boost of support for the governing Coalition parties.

But it is at odds with last week’s Essential Poll, which showed Mr Morrison’s approval had peaked and was now sliding – still substantial but shrinking.

Few in the Canberra bubble see the poll as any guide to who will win the next election.

Mr Morrison’s warning that we just don’t know what the virus is going to do next is being borne out by the day.

Indeed, the dire situation in Victoria and the growing clusters in New South Wales have caused the cancellation of federal Parliament in two weeks’ time.

The contagion outbreak in Batemans Bay – a favourite holiday destination for many Canberrans – occurred during the ACT school holidays.

ACT chief health officer Dr Kerryn Coleman revealed on Monday that about 60 people who went to the club are currently in 14-day isolation in Canberra.

Australia’s most popular premier, Western Australia’s Mark McGowan, lashed out at the PM on the weekend for a “totally inconsistent” message.

Mr McGowan told The Sunday Times it was “hypocritical” of Mr Morrison to  demand his state open its borders while at the same time to claim it was “too dangerous” for Parliament to resume.

Federal Labor has agreed reluctantly to the postponement, but the manager of Opposition business Tony Burke says the same protocols that are allowing Victoria’s most senior minister, Mr Frydenberg, to present his economic statement in Canberra should be applied to all MPs so Parliament can meet.

Labor leader Anthony Albanese says there’s a contradiction in the government’s approach.

“The Parliament can’t meet, but the government wants to wind back JobKeeper and JobSeeker. If the Parliament can’t meet, that’s a sign that the crisis is far from over, indeed that in recent times it has got worse,” Mr Albanese said.

How much worse will be spelled out by the treasurer – or at least that’s the expectation he has created.

Government MPs are holding their breath waiting for a carefully crafted package that will look after their voters in small and medium businesses who have been hit by the lockdowns.

Small business lobbyist Peter Strong, seizing on an OECD forecast, says there’s not much doubt that at least 100,000 businesses will hit the wall, thanks to the pandemic.

The government’s announcement on Monday of more generous loan guarantees for small and medium businesses sounds good, but the first version of the scheme was woefully undersubscribed.

There’s not much use going deeper into debt if your business has irretrievably lost customers.

But whatever the revised “temporary and targeted” income subsidy scheme looks like this week, if it – along with the Morrison government’s other stimulus and support measures – fails to deliver a boost for jobs and the economy, there is sure to be a price to pay.

Mr Morrison’s Newspoll 60-point approval turnaround from the nadir of his bushfire collapse in support is no guarantee he or the government could withstand a voter backlash fuelled by dashed hopes and shattered livelihoods.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian is not alone when she says we are at a “critical point”.

Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics