News Dennis Atkins: Simple marketing slogan shelters PM Scott Morrison from harm
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Dennis Atkins: Simple marketing slogan shelters PM Scott Morrison from harm

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has dodged an accountability bullet with the pandemic, Dennis Atkins says.
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Team Australia. It’s such a simple, seemingly inoffensive little slogan from the marketing guys that we hardly noticed it was a theme for the year.

Scott Morrison, fresh from his disastrous “Shake Every Hand” tour of bushfire hell holes, launched it without much fanfare as he struggled to get a toehold on the ladder to his hoped-for comeback “The Pandemic, A Global Event”.

Mr Morrison, with an eye for that exquisite nexus between business jargon and political propaganda catchphrases, let it roll down the centre aisle of the nation like a well-aimed jaffa during the matinee session.

You could see the much younger Mr Morrison taking notes as Australia II designer Ben Lexcen laid out his team-building-for-success playbook, the distillation of which is “whatever you do has to make the boat go faster”.

Mr Morrison loves these little business/politics stories, realising the power of simple seduction in a few well-chosen words.

Team Australia had everything this challenging year demanded for a politician just out of the recovery ward from a near-fatal summer. It aimed to rally the country as one, gave enormous power to its current progenitor and allowed a protective shield from criticism and dissent.

By the time the COVID-19 pandemic was unnervingly pervasive, Mr Morrison had stamped the situation and his response as a Team Australia moment.

You were either on the team or not, the unity of the team gathered its direction and mission from the top, and to buck team membership was that most dishonourable of behaviours, un-Australian.

Finance Minister Mathias Cormann is Australia’s nomination for the next secretary-general of the OECD.

At one point late in the year a reasonable and sensible discussion took place on national radio about the merits of backing former Liberal Senate leader and finance minister Mathias Cormann for the Secretary-General spot at the Organisation of Economic Development and Co-operation.

Asked whether a call from Greens leader Adam Bandt for other nations to vote against Mr Cormann’s candidature, one of the Press Gallery’s most esteemed members said it “wasn’t very Team Australia”.

That’s how successful Mr Morrison’s little bit of Orwellian magic had been.

It has been that sort of year.

Myriad scandals, stuff-ups and normally inexcusable behaviour has been buried under a “Sorry, too busy dealing with the virus” blanket, providing a place to hide until the collective national attention moved on.

The sports rorts scandal that felled Nationals deputy leader Bridget McKenzie in early February has all but disappeared in the public mind despite a gross of dunny carts having been filled with new information since then.

State and federal leaders have been excused from all manner of failures, dereliction of duty, double standards and malfeasance during the pandemic months.

It has been the greatest get-out-of-jail card any politician could have wished for.

christine holgate
The Cartier watches outrage levelled at Australia Post boss Christine Holgate provided a distraction from a lack of accountability.

Like a perfect closer for this year’s outrageous descent into a transparency- and accountability-free zone, the Christine Holgate/Australia Post/Cartier watches scandal has been shunted to that convenient goods yard siding where broken rolling stock goes to die.

As a still-secret inquiry into the former Australia Post chief’s awarding of luxe Cartier watches to a number of senior executives found, Ms Holgate did nothing wrong, acted within the letter of the organisation’s governance rules, and maintained high standards in every way.

Despite this, Mr Morrison slandered Ms Holgate in the national Parliament, demanded her head and gave the Australia Post chief no option but to walk the plank.

Mr Morrison was wrong in judgement, action and accountability. He now is hiding from the report (which his Communications Minister Paul Fletcher commissioned) and its findings.

At the very least he owes the country a full explanation.

The chances are that if he is ever held to account, he’ll say he’s too busy managing the rollout of the COVID vaccine to deal with old news.

While all this inconvenient and awkward stuff was going on, Mr Morrison did manage to do his job – unlike his failure to do so during the bushfires.

He can be given marks for listening to expert advice, understanding it (mostly) and taking it – unlike his Anglosphere buddies Donald Trump and Boris Johnson.

boris johnson scott morrison climate
Scott Morrison did listen to expert advice during the pandemic, unlike UK counterpart Boris Johnson.

However, most of what Mr Morrison did this year was what was required of him. He did his day job, which is always refreshing for a politician but we should set a higher bar for acceptable performance.

Mr Morrison was blessed with some good fortune – the two most significant pieces of serendipity were that Australia is an island continent that could draw up its land, sea and air bridges, and that all state and territory leaders were up to the task.

The sterling performance of state leaders was apparent even where particular failures caused things to get out of hand, such as the quarantine quagmire that sparked Melbourne’s second wave.

Overall, Mr Morrison gets a pass mark for 2020 despite the comprehensive failure on the transparency and accountability fronts.

This year a pass mark is the bare minimum the public should expect.

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