News National Paul Bongiorno: No vaccine for political leaders against the toxic pandemic

Paul Bongiorno: No vaccine for political leaders against the toxic pandemic

Sometimes politicians are damned if they do, and damned if they don't, Paul Bongiorno writes. Photo: TND
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A former prime minister immortalised the line “Life wasn’t meant to be easy”.

It certainly applies to our political leaders – both state and federal – in this dreadful time of coronavirus.

When Malcolm Fraser uttered the line, he was not referring specifically to himself or even other politicians.

But the sentiment is apt for those in the highest political offices today.

So far, Scott Morrison has escaped blame for the coronavirus contagion and the economic ruin it is wreaking.

With him, the premiers deserve credit for the role they have played through the National Cabinet.

Australia has had one of the best responses in the world to the highly infectious coronavirus.

But none of them is inoculated from harsh or swift criticism if they are perceived to have gotten something wrong.

Let’s start with Mr Morrison’s decision to go to the footy last Saturday night, decked out in Cronulla Sharks cap and scarf.

Scott Morrison watching his beloved “Sharkies”. Picture: AAP

Some commentators saw the images that instantly flashed across social media as proof the PM was showing leadership and loyalty.

He stuck it out till the better end though his “Sharkies” were humiliated 56-24 by the Panthers.

And even sucking on a beer was a sign of a PM creating a job for a barman.

But the view in Victoria from one of his own backbenchers was disbelief.

“I’m dumbfounded” was the incredulous reaction.

Here was the Prime Minister who on Friday proclaimed “we are all Victorians” doing what five million Victorians couldn’t – restricted by the reimposition of a stage three lockdown.

Put starkly, as Caroline Overington did in The Australian, this was another example of Mr Morrison “not reading the room”.

“The room” is the entire nation of which he is the elected leader.

The Shire, as Cronulla is colloquially called, is but a small part.

Overington wrote “leadership means empathy. It means solidarity with those who are suffering”.

On Friday, Mr Morrison announced he was going to take some time off being in front of the cameras to be with his wife and kids.

Former senator and broadcaster Derryn Hinch tweeted that Mr Morrison was entitled to be with his kids “but going to the football was a Hawaii-size PR blunder” – a reference to his overseas holiday at the height of summer’s bushfire conflagration.

Why he didn’t choose to stay home and watch the game on TV suggests to his political opponents he was more interested in providing images for “the tradies” whose votes are never far from his thoughts.

Publicly, Labor leader Anthony Albanese wasn’t buying in – saying “it was a matter” for Mr Morrison.

But the wife of Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews bought in, tweeting an image of her husband working on Saturday night with the caption “this man does not stop. Thank you to everyone who is doing the right thing. We are in this together #istandwithdan”.

Mr Andrews, like his New South Wales counterpart Gladys Berejiklian, is being excoriated in some quarters of the media as well as on social media for failures in handling containment of the virus.

Ms Berejiklian was in the frame for the cruise ship Ruby Princess and the regrettable contribution its passengers were allowed to make to the spread of infection nationwide.

Mr Andrews is now in the sights of many for the failure of hotel quarantine management in Melbourne.

The premier has accepted responsibility as the “leader of the government and the state” and, like Ms Berejiklian, has set up a judicial inquiry into what went wrong.

In both cases, they have become scapegoats for people’s frustrations and fears.

Ms Berejiklian must be having nightmares over the prospect of the Crossroads Hotel outbreak in Casula becoming a new Ruby Princess.

Those cynically attacking either premier along with Queensland’s Annastacia Palaszczuk for being “dictators” and worse deserve the scorn they are visiting upon these leaders.

Sure mistakes have been and will be made – Mr Morrison’s football outing was on any measure a bad look, but it is a long way from the unconscionable and wilfully ignorant refusal to face reality we are seeing from the president of the United States of America.

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