News National Paul Bongiorno: Outsourcing blame can’t keep working for Scott Morrison
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Paul Bongiorno: Outsourcing blame can’t keep working for Scott Morrison

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One of the hardest tasks for a politician is to ensure the perceptions of how well they are doing is kept ahead of reality when things go badly.

It’s captured in the dictum “in politics perception is reality”.

And Newspoll suggests most Australians think Scott Morrison is performing very well.

But there is mounting evidence that this has more to do with the Prime Minister’s skill as a political marketer than the political reality.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Photo: AAP

No fair observer could expect political leaders to not make mistakes in a one-in-a-100-year crisis that has exposed the limitations of modern medical science, and remade what is normal.

But six months in, to not learn from mistakes or fess up to them is a failure of competence, if not character.

This is precisely the case some state Liberals in Victoria are mounting against Premier Daniel Andrews and the mishandling of hotel quarantine.

It has been taken up enthusiastically by Treasurer Josh Frydenberg.

On Monday, when Mr Frydenberg’s home state recorded a record daily death toll of 19 along with 322 new infections, he told radio station 2GB it should never have reached the point where the state had hundreds of new cases and multiple deaths a day.

“We know with respect to quarantine, there have been very significant failures with deadly consequences,” he said.

“Victorians deserve answers. I will leave that to Daniel Andrews and his government to provide.”

Mr Andrews has set up an independent judicial inquiry to do just that, while admitting mistakes were made as he accepted broad responsibility.

At a hostile news conference last week, the Premier told his fiercest media critic that he could have asked the head of his department to carry out the inquiry, but he didn’t.

In case you missed it, this was a veiled reference to Scott Morrison asking the head of his department, Phil Gaetjens, to inquire into the highly questionable allocation of funds in the “sports rorts affair”.

Cabinet secretary Philip Gaetjens has defended his investigation into former sport minister Bridget McKenzie’s handling of a grants program. Photo: AAP

Mr Gaetjens underwhelmed the Senate inquiry into the multimillion- dollar scandal when he revealed he has spoken to just two people.

His inquiry bordered on the farcical.

Even though it has been dramatically overshadowed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the varying approaches reveal double standards that the public finds sickening.

On Monday, the Prime Minister, hand on heart, defended his Treasurer’s sledging of Mr Andrews.

He said the Premier’s critics were simply calling for “accountability for decisions … and transparency in explaining what has occurred”.

Quarantine is the responsibility of the federal government, but Mr Morrison outsourced it to the states without a qualm.

He even got them to pick up the tab.

In January, the Commonwealth quarantined more than 600 Australians returning from Wuhan on Christmas Island and in a camp near Darwin.

Why the PM thought hotel or home quarantine was a safe option has still not been explained.

We now know returning expatriates from Europe or the United States are just as lethal a threat.

This outsourcing of blame is also behind the Commonwealth’s refusal to fully co-operate with the inquiry into the Ruby Princess cruise ship.

The core fact of the matter is that officers from two federal agencies, Border Force and the Department of Agriculture biosecurity section, allowed passengers off the ship.

That led to 1000 coronavirus infections nationwide and 30 deaths.

The Ruby Princess disembarkation led to 1000 infections. Photo: AAP

Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton blocked a summons from the inquiry for two key federal witnesses to give evidence.

Mr Dutton said he wouldn’t allow them “to be besmirched”.

When asked about the decision, Mr Morrison evaded a direct answer and stated the Commonwealth was co-operating.

Not so easy to evade was the bombshell in the Aged Care Royal Commission that neither the federal Health Department nor the Aged Care Regulator had developed a COVID-19 plan for aged care.

This time evasion was replaced with scapegoating.

The Regulator, according to the Prime Minister, is an independent statutory office. But he’s now on the case.

With 68 per cent of COVID deaths in aged-care homes or 213 people, the Commonwealth’s decades of privatisation, outsourcing and cost cutting, especially of data collection, has produced a bitter harvest.

The reality is gobsmacking, the perception crumbling.

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