News National Dennis Atkins: Scott Morrison shrinks from criticism but bathes in undeserved admiration
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Dennis Atkins: Scott Morrison shrinks from criticism but bathes in undeserved admiration

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Former heavyweight champion boxer “Iron Mike” Tyson has long had advice for those who think they’ve got things covered.

“Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth,” Tyson said in the 1990s when asked if he was worried about the fight plan of championship challenger Evander Holyfield.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison copped a punch from the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety this week.

Evander Holyfield and Mike Tyson’s title fight in 1997. Photo: Getty.

Counsel assisting Peter Rosen QC charged the government had no real infection control plan for COVID-19 related problems, all of which were foreseeable, charging there was complacency and hubris at a federal level stemming from a sense of self-congratulation.

Through the week the Morrison’s government fought back.

The usually invisible and largely ineffective Aged Care Minister, Tasmanian Senator Richard Colbeck, was sent out but minutes later no one could remember a thing he had said.

The government then offered up Professor Brendan Murphy, head of the Commonwealth Health Department and, for the first half-year of the pandemic, the federal chief medical officer.

Murphy tried to defend the government’s actions and outline just how “plan prepared” they were.

The royal commission gave him a quick lesson in who was running the show and his message was lost in his ham-fisted attempt to lecture the inquiry.

With this PR debris gaining its own community transmission, Morrison emerged from what had been almost a week of isolation, braving the late winter chill of his office courtyard and saying sorry for those times when the hard work of himself and everyone else fell short.

Aged Care Minister Richard Colbeck appears via video link during a Senate inquiry. Photo: AAP

It was an attempt to call a halt to the blame game.

It’s a favourite media and political sport which had been revved up on a daily basis, particularly in respect to what Dan Andrews and his Victorian Labor Government had and hadn’t done in the last six weeks as the virus raged out of control in his state.

The fact Morrison’s media surrogates and some of his ministers and backbenchers have been feeding this “blame Dan” argument was ignored as Morrison said everyone was doing their best.

And if, on days things didn’t go well and there were tragic consequences, well the Prime Minister was sorry.

It was suggesting a complexity of effort and problem-solving that others were not affording Andrews – regardless of any respective faults in managing quarantine in Melbourne, or Commonwealth oversight of aged care at any stage.

The clear distinction is that Andrews’ detailed answers are required for roles, responsibilities and outcomes, while for the Commonwealth it’s more a case of “we’re all in this together and doing our best”.

Morrison’s reluctance to step up amid the criticism of how his government was handling aged care during the pandemic is typical of his thin skin – and also a refusal to accept blame or acknowledge wrongdoing.

We’ve seen it throughout the year, from his stubborn attitude about the summer’s fire disasters (“I don’t hold a hose, mate”) through his initial opposition to shutting down parts of the economy and school restrictions, and when he was missing in action on the day Victoria imposed the strictest lockdown experienced so far.

Morrison basks in the praise he’s been given during the pandemic for having learned from the glaring mistakes he made during the bushfires.

The man who couldn’t be told anything and didn’t hold a fire hose now begins most news conferences with lists of achievements; either the vast range of economic interventions to support many of those individuals and businesses hit by the virus fallout or the multi-faceted health and emergency response.

It’s not only a boast but also an attempt to inoculate himself from criticism. He also wants people to know he is the “can do” leader who sees a problem, sizes it up and sets out to fix it.

It is what the public wants and Morrison knows repetition is a large part of convincing people.

He does deserve praise for having learned the lessons of the bushfires – if he hadn’t he would be in the leadership doghouse with his international colleagues Donald Trump and Boris Johnson.

However, he hasn’t taken all of his failings on board and addressed them. Far from it.

He is still stubborn, especially when it comes to accepting criticism – he likes to answer such charges with a broad, shared-with-everyone acknowledgment of shortcomings.

He never admits to a detailed, specific complaint of failure of any kind.

Morrison also likes to enlist others – within his government or from the broader bureaucracy or community – to back up his rebuttal of criticism.

Using Brendan Murphy as a kind of bureaucratic human shield didn’t work and has damaged what was a strong public profile for the former chief medical adviser.

The man the government sought to characterise as the nation’s doctor now looks like just another bureaucratic mouthpiece.

It wasn’t just the Prime Minister who copped a punch this week.