Scott Morrison is ending the year in much better shape than he began it, but it is as much due to good luck as to good management.
The once-in-one-hundred-year pandemic obliterated the negative sentiment that saw him and the government in a deep hole after his appalling response to the catastrophic bushfires.
Back in January and February, Labor’s Anthony Albanese was the preferred prime minister in Newspoll and close to 60 per cent of Australians disapproved of the Prime Minister’s handling of his job.
Labor briefly shot to an election winning lead, with coalition politicians worried there might be no way back without a dramatic circuit breaker.
The rest, as they say, is history – almost. There is still a way to run.
Politically, Morrison certainly didn’t waste the crisis and he rightly deserves credit for mostly getting things right.
His move to set up a rolling government leaders’ summit dubbed “national cabinet” ensured it was largely shielded from public scrutiny and cut through time-wasting red tape.
In fact, the constitution forced it on the PM because the states retain responsibility for health.
And that suited Morrison to a tee – a feature of his political management is to avoid taking responsibility for any bad news and in this crisis the nation’s founders had conveniently served up the Premiers as scapegoats if anything went wrong.
Mistakes were made, responses were slow, and with ungainly blame-shifting partisan politics was played, sometimes in a none too subtle way by the PM himself. Just ask Victoria’s Daniel Andrews or Queensland’s Annastacia Palaszcuk.
Labor insiders say their research shows that Morrison’s high approval ratings are in fact quite brittle.
The good numbers are entirely driven by the threat of COVID-19 and people wanting the federal government to do well because in this crisis everyone has a vested interest.
One source likened it to fans forgiving an unpopular football coach for his missteps, provided their team wins.
The question going into 2021 is whether Team Australia will keep winning under coach Morrison.
The answer will depend on what happens with the virus, especially with the summer holiday season upon us and no vaccine roll out until March.
But if, as seems to be the case at the moment, Australia has successfully eliminated community transmission then the pandemic will no longer provide Morrison the cover he has enjoyed.
The millions who have to rely on multiple jobs to survive – according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics their number jumped by 20 per cent in the September quarter – won’t be too forgiving if the government facilitates cuts in their wages and conditions.
Morrison avoided scrutiny in parliament last week on his contentious changes to industrial relations and despite what his media cheer squad inferred, he has not given up on them.
News late on Monday that China was officially blacklisting Australia’s coal, along with fears that Beijing’s iron ore buying spree is merely stockpiling ahead of a boycott, could also spell doom for our economy.
The good news expected in this week’s mid-year fiscal update, thanks to China’s hitherto insatiable demand for our iron ore could be short lived.
China accounts for 40 per cent of our export income, which drives one million jobs. That makes repairing the diplomatic relationship urgent, something the China hawks in Canberra’s strategic/security community seem intent on derailing.
Labor’s research has found voters are also thinking about climate change and issues of waste and corruption.
Anthony Albanese intends to pursue these issues vigorously in the hope of convincing his nervous backbench and voters that he really means business.
Morrison’s defiant bravado after he was snubbed by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the European Union and the United Nations at the weekend Climate Ambitions Summit is not going to be the answer to our nation’s lack of ambition to do better.
Another summer of catastrophic, extreme weather would surely steal the headlines from an abating COVID crisis.
Perceptions of the Morrison government’s spin over substance on climate change have only been heightened by the lead given in New South Wales by Liberal environment and energy minister Matt Kean.
If the coalition government in the biggest state can get real, what is holding back Scott Morrison in Canberra?
Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics