Scott Morrison’s urgent task to press the reset button at Wednesday’s National Press Club address has been reduced to a repackaging exercise from a very damaged salesman.
Consider this: The Prime Minister of Australia left the country for holidays mid-December when the nation’s biggest city was encircled by a mega-fire ignited by lightning in the Blue Mountains seven weeks before.
By the time he and his family boarded the Jetstar flight to Hawaii, Sydney had already recorded the worst air quality in the world at nearly 30 times safe levels.
The choking smoke reinforced the anxiety and jeopardy millions of Australians were already feeling in what was being described by experts as an unprecedented fire crisis.
Mr Morrison did so as retired emergency and fire chiefs revealed he had refused to meet them to directly hear their warnings earlier in 2019 that the nation needed to be better prepared for a catastrophic bushfire season made worse by climate change.
The Prime Minister’s first instinct on returning to a nation reeling from weeks of bad news, that was in fact worsening, was to virtually say it had nothing to do with him.
The PM blamed the states, said no one advised him more was needed and no one had asked for it.
It was an admission that he was blind to the conflagration on the doorsteps of his official residences in Canberra and Sydney.
It was a complete derogation of duty from the leader of a government who often states his prime responsibility is to “keep Australians safe”.
If there were any doubts that Australians were now viewing Mr Morrison through a different lens, the first Newspoll of 2020 showed his approval crashing and Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese leap-frogging him as preferred prime minister.
Trying to regain lost ground
Mr Morrison has tried every contortion to regain lost ground.
He has blitzed the media, announced a $2 billion fire recovery and relief package, and spoken of “resilience and adaptation”.
None of it makes up for the failure to provide the funding required for more water-bombing aircraft or for an already-in-place contemporary national fire disaster plan.
The PM’s problem is the huge hit his credibility has taken.
The nickname infesting social media – “Scotty from Marketing” – while delighted in by his opponents will be lethal if it becomes an embedded general perception.
Mr Morrison’s inept handling of the fire crisis has been matched by his response to the scathing Auditor-General’s report into the $100 million sports grants process.
The Prime Minister’s first response was to attempt to deny the Auditor-General had found anything wrong with his minister, Bridget McKenzie, and her handling of what was found to be a brazen partisan pork-barrelling exercise of dubious legality.
Senator McKenzie is resisting calls to go and is refusing to take the fall for implementing a scheme the whole government embraced as a campaign masterstroke.
The Prime Minister is a victim not only of his own poor judgment but, in both cases, is wedged by the fraught dynamics in his narrowly returned coalition government.
The Nationals have no appetite to be seen being dictated to by the Liberal Prime Minister over Senator McKenzie’s fate.
That they can’t see the damage the unresolved imbroglio is doing to become just another manifestation of the post-election car crash the government has become.
The Liberal National Party in Queensland – an amalgamation of the two parties – will brook no strengthening of the government’s emissions reduction targets.
It argues its pro-Adani coal mine, jobs before climate, action saved the day for Mr Morrison at the election.
That leaves a weakened Prime Minister with few convincing options to offer for the sort of direction the nation is now demanding.
Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics