The conflicting, contradictory pressures on Scott Morrison’s government and his grasp on the prime ministership were graphically displayed these past seven days.
This week was indeed a long time in politics.
Morrison started his latest horror stretch by losing control completely of his signature, self-styled “one job” for 2021 – the seamless, successful and rain-making rollout of the coronavirus vaccine.
After deploying the usual suite of absurdist over-promising, self-congratulatory, look-at-me promises and targets, Morrison was left without a feather to hide his immodesty, let alone fly with, as everything that could go wrong did go wrong.
The big bet on black, also known as the AstraZeneca vaccine, went south following a trifecta of bad news, compounding the homegrown setbacks.
Production in Europe hit more hurdles than you’d find in the Grand National Steeplechase, the European Union got stroppy and imposed some selfish trade bans, while some inconvenient blood clots among a handful of those getting this jab sapped public and political confidence.
Meanwhile, people were not getting access at the speed they thought was implied by those Morrison boasts: “front of the queue”, “leading the world”, “four million jabs by the end of March”, “a million doses a day from CSL” and everyone with a needle in their arm by November 1.
Morrison quickly turned and played three of his favourite rhetorical cards: it had nothing to do with me; here are the others we can all blame, and let’s rally some usual suspects to help with the work and construct shared protection from further public anger.
The Prime Minister is nothing if not unimaginative. He’s the political equivalent of the busted, $5 watch – he might be right twice a day but he’s useless the rest of the time.
So we’ve gone from “the head of the queue” last year to “we have to wait until Europe gets its act together” a few weeks ago, and from “this is not a race” in March to “we’re on a war footing” by mid-April.
No wonder the public are dialing back the rediscovered trust in politics and politicians that emerged through the “we’re all in this together” single purpose effort to confront and combat the global pandemic a year ago.
Talk about turning goodwill into waste water.
This failure at the “one job” Morrison listed for himself (there were four other big tasks but this was given primacy) at the end of January, came as the Prime Minister further disappointed people generally, and women in particular, as he again looked incapable of understanding the emotional or material needs of more than half the population.
As we noted here last week, Morrison constructed his own trap last October when he went too hard, too aggressively and too unthinkingly by attacking former Australia Post chief executive Christine Holgate for some ostensibly unremarkable corporate gift extravagance.
The bully’s pulpit
He made those matters worse by refusing to apologise to Holgate who, by the evidence of her own chairman, was treated appallingly in a shabby display of political and corporate bullying.
Holgate said she wanted an apology and would be happy if she got one. Plenty of Australia’s senior business elite felt the same, as did a few key political figures, including some with vital Senate votes.
Morrison, who hates to admit error, refuses to accept responsibility and stutters at the thought of the word ‘sorry’, dug in. He may stay stuck in his own mud but being in quick sand is not a fun place.
With this swirling in the background, the good news arrived for the government.
Employment growth jumped out of the ground, amazing politicians and economists, including those in the front line public sector roles of keeping the government informed about what’s going on.
Just over 70,000 jobs were added to the rolls in March, pushing the unemployment rate down to 5.6 percent, mainly on the back of particularly strong growth in part-time employment, which rose by more than 91,000 to 4.2 million Australians.
Dumb luck to the rescue?
To underline the real strength of this outcome, the percentage of working age people looking for work rose to a new record high of 66.3 percent, with a higher proportion of women wanting jobs than previously. Also, the keenly watched under-employment rate fell by more than half a percentage point.
As these real world results gave heart to a demoralised government, the parallel universe of the stock market was back at record, pre-pandemic levels, and consumer confidence had supercharged as a descriptor.
So, while the government and the Prime Minister’s fortunes have been pushed and shoved through a series of own goals and dumb errors, the economy is telling Australians we are indeed the “lucky country”.
This might be enough to save Morrison’s hide. He might not deserve it – as the great political philosopher Clint Eastwood said in the stellar western Unforgiven, “deserve’s got nothing to do with it” – but he could be headed for re-election.
At the moment, Morrison is doing everything to spoil his own chances and he is running out of options to distract from his own myriad messes.
He may well be one big stuff-up away from oblivion.
Morrison remarked in the middle of 2020 that a lesson he’d learned from previous prime ministers was that most of them didn’t make the same mistakes twice. He’s showing us right now, in real time, he didn’t learn that lesson at all.