Scott Morrison made an intriguing and uncharacteristic verbal stumble at his news conference announcing additional financial assistance for Melbourne workers this week.
After saying the payments would apply when the Commonwealth chief medical officer had declared a particular geographic area a hot spot, Morrison was asked for the official definition used in these cases.
“I will refer you to the official definition of the Commonwealth hot spot, the number of cases average over a number of days – I think it’s 10 per average (sic) day over three days off the top of my head,” said the Prime Minister.
For the record, the definition for metropolitan postcodes is a rolling three-day average of 10 locally acquired cases per day, equating more than 30 cases over those three consecutive days.
Given the Victorian government had extended its lockdown for greater metro Melbourne for a further seven days and was asking for particular financial assistance for workers, you’d expect Morrison to be across this detail.
Also, because the trigger for the Commonwealth rolling out what’s a new payment was this very precise definition, it’s more than passing strange for someone like Morrison not to have this level of granularity at hand. He is a renowned control freak, with paranoid tendencies.
Maybe it was because he’d been outfoxed by Victorian Acting Premier James Merlino who has found the workaround for dealing with this Commonwealth government.
Victoria plays hardball
Merlino has played hardball all week, hitting with swift, carefully aimed jabs on the negligently slow vaccination program and the head-in-the-sand attitude to dedicated quarantine facilities.
Instead of falling for the sucker play where work is done quietly before the Commonwealth takes preemptive credit for an idea originating at a state level, Merlino would get out ahead of Morrison and make the Prime Minister respond.
Just how rattled Morrison was became clear in the hours after his news conference with Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and Emergency Management Minister David Littleproud.
Those usual senior government sources were soon briefing about how clever the Prime Minister had been.
He had unveiled “a brilliant play” covering what many of his Liberal colleagues regard as caving in to begging bowl politics from (usually Labor) states flicking the switch to lockdown without thought for consequences.
Why, it even had a name (they didn’t have time to print booklets with coloured covers), with this freshly patched together scheme called the “temporary COVID disaster payment”, which is neither snappy nor enduring. It was updated to “temporary COVID recovery payment” after the national cabinet met.
Most importantly, these briefers said the new payment (a mini, localised version of JobKeeper) would act as a deterrent to states imposing lockdowns with apparent abandon, knowing the Commonwealth will pick up the cost of compensating displaced workers.
That’s known in the political spin trade as unalloyed nonsense.
No premier wants to impose lockdowns which carry inherent financial, social and political cost and risk. Also, anyone who thinks about this knows the real political risk lies with the Commonwealth.
If a state locks down and workers go without income for a week or more, those people are going to direct their anxiety and frustration at the national government. Some already predisposed to blame particular states for everything will carry on, but the biggest downside risk lies at the feet of those in Canberra.
If Morrison and others in Canberra think they will change behaviour by waving a financial stick towards the states, they are kidding themselves. The states remain driven by an imperative imposed by the public – people want zero or minimal virus transmission and are happy with a “whatever it takes” approach to achieve this goal.
The political cost
Is there a political cost for Morrison after what has been a scrappy, unhappy week? Possibly, but those dreaming of the Prime Minister’s downfall shouldn’t order beer or pizzas.
We will have a clue on just what has happened to public sentiment on Monday, when Newspoll is due to release its next report on opinion.
Last time, on May 16, Newspoll recorded no change in its two-party vote calculation (49 percent for the LNP and 51 for Labor) after a steady primary vote of 41 percent for the Coalition and a two point dip to 36 percent for the ALP.
In net satisfaction terms, both Morrison and Anthony Albanese took a small hit, although the Prime Minister remained in strong positive territory (plus 20) while the Opposition leader stayed in the basement at minus 7 (after being in the black in February and March).
The likelihood is Morrison will take a small hit on satisfaction numbers but voting intentions will remain about the same – within the margin of error, making any movement of no statistical significance.
The greater problem for Morrison right now is the widely held view the country’s vaccination effort is lacking urgency and/or adequate resources. The Prime Minister’s ill-considered remark that we are not in “a race”, in a bid to brush aside criticism of the vaccine rollout, could yet haunt him.
The words “it’s not a race” may join “I don’t hold a hose, mate” as another enduring, negative example of the Prime Minister’s refusal to take responsibility for serious problems.
This is why he used his post-national cabinet news conference to reprise one of his greatest hits by appointing Lieutenant General John “JJ” Frewen to head a new COVID-19 vaccination task force.
Frewen, a three star general who’s worked on bushfire relief and coronavirus policy in defence, is the kind of action figure Morrison likes to appoint when he’s confronted with a difficult and seemingly intractable problem.
We shouldn’t forget that just six weeks ago Naval Commodore Eric Young was made vaccine operations coordinator. It looks like his ship has sailed but the prime minister didn’t mention what was happening with the commodore.
Maybe it was an on water matter.
Morrison knows senior military officers can break down the bureaucratic barriers inhibiting desired outcomes.
In Washington they call it “appointing a tsar”. If Morrison wants to survive the vaccination mess he’s created, he’s going to need one.