Opinion Michael Pascoe: Team Morrison v Team Australia, and where NSW went wrong
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Michael Pascoe: Team Morrison v Team Australia, and where NSW went wrong

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian isn't a big fan of Team Morrison, Michael Pascoe writes. Photo: TND
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Scott Morrison invoking “Team Australia” rings hollow in Gladys Berejiklian’s office.

It has ever since the bushfire crisis when Team Morrison started briefing against the New South Wales Premier.

The obviously poor relations between the Prime Minister and Labor Premiers get plenty of attention, but relations are not good with NSW’s Liberal Premier either, whatever public words are uttered, however many smiling photo ops are staged.

To paraphrase Henry Kissinger, there are no permanent friends or permanent enemies in politics, only interests.

The burning summer of 2019-20 seems like a long time ago in this crisis-ridden world.

Scott Morrison hasn’t forgotten it though – it was after he had ignored advice from fire chiefs to prepare, it was when he was in Hawaii not holding a hose, mate, when he tried to force people to shake his hand, when his leadership rating dived, when the polling showed Gladys Berejiklian was viewed as a better leader, the one on the job, the one with empathy.

Scott Morrison takes a back seat to Gladys Berejiklian at the Wollondilly Emergency Control Centre in December 2019. Photo: AAP

Team Morrison did not like that. With a modus operandi now well understood, blame needed to be spread.

That appalled NSW state government MPs. They haven’t forgotten the summer of 2019-20 and – cutting across factional differences – they are shocked that Team Morrison is at it again.

Team Morrison also did not like word getting out that the NSW and Victorian premiers united to force the Prime Minister to get serious about COVID as the next crisis unfolded, leading the states in taking on the quarantine responsibilities the Commonwealth shed.

It’s the nature of the press gallery to play along with such briefing against individuals – it’s all part of the “drop” culture. It’s easy copy.

Niki Savva hasn’t played along, reporting the Team Morrison briefing against Ms Berejiklian in her debut column for the Nine newspapers on August 5.

“Senior NSW Liberals say the same background briefing tactics used against Brittany Higgins and Julia Banks are being deployed against Berejiklian, all designed to blame her for the NSW calamity, not his vaccination debacle,” Savva wrote.

“They report a blazing row last week between a senior staffer of the Premier’s, who called a senior Morrison staffer to accuse him of undermining Berejiklian in briefings to journalists. The Morrison man apparently replied he had merely relayed ‘facts’. Bingo.”

Scott Morrison’s communications and media team are not Macquarie Street’s favourite people.

It’s not hard to briefed on the “briefing” – or “undermining”, to use a less euphemistic term. Such is the nature of politics, it flows in both directions:

“Scott Morrison has a glass jaw; Butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth in public, in private he’s a ‘whatever it takes’ man; He is a prime minister acting like a state director (one of his jobs before winning preselection was NSW Liberal Party state director) – spin over substance, micro-managing, an administrator not a leader; The reason why he’s behind on issues is because he waits for the polling before acting.” we’re variously told.

Such a relationship doesn’t help deal with a national crisis.

However many times Mr Morrison repeated “plan” and “dawn” on Monday, the national cabinet’s alleged agreement to end lockdowns and open state borders seems more a matter of Prime Ministerial assertion than reality.

The Labor premiers straying from Mr Morrison’s version of the agreement feeds into pressure to keep Premier Berejiklian on board or the agreement – Mr Morrison’s pathway to claiming vaccination success – is dead.

NSW Police Minister David Elliott. Photo: AAP

A curious and none too credible Channel 7 story on Friday suggesting Police Minister David Elliott or Tourism and Jobs Minister Stuart Ayres could take over as Premier was seen as having Team Morrison’s fingerprints on it.

Firmly in Scott Morrison’s personal federal faction is Alex Hawke from the Sydney Hills district. Mr Hawke is close to Mr Elliott, who reportedly has been unhappy about not being in the NSW crisis cabinet.

But there are always staffers who work within their own perceptions of their boss’s political interests or provide plausible deniability.

The silly thing about such political games is that Ms Berejiklian has no choice but to chant Mr Morrison’s 70 and 80 per cent vaccination mantra. (Actually 56 and 64 per cent of the population.)

NSW is only attempting a holding operation on COVID now, a rear-guard action. Numbers might go down or up but like the rabbit calicivirus in 1995, Delta is out of the bottle and not going back in – the price of not mandating vaccination and PPE for aircrew limo drivers and subsequently not locking down hard early.

How did Ms Berejiklian make that second mistake?

She is a Premier who seeks consensus, who prefers to avoid a hard conversation. She’s famous for consulting with business.

Her crisis cabinet skews economy-first through Treasurer Dominic Perrottet, Minister for Jobs, Investment and Tourism Stuart Ayres and Deputy Premier and Minister for Regional NSW, Industry and Trade John Barilaro.

And then there was the combination of “Gold Standard” hubris and pressure from Canberra to not turn Victorian.

So now the promise of opening up based on a debatable vaccination rate is part of the softening-up process for “living with COVID” whether or not state health systems are ready.

NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard refused to say if hospitals could cope with 4000 cases a day. Photo: AAP

Health Minister Brad Hazzard was asked twice on Wednesday whether hospitals could cope with the forecast 4000 cases a day when they were already struggling.

Both times he sidestepped the question.

NSW embracing and selling the inevitable is the political solution for the Morrison government’s desire to shed responsibility.

Once the vaccination race-not-a-race is declared won – be prepared for a Prime Ministerial photo op headlined “Mission Accomplished” –  dealing with COVID is all the states’ problem.

That was the coda in the Prime Minister’s Monday media conference: “We must ensure that our public health systems are ready for the increase in the number of cases that will occur,” he said. (Translation: public health systems, i.e. hospitals, are the states’ problem.)

“We must be clear about the rules, the common sense rules that continue to apply post 70 per cent and post 80 per cent, which is factored in to the work that is being done.” (States’ rules.)

“Cases will not be the issue once we get above 70 per cent. Dealing with serious illness, hospitalisation, ICU capabilities, our ability to respond in those circumstances, that will be our goal.” (Yep, all that lot are states’ goals.)

“And we will live with this virus as we live with other infectious diseases. That’s what the national plan is all about, was always about. That’s how we designed it and that’s how it needs to be implemented. Because the national plan is our deal with all Australians.” (It is what it is.)

And then there was stuff about lockdowns extracting an extremely heavy toll and it being darkest before the dawn and a less-than-rousing cover of Maureen McGovern’s The Morning After, concluding with: “There will be those who will seek to undermine the national plan. There will be those who will seek to undermine confidence in it. I think their motives are clear.” (Anyone who questions me is un-Australian.)

And Team Morrison has ways of dealing with those who cause problems.

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