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Further proof, if we ever needed it, that a week can be a very long time in politics

Opinion

Prime Minister Scott Morrison loves nothing better than a good announcement – but increasingly the details are inclined to fall by the wayside, writes Dennis Atkins

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Remember when the national cabinet was put on a “war footing” to spark up the COVID vaccine rollout? Well, it lasted just one week.

The regular meetings of state and federal heads of government – launched in March, 2020 as the enormity of the CoV-SARS-2 pandemic became apparent – were loved by the leaders and gave the public security and trust in what was happening.

No one loved the national cabinet more than our headline happy prime minister Scott Morrison. It allowed him to cherry pick good ideas from the premiers, share the political risk around the table and have a steady “look at me” schedule of media appearances.

As the pandemic ground on, the meeting schedule slowed until it was reduced to a monthly diary entry earlier this year. Then the Morrison Government’s myriad failures on vaccine accumulation and distribution were too glaring to ignore and the prime minister needed an escape hatch from his tight corner.

Enter the war footing. Morrison issued a statement on April 13 and the first meeting was the following Monday when this war footing amounted to nothing more than taking an in-principle decision to have more AstraZeneca vaccines available for Australians over 50. The actual decision was taken later that week at what would have been the regular meeting time.

State officials were quietly told the biweekly meetings – the war footing – wouldn’t go beyond the first week and, after a short time, weekly meetings would also be scaled back to the more leisurely schedule of earlier this year.

While state leaders still support the national cabinet, there is no longer the “we’re all in this together” sense of purpose and achievement that existed a year ago. Premiers are now less likely to put their own ideas forward after watching Morrison announce them as his own at his “me first” news conferences.

We’re going to live with it, as we are learning to live with the virus – but we should factor in it’s as much a vehicle for the prime minister’s thirst for announceable topics as anything else.

There’s some doubt in political circles right now whether that supposed skill at announceable rollouts – much more efficient than the vaccine rollout – is as good as it was thought to be.

The cack-handed handling of the catastrophic Indian third wave and its impact on Australians seeking to return from the sub-continent is a serious cause of concern among an increasing number of Coalition MPs as well as community leaders, human rights advocates and legal figures.

With our inadequate hotel quarantine system – which Morrison clings to with typical obstinacy despite reforms having been proposed by Jane Halton’s audit more than six months ago – unable to keep the community completely safe from the highly infectious Indian variant, Morrison needed a tough guy headline.

After last Friday’s national cabinet, where action was noted but not discussed, Morrison skipped his usual self-congratulatory news conference, leaving an update to Health Minister Greg Hunt.

Hunt didn’t mention the government was invoking the full force of the 2015 biosecurity laws which carry five year jail terms and $60,000 fines for breaches – in this case sneaking into Australia from India which is subject to a direct flight ban.

That news came out at midnight with the tough guy sanctions highlighted. Indian community leaders who were consulted by the government during last Friday were not informed this was in the pipeline.

Now the backlash is in danger of getting out of control, even if Morrison has his target audience – white males aged 35 and over – in the paddock where he’s kicking up his “Australia first” dust.

Morrison is now all but disowning his own decision – saying this morning on breakfast television “I think the likelihood of anything like that (jail and fines) occurring is pretty much zero”.

Maybe he thinks he’s delivered his message to his target audience, got his brownie points for acting tough and can tack to the centre again. Maybe he looks like he’s not as in control and as competent as voters might want.

Like many of the decisions to come out of the national cabinet, the announcement is one thing but the follow-up and implementation is something else again.

On Monday this week, the prime minister announced the death of COVID-19 Commission Advisory Board, headed by high powered energy and resources executive Nev Power. Like every bit of information about what the Power Commission has done it was not very forthcoming, simply saying we were through the emergency and the group had done its job – whatever that might have been.

As soon as the commission was set up it was brought under the “cabinet-in-confidence” umbrella that covers all of the national cabinet. You couldn’t get answers about any of their activity, tasks or outcomes.

It’s been next to impossible to find people – in business or state governments – who had ever met Power or his commissioners or been briefed on what it was all about.

Maybe we’ll never know what they did but can rest happily because they did the task they were set to do. The prime minister told us so, in one of his announcements.

 

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