For those inside the smoke-filled Canberra bubble, one of the more perplexing aspects of the government’s shocking response to the bushfire crisis has been the ineptitude of both Scott Morrison himself and his office.
Regardless of what you think of his policies — or, mostly, lack thereof — Scott Morrison has shown himself to be a formidable political tactician. The contrast with Malcolm Turnbull was immediately apparent in 2018: Morrison was far more nimble, far quicker to respond to threats and opportunities in the political cycle. Where Turnbull and his office were inclined to let issues fester, Morrison would move much more quickly to, usually, the same destination Turnbull would have been dragged to.
One of Labor’s failings last year was to understand just how different a political beast their new opponent was, and he made them pay in spades.
But since he took off before Christmas for Hawaii, Morrison has had the Sadim touch. I still maintain Morrison was justified in taking a break with his family, at least until the fires dramatically worsened and two firefighters lost their lives on December 19; he then made the correct call to return home.
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But he was unable to get his lines right about the fires, unable to strike the right note of contrition, and never offered any explanation for the bizarre decision not to tell anyone he was leaving. He hasn’t even been able to get his story straight about why he was holidaying overseas rather than, as he insisted he’d planned, the NSW South Coast.
Worse, he was missing in action in that terrible period between Christmas and New Year when the NSW South Coast and Gippsland were immolated while he frolicked with cricketers at Kirribilli; his subsequent visits to affected communities — transparently photo opportunities to display empathy — were a PR disaster fueled by angry locals and Morrison simultaneously forcing himself on people and turning his back on their pleas for help.
His office neglected to make sure the NSW RFS even knew about the ADF deployment, then tried to blame the ADF, while backgrounding journalists against Gladys Berejiklian in an effort to shift the focus off Morrison. Morrison having to be corrected by a survivor about the lives lost on fire-ravaged Kangaroo Island showed a prime minister whose political skills had utterly deserted him.
It continued yesterday: in a long interview with David Speers, Morrison appeared to flag a shift on the government’s Abbott-era abatement targets and spoke of an “evolving policy”, which had entrail readers in the press gallery writing entire columns about a shift in rhetoric, only for the PMO to brief that there would be no shift and Morrison himself, just hours later, ruling out any change in targets. So is the policy evolving, or not evolving? It looks less like strategic ambiguity and more like Morrison being undisciplined.
Anthony Albanese has also copped considerable flack from progressives for failing to be more aggressive on climate change in the last three weeks, crystalising a view that the man famous for declaring his passion for fighting tories is failing to get on the front foot.
But Albanese’s tactic through the crisis has been to religiously avoid partisanship (except indirectly by congratulating the government on adopting Labor’s policies), visit bushfire sites and firefighters (serving breakfast to firies while calling for compensation for them made for a potent combination) and do a seemingly endless round of interviews and doorstops.
Today’s Newspoll giving Albanese a lead as preferred prime minister (remember how preferred PM was Dennis Shanahan’s go-to measure when the Coalition was trailing Labor?) is more likely to reflect voter anger over Morrison’s missteps than a ringing endorsement of Albo, and will likely reverse soon enough.
But the opposition leader’s softly-softly approach, which has so enraged progressives at the moment, is turning out to be the smarter strategy for a politician who, as he constantly points out, is a long way from the next election.
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