Much of politics and public debate of the pandemic response has centred on communication and its effectiveness. That’s understandable, given the public need for accurate information at a time of life-and-death crisis.
Mixed messages from politicians and health experts in particular have occupied a lot of media bandwidth, mainly in relation to schools. But there’s also been the inevitable problem of inconsistencies created by arbitrary rules around social distancing, such as the inexplicable exemption of hair dressers from the lockdown.
Over the last week, as governments’ success in curbing infection rates has sparked discussion of an end to lockdown, the communication task has shifted from asking Australians to accept a fundamental change in social and economic life, to persisting with what has become the status quo.
“Stay the course” is now the message from politicians, usually delivered with a dollop of patronising praise for how good the community has been, like a dog that has successfully refrained from devouring the treat balanced on its nose.
Nor have there been any more blockbuster stimulus packages to catch the public’s attention and reinforce the dramatic nature of events — to the extent that that was ever needed.
The communication task thus becomes even harder: emphasising no change, not radical change.
The paucity of effective political communication has been a persistent theme to the point of cliché, of political coverage for more than a decade — summed up by a lament that things had fallen very far from the golden years of Keating, and the bronze years of Howard and Costello.
Even those who knew what was needed for better communication, like Malcolm Turnbull, were unable to deliver it.
But the nostalgia for the strong communicators of yesteryear rarely factors in a far more fragmented media environment.
To use a metaphor regularly and inaptly deployed about the crisis, if this is a war (major conflict — think more “London Can Take It” than “Hell No We Won’t Go”), it’s one that has been fought in a media environment unlike any other.
The era in which major conflicts were fought with governments and media gatekeepers regulating the flow of information and analysis is long gone.
Combatting impactful disinformation spreading on social media is a key challenge. Every statement from politicians and health experts is subjected to relentless (and usually deeply critical) analysis on social media.
The mainstream media, now fighting for its very life as increasingly rare advertising revenue dries up altogether, shrinks and itself becomes more shrill in order to preserve its remaining readership.
More substantial communications challenges lie ahead, especially for Morrison.
We’re really only at the end of the beginning now, even if lockdown restrictions could be eased in May.
The economic impacts of the lockdown, and persisting restrictions like border closures — think radically fewer temporary migrant workers and foreign students, and no tourists — will be felt for a long time to come, and it’s unlikely the hospitality industry will be reopening before spring.
The construction sector, which was already struggling before the crisis, will also be hit hard and take time to recover as financing is approved and DAs are signed off by councils.
Morrison and Josh Frydenberg will have to communicate effectively about how — and why — support measures will be switched off as the virus disappears behind us — with any luck sooner rather than later, reducing the fiscal impact.
Beyond that lies the recovery phase, which may take us into 2022. There’ll be no more “all in this together” stuff by then — it will be every vested interest for itself as everyone pushes to avoid bearing the burden of paying for the cost of the survival packages.
Voters will understand that there is a bill to be paid; the challenge will be demonstrating that the burden is being shared and those with greater capacity to pay are doing so — something those with the capacity to pay will pay a great deal to avoid.
And every decision will be met with howls of fury on social media. Witness how even Morrison’s leadership of a relatively successful campaign to eradicate the threat of COVID-19, and prop up the economy as best the government can, has been met with vilification and abuse from Twitter progressives.
This end stage will be the big threat for Morrison. The story of Kevin Rudd’s prime ministership was a successful handling of a major crisis followed by a complete fumbling of the subsequent recovery, not helped by some legacy problems from an otherwise eminently successful stimulus program.
Rudd was brilliant in a crisis, but the moment politics reverted to business as usual, he began struggling and his flaws emerged.
Can Morrison go one better than that and win the peace as well as the war?