(Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

Scott Morrison is having a great crisis.

The latest Newspoll shows the prime minister’s approval rating at 66%; three months ago it wallowed at 37%. He leads Anthony Albanese 56% to 29% as preferred prime minister; in January he trailed by 39% to 43%. 

Scotty from marketing has been reborn as the Comeback Kid. Hawaiian holidays and belligerent bushfire victims are distant memories

Two factors are at work here. First and foremost, he has handled the coronavirus crisis well. He acted quickly to address both the health emergency and the economic collapse. He listened to the medical experts and co-operated with the premiers and chief ministers through the national cabinet. And he has been very visible.   

The second factor is the rally-around-the-flag effect. A rise in public support for leaders and governments often occurs in times of national crisis, usually attributable to patriotism, political bipartisanship and/or increased media coverage.

The Economist says this effect has contributed to significant popularity gains for many world leaders since the outbreak of the pandemic. Among those leaders analysed by The Economist, none has gained more than Morrison. To paraphrase his predecessor, there’s never been a better time to be the Australian prime minister.

Interestingly, the dramatic rise in Morrison’s popularity has not been matched by support for the Coalition. The latest Newspoll has it ahead of Labor by just 51 to 49 on a two-party-preferred basis. That’s a relatively minor change from the pre-pandemic position in January when Labor was ahead by 51 to 49. 

Compare this with the position across the Tasman where the poll numbers for New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her Labour Party have both jumped.

A Newshub Reid Research poll released on Monday gives Ardern a preferred prime minister rating of 59.5%, up 20.8 points since February. Support for Labour is at 56.5%, up 14 points over the same period, at the expense of its opposition. 

What explains the marked difference between the polling in Australia and New Zealand?

In each case the government has “flattened the curve” and acted decisively to shore up the economy. On a per-capita basis the low death toll in each country has been similar. If the public is pleased with the results you’d expect a boost in the polls for both the prime minister and the party in government.

Part of the explanation for Morrison’s solo surge is that he was coming off a low base in January. His mishandling of the bushfire disaster was very much a personal failure not a government one. He was the leader missing in action as Australia burned.

By comparison his handling of the pandemic has looked heroic and a major leap in his individual polling should not surprise.    

But Morrison’s ascent is not just a recovery from the slump triggered by the bushfire debacle. His preferred PM ranking is now well above where it was before that.

In contrast, the Coalition’s two-party-preferred numbers remain within the same narrow range. Since last year’s election Morrison’s stakes have risen but those of his party have not. There are several reasons for this. 

First, much of Australia’s success in handling the crisis is attributed to the bipartisan national cabinet. The focus of public attention is on the individuals in that forum and Morrison, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian and Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews have been the big winners rather than their parties. 

Second, the unwelcome taint of internal division lingers around the Coalition. No one doubts that Barnaby Joyce wants Michael McCormack’s job as leader of the Nationals, and Malcolm Turnbull’s recent book reminded everyone of Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton’s aspirations to power.        

Third, the Coalition has been in power for seven years. Time erodes party loyalty. By comparison, Morrison’s prime ministership is relatively new.

Many Australians are prepared to give the new guy a chance. They hope they might finally have a PM who will deliver competence and compassion and who will last more than a couple of years.

After more than a decade of provisional prime ministers, the country is desperate for a “keeper”. 

Morrison has a lot more work to do to achieve that status. Unfortunately for him, the government has already had “the best” of this pandemic. Putting the country in lockdown and throwing money at Australians was the easy bit.

The real challenge starts now: opening up society and the economy while containing the virus and withdrawing massive financial support.

If he’s not careful, he may see his popularity snap back well before the economy does and drag down his party with it.   

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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