Scott Morrison
Prime Minister Scott Morrison (Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

It’s become a media truism: the pandemic response shows that Morrison really learnt from his bushfire stumbles. But just what did he learn? It seems that Morrison learnt to control the news cycle — it’s not whether you do nothing, it’s how you do that nothing that counts.

Moving on from the Hawaii-holidaying “I don’t hold a hose, mate” dismissal of the media, he has learnt that he needs to feed the media chooks a steady flow of announceables. He needs to look all prime ministerial for the television cameras, after the details have been shaped into the government’s preferred narrative in advance through special day-before briefings for the gallery heavyweights.

It’s Morrison’s Potemkin policy village: a facade of action thrown up to keep journalists busy. It’s all colour and movement, with no substance. It’s a little like the notorious village facades set up by Grigory Potemkin, Catherine the Great’s 18th century court favourite, to comfort the empress that her country was richer than it was.

We’ve been watching how this works this month with Morrison’s “gas-led recovery” on one Tuesday leading through to Angus Taylor’s “energy roadmap” on the following Tuesday last week. (Weekend averse, Morrison seems to have chosen Tuesday for announcements.)

In each case, an announcement was structured around an event: a speech in Newcastle for Morrison, the National Press Club for Taylor. The key reportables are put out through an earlier briefing that allows it to launch the day’s news cycle through the morning papers and the ABC, with plenty of online reports and radio talk during the day and deliberate “doing-things” footage for the evening news.

The story then trails on through the week as it’s dissected by analysts, critiqued by news media and pounded into a shape fit for trolling the Labor Party and the left by News Corp’s culture warriors.

Sure, the facade may be “a strategy for this” and “a plan for that”, but with the commitment of a million dollars here and the suggestion of a billion dollars there, marinated in grand rhetoric and served hot, the announceable starts to take on the plausible outlines of substance. Plausible enough, at least, to kickstart the required media cycle.

And that’s what matters. The audience for these announcements is not the Australian public — it’s the media itself. It doesn’t even matter if the announcement is popular; controversy is better, both for government and media. As Trump’s first son-in-law Jared Kushner is reported as telling Bob Woodward in his latest book Rage: “controversy elevates message”.

That makes the “gas-led recovery” perfect. According to last week’s Essential Poll, only 15% of people prefer gas-fuelled power to renewables (and another 15%, like the Nationals’ Matt Canavan, stick with coal). But the twin announcements filled up the news cycle with a meta-narrative of governmental busy-ness, while gaslighting environmentalists and winking to climate-change deniers.

Morrison understands that the media is optimised for reporting actions. It struggles to report what doesn’t happen. You can’t jemmy a “nothing happened” into the daily news cycle. (Although News Corp has been trying hard enough in Melbourne and Brisbane.)

Sooner or later, the big announcements fade into the fog of inaction (think: the arts rescue package or the bushfire relief). But, like buses, there will soon be another announceable coming along to fill the gap.

Controlling the news cycle with Potemkin announceables is not that groundbreaking. It’s an approach the PM has adapted from Trump: the US President has perfected the art of announceables by tweet and never-to-be-implemented policy by executive order.

Australia’s media is not blind to the Morrison game. Just about every political thinkpiece concludes that he’s long on talk, short on implementation. Yesterday’s Insiders was marked by a sage nodding that little, if any, of the past two week’s announcements will amount to much.

Still, it’s filled two weeks of news time. It’s divided the opposition, creating its own spin-off news cycle. From the government’s perspective, that’s a win.