In a year in which the government’s explicit highest priority — the vaccine rollout — has gone badly wrong, Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s inability to effectively lead has become ever more apparent.
Major problems in the rollout have been allowed to drift and worsen. The issue of purpose-built quarantine facilities to replace inadequate hotel quarantine has been allowed to fester. The COVIDSafe app — remember that? — is wholly useless. The consequences of mistakes made last year in the sourcing of vaccine supplies have gone unaddressed.
But Morrison’s one strength — his once-unerring feel for messaging — has also deserted him. The “Scotty from marketing” tag always contained within it a paradox: Morrison might not be capable of getting things done, but he was outstanding at selling things to voters. Now even that skill has gone at a moment when we need a convincing national leader to drive vaccine uptake and provide reassurance as, once again, millions of Australians are locked down.
This week — which began with Morrison’s cack-handed and unilateral attempt to expand use of AstraZeneca by younger people and erupted into a full-blown fight between the states and the Commonwealth — has been a low point for a man once universally regarded as a canny salesman.
Part of the problem is that his previous knack for the right message has disappeared. But there’s also a deeper problem: Morrison has undermined his own credibility. His incessant lying has damaged him, his refusal to accept responsibility for virtually any aspect of the handling of the pandemic has looked reckless, and his tendency to disappear when things go wrong and there’s political heat looks cowardly.
But we’re not playing for normal political stakes here. The stakes now are enormous: the health of millions of Australians, Australia’s economic recovery, our capacity to rejoin a world that is opening up much faster than we are likely to. Morrison, lacking both the capacity to deliver results and the ability to reassure Australians, is too great a risk to remain as national leader.
The options to replace him, in a cabinet of historical awfulness recently made worse by the return of accused sexual harasser Barnaby Joyce and incompetent rorter Bridget McKenzie, are limited to Josh Frydenberg and Peter Dutton. While Frydenberg has proved competent at turning on the fiscal spigots and has made the right calls about the level and timing of stimulus, the Victorian MP lacks the cut-through and communication skills needed to give certainty to Australians in a time of peril. Many Australians have no idea who he is.
Dutton, on the other hand, has a poor ministerial record. At Home Affairs he presided over an extraordinary series of bungles and stuff-ups, often in major programs. To be fair though, many of the stunning scandals in the portfolio have been down to poor quality departmental leadership and lack of judgment among officials of that department. Few of the many auditor-general reports identifying disasters in that department had any origin in, or even connection with, Dutton’s office.
On the positive side, Dutton has cut-through and clarity in the way he communicates. No one is ever under any confusion about what he thinks; he is willing to speak clearly and bluntly when need be, no matter how violently people may disagree.
Crikey has long criticised Dutton in his previous roles. And, of course, he is a bogyman of the Twitterati and the left. But at this moment, from a poor set of options, on balance he would do a better job of providing reassurance to Australians than anyone else in the government.
Dutton would also arrest what is an increasingly alarming slide back into state power, with the state leaders now wielding more power than at any time in recent decades, and dictating key elements of national policy. He would more effectively reverse this centrifugal flow of power away from Canberra than Morrison, who appears blithely unaware that he is barely first among equals when it comes to real power in pandemic Australia.
John Howard famously said that the times would suit him when it came to the prime ministership, and how right he turned out to be. The parlous times in which we find ourselves would suit someone like Dutton much more so than Scotty from marketing.
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