The fact that in the last two weeks we’ve seen more of “COVID-19 Taskforce commander” Lieutenant General John Frewen than the prime minister, while the country’s largest city was back in lockdown along with much of the rest of the country, isn’t an accident.
Since June 21, Morrison has done five interviews and two media conferences, the most recent last Friday after the national cabinet meeting. He hasn’t been seen for nearly a full week.
In the same time period, Frewen has done four media conferences — one with Morrison — and six interviews, including two this week. He’s often been accompanied at media conferences by another military figure, Commodore Eric Young.
It’s reminiscent of Operation Sovereign Borders, when Morrison used a military uniform, filled by Angus Campbell, to impart authority to the operation and justify a persistent refusal to share any information about “on-water matters”.
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Back then, though, Morrison would present at media conferences to refuse to provide information. Now he simply doesn’t hold media conferences.
To do so this week, to even call his usual 2GB radio interlocutors, would be to invite difficult questions about the Sydney lockdown, given Morrison’s previous endorsement of Gladys Berejiklian’s “gold standard” management of the pandemic and his support for her previous refusal to enter lockdown. And difficult questions about the culpability of the Commonwealth around quarantine facilities, the general vaccine rollout and, most particularly, the failure to vaccinate aged care workers, which was a specific Commonwealth responsibility that cannot, even with the most Morrisonian casuistry, be sloughed off to the states.
Other questions might also crop up — about his treatment of Julia Banks, about the presence of an alleged sexual harasser in his cabinet, about the Nationals’ failure to properly resolve allegations of sexual harassment against Barnaby Joyce, about his role in the car park rorts scandal.
It was somewhat different with Victoria’s most recent lockdown, when Morrison referred to that state as choosing to go into lockdown, and declining to offer any financial assistance until the optics looked so bad he was compelled to. Now Josh Frydenberg has been left to deal with Dominic Perrottet’s calls for help.
There’s something to be said for a “less is more” approach to prime ministerial media, rather than feeling the need to fill the news cycle, respond to every trivial issue and incessantly feed the media’s demand for announcements. But that’s during business-as-usual, and this is anything but. The vaccination program is off the rails, Sydney is locked down, a new virus variant is wreaking havoc with planning, and there’s growing evidence that people in Sydney aren’t paying much attention to lockdown rules. A national leader has to lead in such circumstances.
But Morrison’s last two media conferences have proved damaging. Last Friday’s media conference to unveil the halving of passenger caps, forced on him by the states, and a meaningless “four-point plan” out of lockdown. The one before that, from quarantine in the Lodge, was the now-notorious press conference where he appeared to urge young people to get AstraZeneca, leading to a week of bitter Commonwealth-state fighting. Is he worried his once sure touch in managing the press gallery is starting to slip?
Morrison had already ceded enormous power to state premiers. Now his absence makes him seem even less relevant, as if he were more ceremonial president of the federation than an actual political leader, waiting for a state funeral or royal visit to emerge and undertake his duties — or, at least, for the media to move on from Julia Banks, and Barnaby Joyce, and sexual harassment, and other inconveniences. When will it be judged safe for Morrison to come out of hiding?