(Image: AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

At some point, even under the optimistic scenario offered by the Doherty Institute and released by the government yesterday, Australian governments will decide to allow tens of thousands of cases of COVID and a surge in the number of deaths from it as the level of vaccination reaches a point where it starts reopening the economy.

That’s dramatically at odds with the current position of all governments — which took more than a year to reach — that even a tiny number of cases is good cause for a sharp lockdown. The policy goal is to reach a state where COVID is treated like influenza, not the society-stopping pandemic we’ve been told it is for 18 months.

Achieving this transition in perception without causing some fairly spectacular whiplash in the electorate — particularly if gloomier scenarios of tens of thousands of deaths turn out to be correct — will be quite a feat of leadership.

How did Scott Morrison and Josh Frydenberg go in their first step in that process yesterday?

They’re not coming from a strong position. First is their handling of the process so far — a refusal to release the modelling when the latest iteration of the plan for transitioning out of the pandemic was released last week, then dropping it during a media conference yesterday, preventing journalists and experts from examining it properly before they got the opportunity to ask questions. This is a Morrison tactic, even used on issues as important as the aged care royal commission report, because he hates the idea of being held accountable by anyone, particularly journalists.

Second is the pretence that the government hasn’t been compelled to abandon the partisan tactic of attacking Labor states for locking down as early as possible in response to new cases. “Early interventions, short, sharp lockdowns are the most cost effective way to handle the virus,” Frydenberg declared yesterday, as if he had never accused the Victorian government of “callous indifference” to business and “bloody mindedness”, or that the government had never refused to provide support to Victoria because it argued it would create an incentive for Labor states to go into lockdown too quickly.

Third is the general perception, even among its usual allies in the media, that it has badly botched the rollout, on top of its quarantine and COVIDSafe failures, and that Morrison’s all-PR-no-substance style of governing has been badly exposed during a crisis.

Fourth is Morrison’s burgeoning reputation for constant lying and evasion of responsibility, and the diminishing trust of the electorate in him, as evidenced by significant falls in his approval ratings and falling levels of trust in his capacity to handle the pandemic.

So with that rock-solid foundation, how did Morrison go? He spoke, in long preamble, about “clear learnings”, of “a pathway on vaccination that provides the protection necessary to ensure the many tools we have to suppress the virus”, of how “the tools that have helped us so much over the course of the last 18 months and more have indeed been blunted by the Delta strain”.

But most of all, he spoke of Australia: “Australia is not alone in this battle”; “Australia also is joined in this battle”; “We have charted our own Australian way through this pandemic. An Australian way with Australian results … An Australian way that has delivered Australian results … always finding our Australian way through this pandemic to get the Australian results … We are making our own Australian way through it.”

Get the message?

“Australian way” was devised by the PMO last summer for the prime minister to sprinkle through his statements but never with the logorrheic intensity of yesterday, and not with the neologism from the PMO of “Australian results”. And on and on it went:

Australians understand the challenge. Australians want to get on this path … Australians are in no doubt … Australia has achieved … I have great faith in Australians to do that … Mr Albanese is a vote of no confidence in Australians … Doing it for the cash, I don’t think is what would motivate an Australian to do this … Our plan is backing in Australians … This is a serious public health crisis. It’s not a game show …

So Morrison’s approach to preparing Australians for a whiplash from zero COVID to maybe scores of deaths a day as an accepted policy outcome is cheap nationalism. What next? A revived “C’mon Aussie C’mon” ad campaign? Fighting a war — did you like the Churchill-esque “joined in this battle”? — in an Australian way with Australian results with Australians getting on the path without doubt, having faith in Australians unlike that unAustralian Albanese who dares suggest people might act on the basis of self-interest … etc etc etc.

This is a serious public health crisis, to state the obvious. What we don’t have is a serious leader who’s up to the job. Damaged goods, incapable of striking the right note, uncomprehending of how to lead, Morrison can only dip into a now fairly tattered bag of spin and slogans. Oi oi oi.