Just 24 hours earlier, the Financial Review’s annual power list had been trumpeting the fact that, for the first time in the 21-year history of the list, the Prime Minister was not perceived as the nation’s most powerful person.
Instead, it was four premiers — Gladys Berejiklian, Daniel Andrews, Annastacia Palaszczuk and Mark McGowan — who were regarded as the ones running our lives.
But by lunchtime of publication day, Berejiklian — so often held up as the Gold Standard of pandemic management by Scott Morrison — was gone.
The woman touted as the one who had “saved Australia” in last year’s power list could not save herself.
Having survived the maelstrom of a COVID outbreak in her state that had seen its citizens locked down for four months, but finally seeing case numbers falling and vaccination rates rocketing, the NSW Premier was undone by a system designed to uphold standards of public integrity: a system which her federal counterparts will neither countenance, and in a depressingly increasing number of cases, would be lucky to survive.
The Prime Minister literally raced out ahead of her announcement to make sure everyone got to hear a few of his own.
The PM brought forward a press conference to announce a reshuffle of his ministry, and the opening of international borders from next month, to ensure his news would at least get out there before being swamped by events in Sydney.
Despite having done so, he said he couldn’t take questions about Berejiklian’s resignation because: “I’m not aware of the circumstances or … what the Premier has said, so I’m at a disadvantage to be able to respond to that question.”
Scott Morrison’s very own political quarantine system.
Morrison is doing a lot of racing
He raced through the announcements like a man with a plane to catch.
Angus Taylor — who has been the subject of questions about his own ministerial standards on a number of occasions — has been given Christian Porter’s old job, in addition to the energy and emissions reduction ones he already holds, after Porter was forced to stand down because he couldn’t or wouldn’t say where up to $1 million in legal funding had come from.
Most of the other promotions were forgettable, other than for the reasons the PM gave for giving them. Victorian MP Tim Wilson, for example, was being rewarded because “before the last election, there was no one more passionate in advocating the case when it came to the retirees tax”. That would be a political campaign against Labor’s proposed changes to the dividend imputation system.
And there was the opening of international borders by November to announce, too.
Scott Morrison is doing a lot of racing at the moment. Racing to beat Berejiklian in the news cycle, racing to get states to lift lockdowns, racing to get international borders open. “It’s time to give Australians their lives back,” he said repeatedly on Friday.
This is the dynamic that increasingly seems to be running the government. This week the NSW Liberal Party moved to bring forward its federal preselections. The premiers note a certain zeal in their dealings with the PM in National Cabinet meetings in the way he presses them to open things up, irrespective of case numbers.
The Queensland Premier noted rather testily on Friday that National Cabinet had not received any briefing papers on the plans to open international borders, even though the story had already been widely briefed to the media.
And the government announced this week that it would be ending emergency payments in the three jurisdictions where they are being paid — NSW, Victoria and the ACT — as soon as they reach 80 per cent vaccination rates.
Who’s running the country?
The argument is that such payments can’t go on forever. Fair enough, too. Except this creates enormous uncertainty for almost 2 million people currently receiving these payments.
According to data compiled by Anti-Poverty Week, there are currently 1.906 million people receiving disaster payments or boosted welfare payments, and 1,050,000 of them are in NSW.
The plan is that those payments will start to be wound back one week after the 80 per cent vaccination rate is achieved. The payments go from $750 a week to $450. The only problem is that very few people would presume that, at an 80 per cent figure, businesses just immediately open up again and re-employ at their old hours.
It’s likely to be a bit messier than that. But putting such harsh conditions on ending the payments is designed to pressure the states to lift lockdowns as quickly as possible. More racing.
The process of suddenly re-opening international borders is also unlikely to be completely smooth. Getting planes and systems up and running will take time.
But the Prime Minister is relying on all these things happening smoothly enough so that people will feel like they are getting their lives back. It will all add to the impression that it is the Prime Minister once again running the country, not the premiers.
That would put him in a good place to go to an election, and it is hard to get past the impression that all this racing — all the decisions — are now being driven as a race towards polling day.
The risks for the government — but more importantly, the risks for the country — are that all that racing is going to leave us vulnerable on a number of fronts, notably the federal government’s abysmal record at running almost anything through this pandemic.
It leaves people who have lost jobs through no fault of their own vulnerable to losing financial support. It leaves the health and hospital system vulnerable to surging cases.
NSW remains critical to the government
Queensland Health Minister Yvette D’Ath revealed on Friday that: “Every single Health Minister from every state and territory has signed a letter to the Commonwealth Health Minister, Greg Hunt, and said, ‘We need extra funding, we need 50-50 shared funding.'”
“We’ve had a funding guarantee under COVID until June 30,” D’Ath said. “That has now stopped. That needs to be reinstated.”
It will be difficult to be listened to when everyone is in such a hurry.
NSW remains critical to the federal government’s political fortunes. So it is unfortunate that, as columnist Niki Savva reported a few weeks ago, the PM called NSW Treasurer and premier-apparent Dominic Perrottet a “f***wit” in a heated phone call about Perrottet’s repeated calls for JobKeeper to be reinstated.
The Prime Minister is in such a hurry — and so busy dealing with COVID — that he doesn’t even think he has time to go to the Glasgow climate change talks.
Morrison’s message of hope resonates with swinging voters. Focus group discussions reveal vaccine hesitancy and fear of serious disease have fallen, and there is an overall optimism about the economy.
Voters remain sullen about the Prime Minister’s management of the vaccine rollout and quarantine, but feel we have reached a stage where the country is looking to come out of the worst of things.
And in all of this, Labor is disappearing: its message that Scott Morrison only had two jobs to do is fast becoming irrelevant, and it has sidelined itself from the national security debate.
One politician has fallen this week. Another has a glimmer in his eye.