An errant tennis star may be only another piece of the jigsaw being assembled by the Prime Minister as he seeks another term in The Lodge.
The leitmotifs of political corruption and policy incompetence course through the history of the Morrison government, a scar on the Australian body politic, showing no sign of abating. In Scott Morrison’s limited political imagination, the great possibilities of national government have been reduced to an endless search for ever more creative ways to syphon public funds into private hands, with the notion of a public, of a shared political space and a genuine community, diminishing at every turn.
And on that sorry reflection, the new year has begun much as the previous one ended. It’s been barely a week and already it’s clear that Morrison has no intention of veering from his well-worn path of public health abandonment, diplomatic bluster and blunder, and eye-watering levels of incompetence.
In the space of just one month the nation’s daily Covid case numbers have soared from 1200 at the start of December to over 100,000 on January 8; PCR testing sites are overwhelmed, hospitals are in crisis, rapid antigen tests (RATs) are unavailable and unaffordable, elective surgery is cancelled, and there are growing supply chain and workforce issues. Yet the Prime Minister appears to be in the grip of an almost inexplicable political paralysis, marked by a refusal to do precisely what a Prime Minister is meant to do, let alone during a global pandemic, to lead.
While hospitals, testing sites, businesses folding under staff shortages and customer hesitation, are calling out for resources and better planning, even an acknowledgement of the escalating problems, the best the Prime Minister could do is to tell us from the comfort, safety, and free RAT tests of The Lodge, to ‘ride the Omicron wave’. That wave has just risen to over 100,000 Covid cases across Australia every day, and Scott Morrison went to the cricket. Much as he went to Hawaii during the bushfires two years ago. The priorities at a time of desperate need for leadership, unity, and action, are simply staggering.
So, true to form, with the public health crisis hurtling across the country, what did the Prime Minister do? He did what any other feckless leader would do – he found a distraction. A look over here, forget about the surging numbers, the queues, the overpriced tests, the crowded hospitals and exhausted health workers, blindingly obvious, political distraction — Novak Djokovic.
In words reminiscent of his infamous parliamentary bullying of then Australia Post head Christine Holgate, Scott Morrison chest out, finger pointing triumphantly, cried ‘if those papers aren’t in order he can go!’. Perhaps, in this staged moment of political deflection, he imagined he had found his John Howard-like Tampa moment, grasping back the political narrative as he stared into the headlights of a looming, increasingly dire, election.
The object of this confected scorn was not so much Djokovic as Morrison’s preferred target, the Victorian Labor government, whose approval of Djokovic’s non-vaccination status exemption allowing him to play in the Australian Open, he falsely equated to granting a visa to enter the country. Figure that one out. ‘Well, that is a matter for the Victorian government. They have provided him with an exemption to come to Australia’, Morrison told journalists completely disingenuously.
Because, except in the constitutionally illiterate netherworld of a Prime Minister desperately looking for a distraction, issuing visas is a Commonwealth responsibility. Like quarantine. Victoria had provided Djokovic an exemption to allow him to play in the Australian Open, not to enter the country. As Victorian Health Minister Martin Foley drily remarked: ‘Somebody issued Novak Djokovic a visa, and it wasn’t the Victorian government’.
What’s more, Djokovic already had a visa – something too many journalists and commentators readily overlooked. The ABC, for instance reported that Djokovic’s ‘visa application’ was denied on arrival, when even the Minister for Home Affairs, Karen Andrews, acknowledged Djokovic had already been issued a visa. On arrival the visa was cancelled, not denied, raising the obvious question of why it was granted in the first place.
This clumsy attempt to shift the political focus, even if only momentarily, away from the government’s mounting Covid management and testing failures, was already unravelling. The inconvenient fact of Djokovic’s existing visa only reinforced Morrison’s habitual carelessness with the truth and highlighted the brazen political opportunism at its core. Djokovic lodged a succesful legal challenge and remained in Australia, and may end up playing in the Open after all.
As political distractions go, it’s a one hit wonder. It will serve its purpose of taking up news time for a few days, giving the marketing-driven Prime Minister the opportunity to reset his image as the imagined muscular protector of our Covid borders, while leaving the states to fix the real-world national Covid debacle unfolding all around him. There could scarcely be a more cynical, blatantly political, deflection from the government’s litany of public health failures than this, and it is an insult to every one of us.
We should be grateful that, once again the states, or most of them, stepped into that prime ministerial void. The Victorian Labor government of Premier Daniel Andrews ordered 2.2 million RAT tests in October 2021 and has been providing them free to close contacts in schools, kindergartens and long day-care, since November. A further 44 million have been ordered since, and free RATs have been trialled at PCR testing sites across Melbourne. Following those trials RATs were rolled out at PCR testing sites this week, and positive RAT results were included in Victoria’s Covid case numbers for the first time on Saturday.
If the Victorian government can plan for, order and distribute RATs for free, why can’t Morrison?
In this morass of policy dysfunction and political uncertainty one thing remains clear – there will be a federal election this year. On that point at least, the constitution leaves no room for doubt although, importantly, it leaves ample room for political manoeuvring. Since half the Senate must go to an election by May, in order for the new senators take up their places by July 1, and since the House of Representatives must also go to an election this year, Morrison is expected to dissolve both the House and the Senate and head for a May election.
However, and here’s the thing, he does not have to. The government can stretch out its term for a further four months by calling the House of Representatives election as late as September. This would split the House and the Senate elections, all within constitutional bounds, which is something no prime minister has done in 50 years. Sir Robert Menzies made an art form of juggling separate Senate and House elections through the 1960s, giving us the misfortune of seven different House or half-Senate elections in a decade. Menzies however did this from a position of unparalleled political strength which Morrison, to put it mildly, does not have.
But for a prime minister impervious to the needs of the nation and the people he is meant to serve, and more intent on lining the pockets of the chosen few, why would he not? After all, if the past two years have taught us anything, it’s to expect the unexpected.