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Very often, the relationship between treasurers and prime ministers is either passive-aggressive (think Peter Costello and John Howard) or aggressive-aggressive (Paul Keating and Bob Hawke). But Josh Frydenberg and Scott Morrison work hard at being on the same page. Catching a shaft of daylight between them is a rare event.
Yet daylight has been visible this week.
If you’ve been listening carefully, the prime minister and the treasurer have been saying slightly different things since Sunday about whether Victoria would be assisted financially during this lockdown.
If we roll back to Sunday, Morrison, speaking to reporters in New Zealand, was doing his best “I’m pulling up the drawbridge” bit. The prime minister said $45bn had already gone to Victoria. He noted the Queensland and Western Australian governments had looked after their own people during short lockdowns. He praised the other states for soldiering on without calling in Canberra.
The prime minister did not rule out ultimately providing help, but he gave a more than solid impression that he wasn’t inclined to.
It wasn’t just the public signalling. In private, in the lead-up to unveiling the emergency payments on Thursday, Morrison had also been telling people he was worried about setting a precedent, and didn’t want to create perverse incentives for the states to go into lockdown.
I’ll get into the silliness of Morrison’s perverse incentives point shortly, but let’s persist with Sunday for a moment.
While Morrison was clearing his throat in Queenstown, two senior Victorian ministers were out and about at home. The trade minister, Dan Tehan, was on Insiders. Frydenberg wasn’t on television, but he posted on Facebook over the course of Sunday afternoon.
Both Frydenberg and Tehan expressed similar “shut up and be grateful Victoria” formulations to Morrison (almost like they coordinate these things). But the Victorians also front-ran the debate. Both of them said watch this space.
Frydenberg: “The Morrison government will continue to work with the Victorian government and closely monitor the situation.” Tehan: “Obviously we will continue to have discussions with the Victorian state government and we will continue to monitor the situation.”
If you speak politics, the direction was obvious.
The Morrison government would not be providing assistance for a week-long lockdown. But what happened after the seven days was obviously an internal deliberation that was yet to be resolved.
I’m lingering on last Sunday, because it was an important day. The politics of the pandemic shifted.
If my meaning is unclear, let me spell this out. Speaking politically, Morrison has largely had this pandemic all his own way. There has been plenty of private frustration at the state level, but public shirt-fronting of Morrison by the premiers has been kept to a minimum.
Discretion has been the better part of valour.
But that changed on Sunday when the acting Victorian premier, James Merlino, and the state treasurer, Tim Pallas, eviscerated Morrison in public for dawdling with the vaccine rollout, for prevaricating on quarantine while leaving the states to manage the risks of hotel quarantine, and declining to show up for Victorian workers in the hour of need.
Self-evidently, Merlino and Pallas were attempting to inoculate themselves politically from the local anger that would inevitably accompany a fourth lockdown in the state. Morrison had given them lots of material to work with, and better this be a lockdown either prompted by, or exacerbated by, failings in Canberra and Adelaide’s hotel quarantine.
But as well as managing the daily politics, the Victorians were also trailing some new terms of engagement.
Victoria taking up the fight in such direct fashion, with federal Labor running the same reasonings in stereo through the parliamentary week in Canberra, made it politically untenable for the prime minister to do anything other than put his hand in his pocket to help workers in the state.
Frydenberg very evidently intuited this eventuality on Sunday, but Morrison, seemingly, took days to catch up. The prime minister was still fretting about negative incentives with people as recently as Wednesday.
Now let’s consider Morrison’s argument about negative incentives.
The fiscal burden of a public health crisis is obviously huge, and Canberra very clearly wants an exit strategy. That’s all very reasonable, but we are still in the pandemic. We are at the mid-point of this thing if we are lucky, and if the pace of vaccinations doesn’t increase, we’ll be in it for a lot longer.
Morrison might want to dream there’s a way out, but that’s not anyone’s reality, so why waste time pretending? And in what universe do premiers, 18 months into a pandemic that has upended the world, want to impose punitive lockdowns on a whim so Scotty will pick up the tab, when they wear the political backlash at home?
Why would they do that? To put it politely, that’s not very logical.
If the prime minister had his head in the game, he would have understood that his role this week wasn’t to conduct an arcane policy seminar in full public view about what taxpayer assistance should or shouldn’t be post-jobkeeper.
That particular issue should have been sorted out months ago, given jobkeeper ended in March, and the pandemic wasn’t over, there was an obvious, forward-looking, risk to manage.
So Morrison’s quibbling looked more self-defeating than reasonable, or particularly enlightened. The role of the prime minister this week should have been leadership: reassuring the people climbing the walls in Melbourne – people wondering whether they could eat or pay the bills.
Victorians, after all, are being locked down to achieve a national objective: flattening the curve of coronavirus infections. Rather than stubbing his toe on negative incentives for the premiers, it would be better to think about providing positive incentives for people to comply with effective suppression of the virus.
You would also think that a prime minister under sustained pressure for being a day late and a dollar short on a whole range of fronts would want to shift that growing perception by appearing on the front foot on something.
But instead, it looked like Morrison was dragged to the conclusion others formed on Sunday.
The aged care minister, Richard Colbeck, triggered general astonishment this week when he professed himself comfortable with how things were travelling.
While that’s tremendous for Colbeck, it’s more than slightly terrifying for the rest of us.
It would be useful if the government realised that, and replaced its current complacency default with a more productive sense of urgency.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Once again, Scott Morrison appears a day late and a dollar short | Katharine Murphy