Scott Morrison is pulling a Jedi mind trick, rebadging disasters into triumphs – and getting away with it | Katharine Murphy

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My Insiders colleague Niki Savva is a droll woman. She noted in her column this week that our prime minister possesses many talents. Sewing. Hammering. Squinting at things in test tubes. Flipping a breezy thumbs up in the cockpit of a plane.

Anyone who watches the television news regularly will have glimpsed these gifts. I’d add another to the list. Morrison can spin straw into gold. What I mean by this is our prime minister possesses some sweet rebranding skills. Various disasters are rebadged as triumphs.

Morrison pulls this Jedi mind trick reasonably often, and it’s hard to know what is more irritating: the unapologetic prime ministerial chutzpah, or the fact he gets away with it far more often than he should.

Let’s illustrate with a couple of examples.

They are trying to fix it, but let’s be honest, thus far, the government has made a hash of its most important job this year: the Covid-19 vaccination rollout.

Some of the botch-up was bad luck, but a lot of it was bad judgments. The government was sluggish chasing supply at the start, and then politics rather than efficiency determined the rollout strategy.

Because of the bungles, Australia is pulling up the drawbridge when we should be on a path to opening up. To mask the government’s errors, Morrison has read the zeitgeist and switched roles. Only a few months ago, he was the opening up evangelist. Now, the same prime minister who lectured the premiers about lockdowns being no substitute for a public health strategy has morphed into Mr Lockdown.

Morrison can flip, the opposite can also be true, because he knows hard borders work in the current political climate. The political potency of fortress Australia, to some extent, shields the government from a penetrating critique of what has led us to this point.

While the politics feel manageable for the government, policy failure has real world consequences. Because we can exist comfortably in our Covid-safe bubble, many Australians apparently feel little pressure to get vaccinated, which pushes back the border reopening.

Bizarrely, the health minister, Greg Hunt, this week appeared to reinforce hesitancy that has built up in the community about the risks of rare and severe clotting associated with the AstraZeneca jab by noting “there will be enough mRNA vaccines for every Australian” by the end of the year. Presumably this was just a ham-fisted attempt to be all things to all people – but really, who would know?

So rather than being pinged, or subjected to much sustained discomfort, Morrison sets his jaw, and sails on relentlessly.

Right at the moment, he’s fully intent on piloting past the increasing vexation of premiers who feel they’ve saved Canberra from itself since the pandemic began, past the increasing frustrations of businesses that don’t have a sustainable business model until the border reopens, past universities staggering because of the prolonged absence of foreign students, and past any irritating questions from journalists. Pesky questions can be safely ignored given the vituperative clamour of national affairs muffles any discordant sound.

Morrison presents right now as a prime minister sailing into the sunshine of the permanent campaign where the incumbents write the rules – which is his sweet spot.

He has an extraordinary fluidity that enables his constant, no-regrets repositioning (which is generally considered the hardest trick to master in politics). But Morrison’s fluidity flows from the fixed point of his professional identity, which is political operative first, second and third. Pump out the budget. How will any unfunded spending be paid for? Wrong question – even though that’s the central question the Coalition has been skewering its opponents with for decades.

Zip up to Gladstone. Down to Bass. Sewing. Hammering. Squinting at things in test tubes. Giving a breezy thumbs up in the cockpit of a plane. Morrison is the self-styled star of the faux campaign that will rumble on until the precise moment he is confident he’s got the viable path to victory, and then we’ll be thrust into the real one, ears pinned back in the slipstream. The operating tempo will pick up, but also deaden as the campaigns assail disengaged voters with slogans tested for salience, and negative advertising. Weaponised fake news will roll through Facebook.

I hope this doesn’t sound cynical, because I’m not even close to cynical, and even if I was, cynicism is no use to anyone. My purpose here is diagnostic. I’m charting the topography of Morrison’s politics, and trying to position a prime ministerial oeuvre in the strange, slippery, age of bombardment and bewilderment we all inhabit.

My purpose here is light, not heat. We need to grasp that our prime minister governs by constant calculations and recalibration, which is certainly an art, and fascinating in its way. But it can make a person – well, this one, anyway – crave substance with a gnawing hunger.

A political world that’s heavy on stagecraft and light on substance delivers us now to the Hunter Valley, and a power plant no one with expertise asked for. After dropping hints for many months, Morrison and the energy minister, Angus Taylor, confirmed this week (conveniently in time for a state byelection in the Hunter) that a gas peaking plant will be built at Kurri Kurri.

Please understand the following. Some of the government’s most senior energy policy advisers privately characterise this project as absolutely “bonkers”. But the government has zipped bonkers into an “aren’t we marvellous” onesie, hoping you won’t notice.

This week, Morrison and Taylor told us the planned gas peaker (which will actually run on diesel initially if you check the fine print) will deliver cheaper and more reliable power. But it is hard to work out how, given the people who run Australia’s energy market say gas is likely to be more expensive than other options, like batteries, pumped hydro and demand management.

Let’s puncture the routine obfuscation with some plain words explaining why this is happening. Australia’s energy market is in the middle of an inexorable transition. The Coalition federally has done everything in its power to suppress this transition, telling voters for more than a decade that things can remain as they were. This has never been true, and we’ve reached the point now where the fiction isn’t holding.

Things are moving so rapidly that the coal generators that have propped up the system for decades could leave Australia’s energy market significantly earlier than anticipated. If these anchor fossil fuel assets stagger out the door in chaotic fashion because they’ve been priced out of the market by cheaper, low emissions alternatives, the lights could go off.

Voters might even blame the agents of chaos: the Coalition. So what the government is purchasing with Kurri Kurri isn’t cheaper reliable power. It is gold-plated insurance at your expense: a brand new, taxpayer-funded power plant that might never operate, or operate only very intermittently to firm renewables.

Again, let’s be clear about culpability. When it repealed the carbon price, the Coalition removed the policy mechanism that would have driven this market transition in orderly fashion, and replaced it with an impenetrable, arbitrary, Soviet-style, picking winners and propping up fossil fuels program. When it did that, it transferred the cost of the transition from the polluters, to taxpayers.

The botch-up is now so epic it is possible that we might need some expensive, more polluting, back-up dispatchability to stabilise the grid over the next few years while various technologies mature.

Those are actually the facts, but you might struggle to locate them in all the moustache twirling, as various pundits in Canberra pontificate about how the Coalition lobbing this gas plant is actually super clever, because it delivers an atomic wedgie to Labor. I mean seriously. On this match report crap goes.

Unfortunately, this isn’t sport, and it’s past time to be crystal clear about the consequences of all the various shenanigans.

Here are the consequences. The joke is on you, good voters of Australia. When your government buggers it up, it sends you the bill.

Hafta Ichi
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Scott Morrison is pulling a Jedi mind trick, rebadging disasters into triumphs – and getting away with it | Katharine Murphy

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