But just five months later, Morrison is now Australia’s most popular prime minister in a decade (there have been five). Newspoll, published by the Australian, shows Morrison has a personal approval rating of 68 percent; other polls show similar high marks.
Morrison, a former marketing expert, deserves some credit for this PR coup. Amid a global pandemic that has ravaged even allied countries, the government-ordered lockdowns and social distancing measures are working. Australia has flattened the curve so much, some restrictions have already been lifted.
Meanwhile, the 213.6 billion-Australian-dollar stimulus package has provided a lifeline to thousands of businesses and millions of people who are suddenly jobless. Credit where credit is due.
But it’s not that simple. Morrison’s sudden popularity and salvation from mediocrity is not of his own genius. And hardly deserved. And there are several reasons why.
During Australia’s horror 2019 to 2020 summer, bush fires killed 34 people (and more than 400 indirectly due to smoke inhalation, according to experts) and destroyed more than 16 million hectares (40 million acres) of land. An estimated 1 billion animals perished, and countless native species are now threatened with extinction.
Despite bush fires being a common feature of the Australian summer, the Morrison government was unprepared. It had ignored expert advice — including from former fire chiefs and emergency responder leaders who warned for months that the coming bush fire season was not only likely to be catastrophic, but that they didn’t have the equipment, including water-bombing aircraft to fight it. The government also rejected scientific research that predicted the effects of climate change would make bush fires more ferocious than in the past and voted against an opposition attempt to declare a climate emergency.
And then the prime minister went on vacation.
As the biggest natural disaster in Australia’s living memory unfolded, Morrison went to Hawaii. And when it became public, the prime minister’s office tried to cover it up. When he finally returned home, two days earlier than planned, it was not because New South Wales had declared a state of emergency or that two volunteer firefighters had died, but because of the negative publicity. Morrison had taken an image hit.
He was sworn at on national television and shunned by survivors who refused to even shake his hand.
The national bush fire emergency revealed how Morrison put political priorities, including climate change denial, over the national interest, even in the face of disaster.
It is no wonder then that a large percentage of the Australian public now thinks Morrison is doing a good job. He set the bar so appallingly low for himself that anything is an improvement. Hardly a winning trait in national leadership.
Now there is the covid-19 pandemic. While volunteers were still extinguishing fires on Jan. 25, Australia recorded its first case of the novel coronavirus. As the number of cases began to climb, health experts were apoplectic at the Morrison government’s refusal to initiate a federal lockdown or cancel sporting matches. Instead, Morrison spruiked his own plans to see his beloved Cronulla Sharks play in the opening weekend of the National Rugby League.
Even when the federal government finally did impose the first stage of restrictions on March 22, it didn’t deserve all the credit. The state’s premiers, in particular Victoria’s popular leader Daniel Andrews, threatened to go it alone if Morrison refused to act.
The initial stages of the emerging pandemic — like with the bush fires — are further proof that the Morrison government’s instincts are always political and not service-oriented or moral. A true leader should not need to be poked into action by health professionals, regional leaders or even a terrified public.
The failures of Australia’s most trusted allies — the United Kingdom and the United States ― have also helped revamp Morrison’s image. Needless to say, it is not difficult to cultivate the perception of successful leadership when everyone else has failed.
But the past six months in Australia’s obtuse political climate point to a persistent problem: It is more convenient to forget failure during times of fear than to learn lessons. And that does not bode well for the future.