Close observers will know that some of these apologies were more technical than sincere – “if anybody felt offended”, that type of thing. Still, together they make an impression. Most prime ministers don’t like saying sorry, and you’d expect Morrison might like it less than most. My guess would be he realised he had a problem, and set about fixing it. He may have taken counsel from his idol, John Howard, who famously said a few months before the 2001 election that he had been wrong about petrol prices. Howard’s fortunes recovered.
An important question is whether Morrison has actually become more humble, or whether it’s just a good performance. The distinction is important, because it affects what happens next, to all of us.
This was a ragged week in politics. Chaos would be overstating it, but the mood was heading in that direction. Not all of this is on the government. There is a general tiredness in the nation. The early phases of the pandemic were marked by information overload, but there was a sense of linearity: there was one task, keeping numbers down. Now information is coming in from everywhere, on every topic. Meanwhile, Victoria remains on lockdown, NSW remains on an eternal knife-edge, and Queensland has some cases too. The muddle feels constant.
Add the whirs and dings of Parliament into this, and it becomes hard to make your voice heard. And so, at first, the Prime Minister must have felt quite good about cutting through with his much-noted foray on borders. He wanted things fixed by Christmas, he said. It’s been an aim he’s been flirting with for a while, but until this week it came with caveats. Now he firmed it up. Josh Frydenberg joined the fray, talking about the “cruel” border restrictions, and attacking Daniel Andrews, too, for not having a roadmap out of lockdown.
Interventions like these are always calculated gambles. Frydenberg’s hit on Andrews worked: Victoria gets its roadmap this Sunday. Politically, though, the combination didn’t feel quite right, pointing to the muddle rather than away from it. The Prime Minister and the Treasurer seemed a little like two cowboys in a small-town saloon, cornered by the local folk, and throwing haymakers in all directions in the desperate hope that something would connect.
Still, it might have worked had they got their way on borders. But before national cabinet had even met on Friday, Western Australia said it would not budge, which left the Prime Minister looking high-handed and impotent at once. My way or the highway, he repeatedly tells the premiers. Whatever you reckon, say the premiers, as often as not, and continue doing what they want. Which was an impression pretty much confirmed by the Prime Minister’s announcement on Friday afternoon that from now on national cabinet would not have to reach consensus. The institution will limp onwards, but its glory days are in the past.
This is the strange atmosphere in which we enter budget season, and – if you’ll permit me a cliche –the most important budget in a generation. A Prime Minister slightly off-kilter, and a cluttered public sphere.
This week we learnt the economy had shrunk by 7 per cent in the last quarter. It hadn’t shrunk that much in 80 years. There are plenty of challenges in getting it to grow fast, but the largest, I’d suggest, is soothing a nervous population. Oddly, many of us have more cash than we did before this crisis hit. And yet spending is down – partly because we’re not going out, but also because we’re hanging onto our money. Businesses, too, are refusing to spend. For the economy to pick up, this needs to change.
To give us back our confidence, the government needs three things. The most important is luck. There’s not much it can do about either the global situation or the unpredictable virus.
Second, it needs a Prime Minister and a Treasurer who look assured, and focused on their responsibilities – not cowboys throwing haymakers. There has been a lot of focus on the border spat, but in the scheme of economic recovery the precise timetable for free movement is likely to be minor. The government’s devotion to the crafting of its budget matters more.
Finally, just as Morrison did in the earliest phase of the virus, he needs to convince Australians he is determined, bold, and that politics-as-usual is not his primary concern. This is one of the problems with the cuts to JobKeeper and JobSeeker that will soon kick in. They suggest the government is not as worried as the rest of us; not as doggedly focused on creating jobs as we need it to be.
Labor has been saying for a while that the economy was already slow before the virus hit. That’s true, but I tend to think that, politically, it’s a waste of a sentence: nobody cares what happened before the virus. But the substance of the point is important: the government’s approach wasn’t working. Investment was low, wages were flat. And that point matters now, because of the genuine danger – as Ross Gittins put it a few months back – that Morrison believes his own bulldust and continues on his merry way.
All the government has foreshadowed for the budget is doing the same things it was already doing, or said it was doing, or was already promising to do. The Treasurer’s focus this week on tax cuts is the clearest symbol. The tax cuts have already been legislated. All the government seems to want to do is make them happen a bit earlier. Yawn.
There are plenty of specific criticisms of these ideas, but let’s put them to one side. The bigger problem is they’re tired. I don’t just mean ideologically: I mean they make your eyes glaze over.
You might have found them in any Liberal budget, any time. Perhaps there will be some extra zeroes, but numbers never impress people as much as politicians think. And remember that the government has to cut through that noisy public sphere.
The greatest danger for the government is timidity: both the fact of it, in doing too little, and the perception. Australians won’t feel confident if their government doesn’t act with confidence. And that means, too, that it must stop the constant finger-pointing. Even if some of it is fair, it risks sending the message that the government is politically preparing for the worst, rather than doing everything it can to avoid it. This, too, is a type of timidity.
Publicly, we need the government to be bold as brass. It must take full responsibility for the economy, and show us it understands that serious action is needed right now from serious leaders. In the budget, it must surprise us with its bravery. It must make us sit up and listen.
But, perhaps paradoxically, this will require humility. Public humility – a solemn face, an apology or four – is comparatively easy. Private humility is harder. Only the very best politicians have it in them: the ability to look at what you’ve said, at what you’ve done, and admit that it’s stopped working. In the budget, we will learn whether Morrison is one of them. If, instead, we get the same tedious announcements we’re already expecting, we will have our answer: the Prime Minister didn’t become more humble after the bushfires, he just did a very good job of pretending he had.
Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald and a former adviser to Labor prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard