There are more ways than one for Scott Morrison still to stuff up the virus crisis. And in seeking to avoid such a calamity he’d do well to remember a rule followed by all successful leaders: don’t believe your own bulldust.
It’s become increasingly clear that Morrison’s handling of the corona crisis has benefited greatly from his disastrous handling of the bushfires. Obviously, he resolved not to make the same mistakes twice – and he hasn’t.
He was too slow to appreciate the magnitude of the political, environmental and human consequences of the fires. And by the time he did, it was too late. But when the medicos gave him the classic Treasury advice to "go early, go hard", he took it.
When you’re dealing with "exponential" growth, starting a week or two earlier than you might have can make all the difference. And it has. Morrison’s entitled to be terribly proud of our success in suppressing the virus, which compares well against all the big advanced economies.
With the bushfires, Morrison was wrong to see them as primarily a state responsibility. What the constitution says and what voters think aren’t always aligned. A good rule for prime ministers is that any problem that affects more than one state is a problem the electorate will hold the feds responsible for. Which is fair enough when you remember it’s the feds who control the purse strings.
In our federation, most problems involve shared federal and state responsibilities. Health and education are key examples. In which case, Mr Moneybags should always take the lead. Morrison’s masterstroke solution in the case of the virus was the national cabinet – though I share the scepticism of the former premier who doubted that the unity would last once we’d all stopped singing Kumbaya.
Another reaction to the fires failure, I reckon, was Morrison’s decision to under-promise and over-deliver. This fitted with the epidemiologists who, having to predict the consequences of a new virus about whose characteristics they knew little, seem to have decided to err on the high side.
For his part, Morrison left us with the impression the lockdown would last six months, and didn’t discourage the econocrats from predicting that gross domestic product would fall by 10 per cent and the rate of unemployment would double to 10 per cent.
It now seems clear it won’t be as bad as that. We’ll learn this week whether the fall in employment in the four weeks to mid-May was anything like as bad as in the four weeks to mid-April. We may well have seen the worst of it – at least until the JobKeeper wage subsidy scheme winds up in late September.
But having to wait until mid-June to know where we were a month earlier is frustratingly slow in this uniquely fast-moving recession. The "weekly activity tracker" – based on high frequency data such as restaurant bookings, confidence, retail foot traffic, hotel bookings, credit card usage, etcetera – used by Dr Shane Oliver, of AMP Capital, suggests the economy hit bottom in mid-April and has now risen for eight weeks in a row.
The medicos hate it when I say this, but my guess is that suppressing the virus will prove to be the easy half of the problem. Getting the economy back to being anything like where it was in December is a much harder ask, demanding first-rate judgment from Morrison’s econocrat advisers and Morrison having the humility to take that advice and suppress his instinct to play political favourites.
This is where he must resist the temptation to believe his own political bulldust. Exhibit A: the claim that we entered the crisis from a "position of strength". This is the very opposite of the truth, which is why restoring the economy to healthy growth will be exceptionally hard. The key problem is six years of weak wage growth, which the recession is making even weaker.
Exhibit B: Morrison’s belief that, come the election in early 2022, voters won’t blame him for still-high unemployment and weak growth because they’ll remember with gratitude his sterling performance in averting their own deaths. If only.
Exhibit C: Morrison’s belief that supply-side economic reform aimed at raising the economy’s "potential" growth rate in the medium to longer term is an adequate substitute for demand-side budgetary stimulus in the short term.
That yet more tinkering with the tax system and the wage-fixing system is what will give us "business-led growth" out of recession. That’s not economics, it’s rent-seeking propaganda you mouth while swinging one for your big-business donors. Jobs and growth – yay!
Actually believe such tosh and you’re dead meat.