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A tale of two crises, and and why the PM hasn’t been burnt – yet – by the coronavirus

It was the Christmas-New Year bushfire crisis response all over again. Clearly Team Morrison could see that, too, because by the end of Tuesday we saw the start of a plan to get our citizens out of central China. By Wednesday, there were details about how it would be put into action – thank you Qantas and Christmas Island detention centre.

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Can we put the Morrison Government’s crisis response turnaround down to experience? A little. However, it’s more likely that some structural things makes the coronavirus crisis easier for the executive wing of our federal government to handle.

Crises come in all shapes and sizes, but there are some golden rules to handle them. First is to have a deep understanding of the issue. What’s clear this month is the federal government is all over how to provide an effective response to the outbreak of a communicable disease. It’s part of the Commonwealth Health Department’s remit.

The next rule is to be prepared. We are. Our health officials game public health emergency scenarios regularly. And the federal department is funded with a large amount of taxpayers’ dollars each year to be ready to respond to a range of public health risks, including the maintenance of a national stockpile of essential medicines and equipment, among other things.

All of which means it’s relatively easy to give confidence that the government is on top of it.

To manage a crisis, you have to respond immediately. For health crises, we have a National Incident Room with well-practiced protocols that dictate the federal government’s and its agencies’ roles versus those of the states and territories. All players can download their information, and it can be distributed to the public in an orderly and authoritative way. And it ensures everyone’s singing from the same song sheet, another rule in a crisis.

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When you’ve got your house in order, it’s time to find allies. The public will be more confident in what you’re telling them if there are voices distinct from yours who agree with what you say. In a health emergency, that is put into action when people such as the chief medical officer are more visible than the health minister. Which is why we’ve seen more of Professor Brendan Murphy this week than Greg Hunt.

So when you match up the rules of effective crisis communications against our well-worn ways of managing health emergencies, Scott Morrison and his team are comprehensively supported by the bureaucracy, our health experts, and protocols that have been in place for some time.

That wasn’t the case with bushfires. What played out over late December/early January was a demonstration that the federal government doesn’t have a deep understanding of the issue because it isn’t the operational expert. It wasn’t prepared or practised in responding to such an event.

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As a result, Morrison was delayed in his response – and when he did respond, it was ill-timed. And even then the message changed or was contradictory across members of the team.

And Morrison was hard-up finding allies. Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons’ annoyed response to the announcement that Defence reserves would be called up to help on the second worst day he’d ever seen is an example of that.

Morrison has built his political brand on competence, and his handling of the bushfires will be a moment in his prime ministership he won’t want to repeat. Let’s see if the example of the coronavirus outbreak, and the things that need to be in place to guarantee a successful result for the government and for the community, means he never wastes a good crisis again.

Claire Kimball is the founder of The Squiz, a free weekday news email. She was formerly press secretary to Tony Abbott and communications director for Woolworths Group.

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