Scott Morrison’s coronavirus marketing is working – just look at the polls

Scott Morrison appears to have learnt from his massive mishandling of the summer bushfire, to be sitting pretty in COVID-19.

Scott Morrison appears to have learnt from his massive mishandling of the summer bushfire, to be sitting pretty in COVID-19. Photo: AAP

Not one but three opinion polls published this week confirmed that merely two months after the Black Summer bushfires, Scott Morrison has managed to wrangle his way back into the good books of Australian voters.

The Australian’s Newspoll, Guardian Australia’s Essential Poll, and the non-aligned Roy Morgan poll all reported huge turnarounds in voter satisfaction with the performance of the Prime Minister and his government compared with earlier this year.

Roy Morgan poll tracked a whopping 22 per cent increase in just one week in the number of Australians who agreed the Australian government was handling the coronavirus pandemic well, reaching a total of 65 per cent. The number who disagreed with this statement decreased by 20 percentage points to 29 per cent.

Newspoll asked about the combined effort of the federal and state governments in tackling COVID-19, finding a healthy bump over the past three weeks in voter satisfaction with the governments’ performance in managing the impact on the economy (up 14 points to 47 per cent), preparing the public health system to cope (up 8 points to 59 per cent) and informing Australians about how to protect themselves (up 10 points to 75 per cent).

Looking specifically at the performance of Mr Morrison, Newspoll found a massive shift in satisfaction for the PM, increasing 20 points, to 61 per cent, over the past three weeks. The Essential Poll found a similar movement in voter satisfaction with the performance of the PM, increasing 18 points over the past month to 59 per cent.

These numbers indicate Mr Morrison has indeed learned from his disastrous bushfire experience. In times of national emergency, voters look to their leaders to step up, take responsibility, and lead in the nation’s best interest. We’re not interested in squabbles over borders and boundaries, just in leaders getting the job done.

By rebadging an existing committee of the nation’s leaders, the Council of Australian Governments (or COAG), as a national cabinet, the PM did what he probably should have done during the fires – showed and shared leadership by creating a way to coordinate effort and short circuit the border and boundary debates.

Yes, it would have made a lot of sense to include his opposition counterpart, Labor leader Anthony Albanese, in the tent. But according to a detailed background piece on the national cabinet’s formation by Guardian Australia, it was the state premiers who insisted that opposition leaders be excluded.

Mr Morrison can take a little credit and at least some comfort from these glowing opinion poll numbers. The keen student and practitioner of political strategy has, at least on this occasion, shown to be a capable apprentice to his mage, John Howard.

But as a long-time political strategist, the PM would also know that his opinion poll boost is at least partly a common knee-jerk reaction by voters during times of national emergency. When the community feels threatened, anxious or stressed about a common enemy, its citizens will tend to think more favourably of its leaders, as long as they prove to be at-least half-competent at protecting the community.

It should be said that this doesn’t always happen, as we saw with Tony Abbott’s various flag-festooned attempts to create ‘national security emergencies’ during his short tenure as PM, and Mr Morrison’s bungled efforts during the bushfires.

Glancing outside Australia’s borders, many of the at-least half-competent national leaders have also benefited from opinion poll boosts in recent times. In some cases, even their opposition counterparts have benefited from such voter goodwill – satisfaction in the performance of Labor’s Mr Albanese increased by a few points in both the latest Newspoll and Essential Poll.

So what does this all mean? Will this virus-induced honeymoon last for Mr Morrison right up to the next federal election?

It’s impossible to say, but it is clear that Labor has its work cut out.

Mr Albanese (or any other opposition leader) is hardly in a position to argue “this reckless spending must stop!” as Kevin Rudd so emphatically claimed last decade. Labor is also unable to leverage its traditional strengths – health and education – while Coalition and Labor governments work together on the twin economic and health challenges created by COVID-19.

The Morrison government has even managed to make Labor irrelevant on workers’ issues, by striking deals directly with the union movement and bypassing the opposition altogether.

This essentially leaves the federal opposition with little to work with other than the Coalition debacles and disasters that were hot topics before the coronavirus, but which now seem petty and puerile in comparison.

While these issues will continue to roil through the increasingly fetid chambers of #auspol on Twitter, they have lost much significance – if they ever had any – with everyday Australians.

Mr Morrison’s future is not written in this week’s opinion polls, but in his ability to retain voter support when he finally has to start turning off the cashflow.

Labor’s future will be determined by a no-less tricky proposition – getting the balance right between non-partisan cooperation, constructive criticism and political attacks.

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