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Scott Morrison: How Australia’s PM rebuilt his reputation

Australian PM Scott MorrisonImage copyright
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As Australia exits its virus lockdown, Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s stock is soaring.

It’s exactly one year since he was re-elected. Online, there are TikToks of teenagers singing his praises. Shock jocks have apologised for previous criticism.

It’s in stark contrast to how he was viewed during the bushfire crisis, where he took a secret holiday to Hawaii while the nation was on fire.

Mr Morrison’s perceived failures sparked immense public anger. Citizens swore at him on camera, while firefighters and survivors refused to shake his hand.

Then, as the blazes were dying down in late January, Australia found itself sucked into the coronavirus emergency.

Months later, it has come out on top, seen as a world leader in its handling of the virus. The nation has recorded fewer than 100 deaths and around 7,000 cases.

Only a dozen patients remained in intensive care across the country as of Monday. The leader’s approval rating stood at 66% – one of the highest for any Australian prime minister in the past decade.

So how did did Scott Morrison turn things around?

‘Bold and strong leadership’

In facing the virus, Mr Morrison sought out expert advice, listened to it and acted on it – despite the cost.

This worked, observers say, and the chief medical officer Dr Brendan Murphy was never far from his side (or 1.5m at least) at every major announcement.

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Dr Brendan Murphy (left) gave the early advice on travel bans

It was on his advice that Australia shut its borders to China when the World Health Organization (WHO) was saying travel bans weren’t needed. Canberra also called it a pandemic before the official classification.

“Clearly, yes, you should listen to the health experts in the middle of a health crisis,” says Dr Tony Bartone, the president of the Australian Medical Association.

“But listening to the health experts can create an enormous economic disruption. And it takes bold and strong leadership to listen fully and listen early.”

When it became clear local infections were accelerating, Mr Morrison acted quickly – spurred on by the leaders of Australia’s biggest states. Shortly after case numbers tipped over 1,000, bars and pubs were shut and larger social gatherings banned.

The economic consequences of shutting up shop would have appeared daunting, but he didn’t drag his feet – unlike leaders in the UK and the US, Dr Bartone says.

Instead, he listened to the science – something he was repeatedly accused of ignoring during the bushfires.

But that was a crisis of a different sort, says historian Prof Frank Bongiorno, from the Australian National University. Australia’s PM was compromised by political baggage.

Scott Morrison’s conservative coalition – in power for the past seven years – had long downplayed and even rejected the science of climate change.

Scientists and fire chiefs had warned the government that a particularly harsh fire season was in store. They say their calls were ignored.

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Media caption“You’re an idiot, mate”: Australian PM Scott Morrison heckled by bushfire victims

So when the emergency flared up, critics accused the PM of not taking enough action. They say he was initially reluctant to acknowledge the severity of the environmental disaster, and failed to address the underlying cause.

But with a public health crisis, “there wasn’t that kind of baggage”, says Prof Bongiorno. Australia has an advanced, well-functioning health system primed to respond to outbreaks such as this one.

“No-one has accused the Australian government of being hopelessly underprepared for a pandemic,” he says.

‘Incredibly pragmatic’

This once-in-a-century health and economic crisis was far better suited to Scott Morrison’s style of leadership,

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