How coronavirus helped Scott Morrison turn things around after bushfires

When the history is written of how Scott Morrison learned to become a better Prime Minister, this image of him grinning with beer-drinking Australians in Hawaii is where it begins.

Whether it’s a lesson bitter enough to help him win another election, it’s too early to say. But it just might be that useful.

One year ago today, Scott Morrison told us on election night that he “always believed in miracles”.

But five months ago, on December 18, Australians learned the Prime Minister also believed in ‘Aloha’, after he was discovered in Hawaii on a secret family holiday as bushfires raged at home.

The saga is instructive for two reasons: first, the Prime Minister is a control freak who loves secrecy.

Second, it gave him such a shock he seems to be evolving and it’s been central to his resurgence in the polls and success in tackling COVID-19.

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The fact he thought he could sneak out of the country as Prime Minister and not tell anyone was bizarre and he got the comeuppance he deserved.

Voters walloped him in the opinions polls.

He was promptly lampooned across the nation as a dill in a Hawaiian shirt. “I don’t hold a hose, mate,’’ he muttered when quizzed on why he fled the country.

A volunteer firefighter in Quaama, who had lost his own home, refused to shake his hand.

An angry woman with green hair whispered an unprintable epithet as he walked past that was “very inappropriate” according to the Liberal staffer walking beside him in a crisp white shirt.

But what happened next suggests that Scott Morrison, who celebrated his 52nd birthday last week, is an old dog that can still learn some new tricks.

The Prime Minister conceded he made a bad error of judgment.

He reflected on his errors and when the COVID-19 crisis appeared he committed to making amends.

There were some early missteps here too.

But also revelations: the control freak PM saw the value of co-operating with the states and shared power with them by forming a national cabinet.

He even started talking to the ACTU secretary Sally McManus. Now, he’s called for a new debate on industrial relations and flexibility and is promising a seat at the table for unions.

In doing so, he has deftly sidelined Labor’s Anthony Albanese into irrelevancy.

He’s also started to actually answer journalists’ questions at marathon press conferences with some thoughtful answers.

For example, the Prime Minister has signalled very clearly where he’s going on the JobKeeper wage subsidy, a reminder that good journalism is mainly reading comprehension.

On the future of JobKeeper for example, reflect on his key words, “adjustment”, “anomalies”, but the “parameters and guidelines will be maintained for the integrity of that program.”

Translation: he won’t be cutting the JobKeeper program short but he will announce some further adjustments. Expect changes by July 1.

This is not business as usual for the Prime Minister, it’s a new approach and it’s working.

Consider not only Newspoll, where the Coalition has returned to the lead of the two-party preferred vote 51 to 49 per cent today and the PM’s approval rating which has climbed to 66 per cent.

That means even some Labor voters think he’s done a good job.

Focus group research conducted by the Labor-aligned RedBridge Group in Victoria confirms this.

“The desire to see all our political leaders – regardless of party – succeed persists,’’ the COVID report states.

“Our safety is linked to their success. Voters are still willing to forgive mistakes if those mistakes are made for the right reasons.

“As such, there is just no interest in “the blame game” – it is seen as “pointless” when we should be focusing on what we need to do to survive this thing.”

It’s also true that the Prime Minister has been lucky in other ways.

Having won the election that most of his own MPs believed lost, many of the chief trouble makers in the Liberal Party cleared out.

Talent is now patchy on the frontbench but the clear out has its usefulness.

During the Abbott-Turnbull years, there was a Marie Antoinette at Versailles flavour to some of the cabinet wars.

But now the main protagonists have left, the Prime Minister exists in a world where he has no serious predators.

That’s a freedom that Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull never had, instead always having to watch their backs until the Prime Minister came straight through the middle.

So, there will be no backslapping and champagne corks popping at Parliament House as the Prime Minister marks the first anniversary of his election win today.

But perhaps a grim realisation in Labor ranks that if things keep going this way an early election anytime from August 2021 could be tempting.

No more trips to Hawaii, though.

Expect the Prime Minister to take the trailer to Shoalhaven Heads for his summer holidays forever, until he’s carried out in a box by voters or resigns.

Samantha Maiden is’s national political editor | @samanthamaiden

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