Have you heard the Morrison government has a plan?

The Plan® was very hard to miss, given the prime minister used the word “plan” or “plans” more than 20 times when he answered his first Dorothy Dixer in question time on Thursday. Lest any ambiguity remain, Peter Dutton went on to utter “plan” another 16 times if you happened to be counting, and our indefatigable live blogger, Amy Remeikis, bless her, was counting.

Plans revealed themselves in the preambles to questions, and in the answers to questions; a thicket of plans for potential pandemics, for managing the economy, a plan for beating up Labor over its increasingly uncontroversial commitment to net zero emissions by 2050. Or perhaps that one was a strategy.

The urgency and intensity of the messaging was such that I wondered whether we might at any moment see live broadcasts interrupted with a solemn message to the nation at the top of the hour: “Fellow Australians, this is your government speaking. Did we mention we have a plan? Did we mention we have a plan for a plan?”

Before I get branded a shocking cynic, let’s be clear. It is obvious the government needs to have a considered and credible plan for managing a mass outbreak of the coronavirus, because the spread of this illness, and the negative economic consequences associated with it, is a deeply serious issue, not some passing bit of political confection or rank opportunism.

The world is watching unfolding events in a state of shared nervousness. Leaders are warning an epidemic is on the way and the trajectory of infections prompted a record plunge in the US stock market on Friday as analysts warned the outbreak could wreak economic havoc on a scale not seen since the 2008 financial crisis.

In short, this is all profoundly serious, and it is not a drill. So I’m relieved Australia has a plan, because we do need one, and it would great if the government can both develop and execute it competently.

Having acknowledged there is a serious challenge to manage and the country absolutely needs a plan to manage it, let’s drill down a bit further. It’s pretty obvious why the government is intent on telling voters there is a plan for managing coronavirus and other potential crises.

To put it bluntly, Morrison’s theatre of The Plan® is atonement for the disaster of the summer.

If we take a minute or two to recap the sorry story of the bushfires, the only thing the government mastered was looking like a shambles. As the fire emergency spiralled, Morrison presented during a time of terrible crisis as a leader making it up as he went along. In the court of public opinion, the government was constantly running behind events. Haplessness could be measured in increments, from the ill-fated Hawaii holiday through to calling out the defence forces without telling the poor bloke managing the bulk of the blazes.

As well as conveying a compelling impression of a government extemporising inelegantly in full public view, Morrison looked resentful when obvious deficiencies and inconsistencies were pointed out to him. Presenting to the public with pursed lips and barely restrained pique, not every time, but often enough to be memorable, I reckon compounded negative voter perceptions and made the inevitable backlash worse.

Our Guardian Essential poll in mid-January delivered a stark snapshot of the credibility hit. Morrison’s net approval rating shifted from plus two to negative 12, and the Labor leader Anthony Albanese sprinted ahead of Morrison as preferred prime minister (despite the fact the poll shows consistently voters are still getting a fix on the Labor leader).

Because everything is so polarised, because politics has substituted conflict (easy) for reform (hard), because technology is herding people into tribes, and because default mainstream media culture tells people these days it is OK, in fact, desirable, to sit in an enclave that confirms your biases, preferably with noise-cancelling headphones – Morrison didn’t take too much of a hit among rusted-on Coalition voters. They, largely, stuck.

But if our poll snapshot is accurate, across Labor and (critically) undecided voters, one in seven people changed their minds about Morrison between December and January. The prime minister also took a significant hit on the attributes questions we ask the Guardian Essential sample regularly about leaders. There was a nine-point drop in the number of voters rating Morrison a capable leader. Worse, there was a 19-point drop in the number of voters saying he was good in a crisis.

Now I want to consider these specific attributes a little.

Given the Coalition’s defining pitch to Australian voters is always we will keep you safe and secure, because we are conservatives, and that’s what conservatives do (in contrast to wild-eyed progressives, who favour social change over security) – a loss of public confidence in attributes like “capable”, and “good in a crisis” is potentially dangerous for Morrison and the government.

The language of safety, security and managerial competence is the most powerful language Australian conservatives have in their toolkit. That language is resonant enough to win elections.

Security is such a critical part of the pitch that the disastrous summer Morrison just presided over actually begs an existential question for a Liberal prime minister who likes to style himself as the Generation X John Howard.

It’s a simple question.

What good is a conservative who can’t keep Australians safe?

One more brief observation before we wrap up. Looking ahead, I reckon climate change poses a significant dilemma for the Coalition.

Since the Abbott era, the Coalition has been able to weaponise climate change to its political advantage. But weaponising climate change is a whole lot easier when global heating is an abstract risk, or in the minds of some, an entirely hypothetical possibility. I think that becomes harder to navigate when heating is a lived reality – when people are dealing with the practical consequences of natural disasters, like the summer we’ve just experienced. But as they say in the classics, only time will tell.

More immediately, Morrison’s challenge is to stabilise and turn public perceptions. This is a critical mission. The prime minister, a former campaign director, respects research and data, so he will know that recent political history suggests voters make up their minds about prime ministers and governments pretty early in a term.

Those perceptions, once formed, are hard to budge. I reckon Julia Gillard, Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull could all share a story or two about the increasingly transient nature of political honeymoons in Australia.

So, in summary, The Plan® you keep hearing about carries a lot of freight. There are actual, practical plans to manage risks, and there are political projections of risk management. For the government, both will feel important. Implicitly Morrison wants to tell you he is learning on the job.

The past week in politics tells us this. The prime minister and the government need a way to apologise for the summer and reboot, without admitting any liability, because introspection and contrition is really not a hallmark of this government, at least not in public.

If contrition is impossible, because sorry is such a hard word to say, then perhaps competence, assuming that materialises, can serve as a substitute.



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