Scott Morrison’s coronavirus mea culpa was barely disguised score-settling with Daniel Andrews

Katharine Murphy Political editor
·7-min read
<span>Photograph: David Crosling/AAP</span>
Photograph: David Crosling/AAP

Scott Morrison has delivered a mea culpa. But it pays to be precise about the nature of the apology, which was “sorry, but most of what went wrong was that other guy”. Friday wasn’t so much an exercise in contrition as an attempted reframe of what has been a really bad week for his government on aged care.

Let’s quickly map the week, then we’ll loop back to Morrison. There have been terrible coronavirus outbreaks in residential aged care in Victoria, and deaths, more than 80 this week. Cue Peter Rozen QC. The counsel assisting the aged care royal commission landed some sharp observations. He used an opening statement to contend neither the commonwealth health department nor the aged care regulator developed a Covid-19 plan specifically for the aged care sector. He followed up later in the week by declaring the federal government acted with “self-congratulation” and “hubris” by not learning important lessons and not preparing Victoria for the devastating outbreak in residential aged care – which is quite a charge.

Related: Victoria reports 14 more coronavirus deaths, including man in his 20s

In between those interventions, Rozen put Brendan Murphy, the former chief medical officer, now secretary of the federal health department, firmly in a corner when he attempted to rebut Rozen’s contentions by delivering a counter opening statement to the commission. Rozen also called Murphy out when he tried to prompt a departmental colleague, Michael Lye, the health department’s deputy secretary for ageing and aged care during the proceedings. No mercy. This is our show, not the commonwealth’s.

The commission also heard from Joseph Ibrahim, an aged care expert from Monash University, who injected moral clarity into the proceedings. Elderly Australians would die during this pandemic, he said, because of a “level of apathy, a lack of urgency” and “an attitude of futility which leads to an absence of action”.

Now to Morrison. The prime minister gave a press conference on Monday, then he was off the air until Friday.

On Wednesday, Morrison posted a Facebook message which you might call a warm-up for Friday. The prime minister wanted people to know he felt their pain in all “the hard news”. He said the government would seek to learn the lessons from the recent outbreak. When there were shortcomings, they would be acknowledged. The government would seek to be upfront about the problems.

The benefit of making your points in a Facebook message is no one interrupts you with pesky questions. Monologues transmitted from a bunker spare prime ministers inconvenient inquisitions that make their way into TV packages, which is what leaders continue to care most about. Eventually you will have to take questions but, for now, there is the benefit of being on send on not receive.

By Friday, questions were being raised about precisely when Morrison might put his head up – given the persistent rebukes of the week. So on Friday, the prime minister visited his courtyard because, if he didn’t, not visiting the courtyard would have become a story. Sorry did indeed pass Morrison’s lips, but the language was passive, and indirect.

Instead of our systems failed, Morrison’s choice of words was: “On the days that the system falls short, on the days that expectations are not met, I’m deeply sorry about that, of course I am.” Morrison continued: “So they are the good days, but other days are not as good, and that’s the simple honesty that I’m offering to the Australian people ... Of course we, we’re sorry about that, of course we’re devastated by it.”

So no ownership was claimed of the system (which on this locution could be anyone’s), and the apology touched down on the failure of expectations – which is a bit like those apologies offer if people have been offended, which make the offended parties sound like sooks.

A bit later we washed up at the “other guy” juncture I referenced a minute ago. As the explanation went on, it turns out this wasn’t so much a failure of a system (insert relevant footnote: that the commonwealth has responsibility for as the funder and regulator) – because despite what you might hear from feisty QCs in royal commissions, the government did have an aged care plan. Morrison insisted there was a plan that had been refreshed during the crisis.

“The outbreaks were caused by a community outbreak of the Covid-19 virus in Melbourne,” Morrison said. “That’s where the system received the greatest challenge. We can’t ignore that fact.

“I mean, Covid-19 broke out in Melbourne. It has got into meat-packing plants, it has got into pharmacies, it has got into distribution centres. It has got into hospitals. It has got into aged care facilities. That’s what happens with a pandemic.

“There is not some special force field around aged care facilities that can ultimately protect in that environment, and that’s what occurred. And that has caused an enormous disruption in the continuity of care in those aged care facilities.”

So sorry had no sooner passed the lips when the Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, was thrust back in the frame. Morrison’s point was the outbreak in aged care flowed from the outbreak in Melbourne (insert footnote: that the premier didn’t stop).

I mean these blokes really do have to stop this. Australia is in the middle of a pandemic, and Morrison (and proxies for the prime minister), and Andrews, have lapsed into a dynamic where both of them feel they need to have the last word. Anybody who has ever had one of these arguments understands intrinsically this is a plot-losing genre of dialogue.

The carry on over the past few weeks has been about as edifying, frankly, as that Christmas dinner when Uncle Reg went at Uncle Fred about that time he cheated at Scrabble in 1973, with both sides demanding depositions from witnesses.

The two leaders are deploying different approaches in their barely disguised combat with one another. To take this week as case in point, the heavy lifting against Andrews from Canberra was executed mostly through background briefings, and through the defence minister, Linda Reynolds, who fronted Operation Make Sure No One Pings Us For The Hotel Quarantine Debacle Because That Was Dan.

At least Andrews is on the field, carrying his own water. The premier has gone to war by insisting he is not at war with Morrison. Let’s call this offensive Operation High Ground. “My only argument, my only thought, is with the coronavirus,” Andrews told reporters this week. The inference one is invited to take from this is someone else might be playing politics. Perhaps in Canberra. Andrews noted airily at one point he’d be talking to the prime minister some time later on “about aged care” – which in the context of the j’accuse of the week was quite the parry.

Both of these leaders think they can conduct their bout of score-settling safely in code so most voters won’t hear it. There’s probably some truth to that, because much of the cut-and-thrust you can only follow in detail if you speak fluent retribution – (insert relevant footnote: political dialect).

Related: 'Ants crawling from wound': horrifying scenes at coronavirus-hit aged care home in Melbourne

But this persistent diversion of energy is really disconcerting.

I get that events are stretching everyone beyond levels of human endurance. But I reckon it’s safe to say the history wars can wait when Australian citizens have so many immediate needs.

It is perfectly acceptable for leaders to draw precise lines on maps in an effort to understand what might have gone wrong, because you can’t fix problems you don’t understand. But everybody understands the difference between a constructive recap of events to learn lessons and a reconstruction of events to make sure you don’t cop the blame, and the latter is what’s going on, not the former.

Let’s wrap with this observation. People don’t need passive aggressive chest bumping from politicians in the middle of a crisis. People’s needs are much simpler. They don’t need an Aesop’s fable about the Victorian premier’s deficiencies dressed up as an apologia; a masked blame game, which is what they got from Canberra on Friday.

They need governments to be competent.