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Source: The Conversation (Au and NZ) – By Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

We’ve all observed Scott Morrison’s pragmatism in this pandemic but COVID has highlighted another notable feature of his political style.

The prime minister is a great admirer of Theodore (“Teddy”) Roosevelt, US president in the early 1900s, and this year has shown how he draws on the Roosevelt political toolbox.

American biographer and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has written that the essence of Roosevelt’s leadership “lay in his enterprising use of the ‘bully pulpit,’ a phrase he himself coined to describe the national platform the presidency provides to shape public sentiment and mobilise action”.

Roosevelt himself said, when crafting a message to Congress, “I suppose my critics will call that preaching, but I have got such a bully pulpit”.

Assisted by televised news conferences, which people suddenly tuned into, Morrison has exploited the bully pulpit to the full during COVID. And he’s liked to start these press conferences with a “preachy” message to the public.

He has also used a loud voice to try to make up for a power deficit – for example, publicly hammering his message about opening state borders.

It isn’t just Morrison for whom the pandemic has provided a bully pulpit. The premiers haven’t missed the opportunity. They’ve been seen much more than before, their importance underlined by their constitutional clout, and their status by their inclusion in a “national cabinet”.

The most notable is Victoria’s Daniel Andrews with those daily news conferences that can bust an hour and don’t recognise weekends. It’s trial by exhaustion, of premier and journalists, as he deals with all questions before his “I’ll see you tomorrow” sign off.

The bully pulpit has worked better for Morrison than Andrews, because the latter is more vulnerable, with his government’s disastrous mistakes and administrative shortcomings.

But Andrews’ continual public presence has probably contributed to the high rating he still receives, despite everything. During Victoria’s lockdown, the press conferences have become quite a thing. In the latest Newspoll, 62% of Victorian voters think he’s handled the crisis well.

At the end of this week there’s a feeling Victoria may at last have scrambled over the hump of its second wave, which has affected other states via border closures and dragged down the economy further.

Victorian new cases have declined to what should be manageable levels, and faster than anticipated. Andrews is speeding up the state’s opening, though very cautiously. Borders, significantly the Queensland border, are loosening.

In light of Victoria’s progress, it seems an odd and inappropriate time for the Andrews government to be seeking highly controversial new powers.

The proposal, already through the state’s lower house, would allow authorised officers to issue detention orders to anyone considered likely to breach isolation and would expand the range of those who could issue such orders.

The provision’s fate lies with the upper house’s crossbench. The Victorian public have accepted extreme curbs on civil liberties, in the cause of keeping the community safe. But at some point there must be a limit, and this surely is where a line should be drawn.

Andrews saying the power would be rarely used is irrelevant. If a power is on the books it’s prudent to assume it will be exercised.

Unsurprisingly, the move is encountering substantial pushback from many senior lawyers.

An open letter from 14 Queen’s Counsels said: “Authorising citizens to detain their fellow citizens on the basis of a belief that the detained person is unlikely to comply with emergency directions by the ‘authorised’ citizens is unprecedented, excessive and open to abuse.”

Despite the good health news from Victoria, there is no guarantee that after the second wave there won’t be future serious outbreaks in some parts of the country. It’s more likely, however, there’ll be small ones, with localised shutdowns.

Morrison calls this living “with the virus” while others might dub it living with uncertainty and disruption. This virus has the potential to destroy communities’ equilibrium for a long time (short of a vaccine).

Nevertheless, the focus now is moving increasingly to economic recovery. The October 6 budget will contain massive spending to try to accelerate the comeback, even taking account of the reductions in JobKeeper and JobSeeker.

On Thursday treasurer Josh Frydenberg presented a grim picture of the Australian economy, as it emerges out of COVID.

That economy will be a much shrunken version of what was expected less than a year ago. Frydenberg said by the middle of 2021, Australia’s real economy will be about 6% smaller than was forecast in the budget update last December.

It seems only yesterday we had a debate about whether migration was too high. Now it has dried up and that will hold back our return to prosperity.

The fallout from COVID will for some time hit those crucial drivers: population, productivity and participation.

Frydenberg had bad news on wages. Their growth is “likely to remain subdued for at least the next few years”.

But he did have one reassuring message: he stressed the government would give first priority to repairing the economy – the benchmark for success being unemployment falling to “comfortably” under 6% – over the challenge of budget repair.

Of course, as he said, “only through repairing the economy can we repair the budget”. The commitment indicated a welcome putting aside of ideology, as the government has done in its earlier support measures.

But action through the budget and other initiatives is not enough. The intangible but vital ingredient is confidence – business confidence, consumer confidence, community confidence.

The danger is confidence remains elusive, that fears and new circumstances make us risk averse on multiple fronts. So many of our default settings can undermine the return of confidence.

Living “with the virus” will make it difficult for many businesses to survive because inevitably some restrictions will remain, squeezing what may have been tight profit margins before COVID (for example in restaurants). Reserve Bank Governor Philip Lowe has warned of the coming business failures.

Consumers worried about the future will restrain their spending. Even modest virus outbreaks will be unnerving. And the past months have been enervating for the community generally.

Partisanship has sharpened again. The government is trying to talk up the national mood but the increase in public trust the pandemic brought may erode.

How effectively Morrison can use his bully pulpit will be severely tested in coming months.

ref. Grattan on Friday: Can Morrison use his ‘bully pulpit’ to inspire the confidence vital for economic recovery? –