It was hard to keep up.
A reporter asked Scott Morrison on Wednesday whether he would consider appealing directly to the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (Atagi) to change their medical advice on AstraZeneca, opening the inoculation up to people aged 59 and under “given that more than half of the population is in lockdown and the situation in Sydney is getting worse”.
Morrison wanted people to know he was on it. “This a constant appeal, I can assure you,” he said. “It’s a constant appeal.”
As well as constantly appealing to Atagi (which translated a little later in the press conference to “relaying sentiments” to Prof Allen Cheng and “appropriate conversations that are had with the head of Atagi … done through the secretary of health and the chief medical officer”), the prime minister thought the states needed to crack on with getting jabs in arms.
(For context, the states battling the current outbreaks are screaming for more Pfizer jabs. The Berejiklian government had done just that earlier on Wednesday.)
But Morrison said he would “encourage states to be using the AstraZeneca vaccines – to be dispensing them through those state-based clinics to get as many people vaccinated as possible”. He noted in the United Kingdom the “AstraZeneca vaccine … has been the primary vaccine through which they’ve been able to achieve the vaccination levels there”.
Although this wasn’t actually medical advice, just for the record. “I am not your doctor and therefore, I would not be giving you medical advice,” the prime minister said.
A bit later in the press conference, another reporter pointed to the elephant in the room. Some of the states weren’t willing to push AstraZeneca because of hesitancy in the community. Perhaps that hesitancy, the reporter ventured, had been created by “your own government’s miscommunication around AstraZeneca, and whether or not people should take it”.
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(For context, the advice about AstraZeneca that has been relayed to people chaotically over the past couple of months has been: take it if you are over 50, then take it if you are over 60, then take it if you are under 40 if your doctor says OK.)
Perhaps affronted by this entirely valid and deeply obvious suggestion, Morrison sprinted back to the inviolable wisdom of experts. Having just said very clearly that he wanted Atagi to change their public health advice about AstraZeneca – that this was “a constant appeal” he was engaged in – the prime minister expressed shock that he might be able to influence anything.
“Well, I cannot control what Atagi advises,” the prime minister said.
Assuming his best checkmate affect, Morrison rounded on the reporter. So if you are seriously suggesting that the government should have neglected medical advice in the handling of the pandemic …
I wasn’t physically present at Morrison’s press conference at the Lodge so I don’t know if Jonathan Kearsley from the Nine Network actually scratched his head in confusion or just scratched his head for Australia rhetorically when he responded by noting: “You just said there is a constant appeal for them to change that advice.”
“Sure,” Morrison replied, entirely deadpan, before giving the call to another reporter who had a question about something other than the pandemic.
This performance really was quite something.
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In the space of 10 minutes, Australia’s prime minister said very clearly he was engaged in a constant appeal for Atagi to change their public health advice, but he couldn’t possibly do anything other than passively follow “independent” Atagi advice, because #experts.
In this story, the prime minister was intent on crafting about how Australia’s very obviously suboptimal vaccination rollout was “challenging” but not actually his fault, Morrison wanted to be both active, and passive; a plucky persevering hero and a victim – apparently not comprehending that both logic and confidence could be a casualty of this self-serving narrative.
So if we cut through to the heart of Wednesday’s problem, what the prime minister told the country, in the middle of a pandemic, at a time when people are worried out of their minds about the implications of the Delta wave, was this: I am a slave to rubbish advice, but what can you do. PS: It’s really hard to get good help these days.
This is complete nonsense. The prime minister is the most powerful person in the country and is not a slave to anything – apart from his own deeply ingrained habit of spinning and deflecting when legitimate questions get asked.
Morrison was asked on Wednesday morning on radio whether he would apologise for the sluggish rollout. The prime minister responded by saying he was a fixer, not a ruminator; he was “accountable”, but somehow, not entirely answerable.
During the morning radio blitz there was further dancing around his now discarded mantra that the rollout wasn’t a race. Morrison said he was talking about the regulatory approval of vaccines, not about the pace of the rollout. But the record shows Morrison’s observation applied to the broader context of the program, not just the approval of vaccines.
Morrison was asked at the press conference why sorry seemed to be the hardest word. The delays, he said, were “regrettable” and he was responsible “for the problems that we have had”.
But rather than sitting in that pocket, displaying a moment of sincere public contrition before cracking on with fixing the problem, Morrison reverted to micro-passive aggression. He said prime ministers had to deal with wisdom-with-hindsight critics (who have “various motivations”), “but what Australians I think want from me is to make sure we make up that ground, we hit these marks”.
Australians obviously do want that. People want a solution, not a rolling seminar.
But if the latest polling snapshots are a reliable guide, people also want their prime minister to desist from playing politics, and to front up and take responsibility when things go wrong.