Commenter Stu has asked that I do a ‘compare and contrast’ between Scott Morrison and Donald Trump. I was intending to write about the performance of the Prime Minister since his election, and am happy to broaden the subject to include such a comparison. I don’t have a lot of space, so my comments will be brief, and set out under a set of headings that make sense to me.
Scott Morrison is doing very well in the polls, though he was doing rather badly earlier in the year. Earlier this month some 64 per cent of those polled approved of his performance, compared with 40 per cent in January.
In the USA, Donald Trump remains below 50 per cent in terms of approval (51.1 per cent disapproving vs 43.3 per cent approving). This is the average of all major polls, and there’s not much variation between them. Mind you, he has been behind throughout his presidency, so there’s only slight indication that the COVID-19 problem is affecting his standing, whereas here it is plain that the PM’s performance on COVID-19 is a large part of his improved performance generally.
Many Australians like to think they are like Americans, and to a degree this is true, since we take a lot of information from the USA in films and television. But as nation-states Australia and the USA are very different. The USA is thirteen times more populous, a lot wealthier, much more affected by what I used to call ‘cleavages’ (race, immigration, religion, wealth, North vs South, and so on), and saddled with a large military endeavour. Though both are formally federations, and we borrowed some American styles for our Constitution, Australia is much more a single nation than is the USA. Our accent is much the same everywhere, our State, Territory and Commonwealth Governments work relatively well together (the ‘National Cabinet’ is not much more than a renamed Council of Australian Governments (COAG)), and Tasmania apart, conditions of life for the great majority are much the same wherever they live. Tasmania is kept in the camp through subsidisation by the rest of us, and I have no quarrel with that. Yes, we have rural and urban differences. It is easier for a national leader to talk to the nation effectively in our country than it is in the USA, I think. Yes, I know about FDR’s ‘fireside chats’. There is no ‘American government’ as there is an ‘Australian Government’ What you have in the USA is ‘the Trump Administration’. That makes quite a difference.
COVID-19 has quite properly evoked a national response almost everywhere. The possibility that millions could die from a virus that was simply not known was too great a risk for any national government to dismiss. At times like these people look to their leaders. Who else? Isn’t this what they are for? The Australian Government acted quickly, and our country, being an island, could be quarantined no less quickly. To do so took courage and determination, as did the provision of enormous amounts of money to keep people in some sort of employment. The USA is not an island, though President Trump has tried unsuccessfully to close the borders with Mexico. Furthermore he has not the same capacity to bring the civil services of his country together, let alone to set up an equivalent of our ‘National Cabinet’.
The message here has been clear, tough and uncompromising, and I don’t need to rehearse its elements, which must be familiar to every reader. The Prime Minister has been assisted by his Treasurer and by the Chief Medical Officer, who comes across as competent and confident. Most importantly, in my view, the message has been consistent and coherent. There has been no departure from the hymn book.
What is more, the Prime Minister has looked to be across the details of the issue, and his speech has been clear and accessible. I have heard him a lot now, and that could hardly be otherwise, as he has given many press conferences, sometimes on a daily basis, and all television channels seemed to be carrying them. I have been impressed by his capacity to speak cogently and well. In contrast, President Trump has often looked as they he wanted to have his cake and eat it too: the economy was more important than this flu-like virus, then the USA was doing better than other nations, then it was the fault of Communist Party in China, then it was something else. I’m not sure about his capacities as a speaker, since we see so much less of him in action than we do our own PM, but I think I have been more puzzled by his shifts in policy and attitude than about his speech style.
I am not across the detailed arguments about whether or not the experts got it right, but so far the outcomes here have been good ones. The curve has flattened, the number of deaths has been relatively small, the new cases are slowing down, and there is a sign that some restrictions might be lifted quite soon. We might even have flights and travel to New Zealand, which has been even more successful in dealing with the virus than we have been. I read that China is getting back to business, so to speak, and that is important for us. The danger is that we could have a second round of COVID-19 cases. We are being cautious; in contrast the USA seems to be saddled with uncertainty about its priorities.
President Trump has an election to contend with in November. His likely opponent, Joe Biden, is not impressive, so the Democrats will be hoping that the handling of the COVID-19 episode will rebound on the incumbent President. Maybe it will. But Americans are used to Donald Trump now, and there is no sign I can see that his popularity, such as it is, is waning fast. American Presidents have great standing, not in the polls this time, but in terms of the office itself. My guess, for what it is worth, that President Trump will be back again for another term. These are early days, however.
Scott Morrison doesn’t have to worry about an election for a couple of years yet, and must be feeling that his position has improved a great deal. It has been difficult for the Leader of the Opposition to do other than agree with the course of action the Government has implemented, and indeed he has hardly been visible in the last couple of months. The weight of a National Cabinet that now seems to include New Zealand, competent medical advisers and good outcomes has made it impossible for Anthony Albanese to find a good position from which do his job, and I rather feel for him.
Nonetheless, the quick shift in support for Scott Morrison suggests that the popular mood could change quickly in the other direction too. I hope that, in addition to being pleased with his current standing, our Prime Minister is reflecting on what the real elements of his success have been, and how he can build on them.