Political Insights Series – PM Morrison to hit 'reset' in major speech next week in Canberra
By Steve Lewis

When Scott Morrison addresses the National Press Club (NPC) next Wednesday, he’ll be under intense pressure to convince Australians that he has a coordinated bushfire recovery plan.

In the wake of near saturation global coverage of our summer from hell, the Prime Minister must also reassure the global investment community that Australia remains a destination of choice for capital.

Stunned by the public fallout to his perceived lack of action to the bushfire crisis, the PM has focused his and the Government’s efforts on pretty much nothing else in the past few weeks.

Overseas travel has been cancelled, with some senior Ministers forced to abort travel to the annual World Economic Forum at Davos. In Canberra, public servants and senior military commanders are working in hastily arranged offices as the bushfire recovery effort scales up and the PM tries to rebuild his tarnished image as the nation’s Commander-in-Chief.

The NPC address – which will be televised nationally – was initially supposed to be a more laidback affair; an opportunity for the PM to officially kick off the political year with a wide-ranging “headland” speech.

But with the Government in crisis mode and the PM’s personal popularity under stress, the NPC speech takes on a whole new dimension.

Key issues that he should address include:
1. Explaining how the Federal Government plans to resurrect Australia’s international reputation in the wake of the bushfires (the airlines are expected to announce a drop of around 30 per cent in demand from overseas visitors to fly to Australia);

2. Explaining how the Royal Commission will come up with long-term answers to dealing with the fact that Australia can look forward to more prevalent bushfire activity;

3. The economic fallout from the bushfire disaster and the expected hit to the Federal Budget;

4. Explaining how the Federal Government will oversee the rebuilding of devastated communities.

But along with these issues, the PM is also under pressure to modify the Government’s approach to climate change, amid concerns within Liberal ranks that the public is yearning for a more concerted effort.

While it will take years to rebuild fire ravaged communities, the bushfire disaster actually gives Mr Morrison an opportunity to recalibrate his Government’s stance on climate change. Australia, too, could benefit if the Government for instance embraces electric vehicles as the future transport mode of choice.

And our rural communities – battling drought and fire in a perfect storm of misfortune – have the chance to become world leaders in developing a modern and sustainable AgTech sector to feed the burgeoning Asian middle class.

Another issue that should be on the table is the role of private capital in helping to finance the multi-billion-dollar rebuild of communities in NSW, Victoria and South Australia.

If he can craft a compelling narrative during his NPC address, Mr Morrison will give himself political breathing space, including with the Liberal “moderates” on his side of politics who want to see a more credible stance on climate change.

NSW Environment Minister Matt Kean has led the call for a shift in the Coalition’s thinking.

But the PM may well come under further pressure from some of his own federal Liberal colleagues.

One well-placed Liberal figure in Canberra says there is a “mood of angst” among Liberal backbenchers who have heard the call from their constituents over the Christmas break: do more on climate change!

That is easier said than done. The PM has been a vocal supporter of the coal sector over the years and he will have to show deft skills to reconcile the differing views within the Coalition over the phasing out of Australia’s reliance on fossil fuels.

Of course, Mr Morrison is not the only leader having to address internal tensions. Anthony Albanese has to also balance the demands of his inner-city colleagues for a more aggressive stance on climate change against the harsh reality that the ALP’s vote in Queensland – where there is a strong focus on employment and job security – collapsed to just 33 per cent at the last election. Joel Fitzgibbon, whose electorate of Hunter relies heavily on coal to drive its economy, leads the charge among Labor MPs cautioning against relying too heavily on green-tinged climate change policies.

It all adds up to an intriguing and potentially explosive cocktail of issues ahead of the Federal Parliament resuming in early February.

Add into the mix the ongoing controversy over the $100 million “sports rorts” scandal – featuring Deputy Nationals’ leader Bridget McKenzie – and the Federal Parliament won’t be for the faint hearted when the nation’s 226 elected representatives return in early February.

Firstly though, Mr Morrison will have to get through next week’s big speech to the National Press Club.

Steve Lewis is a senior adviser with Newgate Australia. He worked for more than two decades for Australia’s leading newspapers and was a leading figure in the Canberra Press Gallery