Lyndon Megarrity reviews Brendan McCaffrie, Michelle Grattan and Chris Wallace’s (eds) The Morrison Government: Governing Through Crisis, 2019–2022: Australian Commonwealth Administration Series, (Sydney: UNSW Press, 2023), pp. viii +304.


The Morrison Government: Governing Through Crisis, 2019–2022 is the fourteenth volume in the Australian Commonwealth Administration series of publications. This series brings together the contributions of public administration experts, political scientists, journalists and other commentators as they reflect on the achievements, shortcomings and processes of a specific Commonwealth administration from election day up to the next federal poll. In this book, the Morrison Coalition Government’s term in office between May 2019 and May 2022 is explored and analysed. This was a period in Australian political history dominated by crises: the Black Summer bushfires of 2019–20, devastating floods, an increasingly fractured bilateral relationship with China and the Covid-19 pandemic were among the most prominent public issues. On balance, the general consensus of The Morrison Government is that the Liberal–National Coalition administration failed to provide the decisive leadership and coordination required to manage each individual crisis effectively.

Contributors such as Michelle Grattan and Stephen Duckett convincingly show that the Morrison government failed to reap the benefits of their relatively successful early management of the Covid-19 pandemic. The government’s swift closure of Australia’s borders and generous emergency welfare provisions were welcomed and necessary. Unfortunately for the Morrison Government, the haste at which it pushed for the opening up of the economy and society in general put it on a collision course with the states, such as Western Australia, which tended to be more cautious about lifting Covid-related restrictions.

Jeremy Piper (AAP Photos)

It was the states, not the Commonwealth, that gained most of the kudos for steering their citizens through the crisis, while the Morrison Government was rightly criticised for failing to build quarantine stations, the avoidable slowness of its vaccine rollout and its questionable aged care policies, such as relaxing “a provision that prevented aged care workers from working across multiple sites” (p. 120), a relaxation that only served to spread the virus among the most vulnerable in the community. The crisis was a timely reminder of the continued power of the states to pursue their own course of action; there were clearly limits to the Commonwealth’s ability to initiate and enforce uniform policy.

The book is made up of three major sections, each dealing with a key aspect of administration: Institutions, Policy and Leadership. Topics such as health, foreign policy, the economy and the Australian Public Service naturally receive coverage, but there are surprising omissions. Local government is not even in the index, despite its importance as the third tier of government. Significantly, regional Australia, rural Australia and Northern Australia are also largely ignored, suggesting perhaps that the editors should have sought more contributors from outside metropolitan areas.

Nevertheless, the book is impressive as a record of several aspects of the Morrison administration. Among the several strong chapters is Katharine Murphy and Matthew Ricketson’s thoughtful analysis of media and politics; they note the mainstream media’s “overreliance on high-vis televisual dumbshows and underplaying of urgent policy” (p. 83), contrasting this with the consumer hunger for more news substance through podcasts and other new media. Elsewhere, Emma Dawson’s passionate examination of Australia’s social security has a powerful policy message: “The incapacity of our safety net to provide security to people in a time of almost unprecedented crisis without urgent, ad hoc and temporary interventions is indicative of a system that is no longer fit for its purpose” (p. 129). It remains to be seen whether conditions for the unemployed will substantially improve under the Albanese Government.

Julianne Schultz’s article on communications policy is an especially well-written and balanced piece of writing. She notes the Morrison Government’s success in ensuring that Google and Facebook paid sizeable compensation for re-using Australian news media content, although this tended to benefit larger organisations. Schultz notes the tendency of the government to accommodate the interests of major news companies, thereby maintaining the status quo. During 2020, for example, the Communications Minister announced measures designed to support media businesses through the pandemic, including suspending “Australian content quotas for drama and children’s television”, providing “an additional $10 million for Foxtel to increase its coverage of women’s sport … and over two years more than $120 million in JobKeeper support for the ASX-listed media companies alone” (p. 201).

Some featured authors seem a little too eager to make Prime Minister Scott Morrison the scapegoat for the failings of his administration. There is at times too much emphasis on Morrison’s various real and perceived gaffes, amplified and repeated ad nauseam by a mainstream media and commentariat more interested in personalities than policies. The lack of historical context on leadership in the media age in several chapters is a weakness of the book. I would be more willing to accept that Morrison was an exceptionally poor leader in times of crisis if more substantial historical comparisons had been made. Gough Whitlam, for example, was another leader who struggled to appear both actively engaged and empathetic during times of crisis in the 1970s such as the Brisbane floods and Cyclone Tracy.

Despite this criticism, The Morrison Government is an informative, if uneven, account of major aspects of the final, tumultuous years of the Liberal-National Coalition Government before the 2022 election. In years to come, it will be a vital reference for readers wishing to understand the major issues of this time.

Lyndon Megarrity
Lyndon Megarrity

Dr Lyndon Megarrity completed his PhD at the University of New England (Armidale), which was awarded in 2002. In recent years, Lyndon has been a lecturer and tutor, teaching history and political science subjects. He was the inaugural history lecturer at the Springfield Campus at the University of Southern Queensland (2012-13) and since taught at James Cook University in Townsville, where he is currently an adjunct lecturer. His book Northern Dreams: The Politics of Northern Development in Australia was published in 2018.