The prime minister has apologised to Australians for being “too optimistic” over the summer as he made a pre-election pitch focused on low taxes, jobs and national security.

Scott Morrison used a speech to the National Press Club on Tuesday to issue the mea culpa, admitting mistakes were made during the pandemic, but stopped short of directly saying sorry for the government’s response.

Mr Morrison tried to frame the upcoming election – due by May – within the scope of a strong economy, telling voters the poll shouldn’t be a referendum on the government’s handling of the pandemic.

“We’re all terribly sorry for what this pandemic has done to the world and to this country. These are the times in which we live,” he said.

“As we went into the summer … I think we were too optimistic and we could’ve communicated more clearly about the risks and challenges that we still faced.”

Mr Morrison sought to mitigate some of the public furore his government has faced over the vaccine rollout, aged care and access to rapid antigen tests.

Criticisms the government acted too slow or failed to plan ahead were blamed on game-changing COVID variants that “write their own rules” and the changing health advice in response.

“Now I’ll take my fair share of the criticism and the blame. I haven’t got everything right … there’s been no guidebook, and you have to make decisions in real time,” Mr Morrison said.

“You must accept that you may lose a few battles along the way and when the setbacks occur you must keep moving forward – you can’t dwell on things that didn’t play out.”

Mr Morrison implored Australians to look forward, pledging an unemployment rate with a “three in front of it” by the end of the year and more job creation.

“This isn’t a referendum on the government. This is a choice about who’s going to lead the government after the election,” he said.

Asked about the current price of milk and bread, Mr Morrison said: “I’m not going to pretend to you that I go out each day and I buy a loaf of bread and I buy a litre of milk.”

“But the point is, I do my job every day, to ensure that those things are as affordable as they possibly can be for Australians every single day.”

Mr Morrison said if he had his time again he would have put the vaccine rollout under a military operation from the start and better managed the transition of aged care residents into hospitals with the states.

“I don’t think (Australians) expect perfection. But they do expect you to keep working it every single day and that’s something I’m very proud my government has done,” he said.

The prime minister also used the address to announce a $1.6 billion boost to the country’s research sector with the Australia’s Economic Accelerator program seeking to turn early-stage research ideas into commercial successes.

It will form part of a $2.2 billion plan to enhance Australian research, which also includes an expansion of a CSIRO initiative backing start-up companies and investing in 1800 industry-focused PhDs.

As well, two payments of up to $400 will be made available to aged care staff over the coming months.


Dominic Giannini
(Australian Associated Press)