The new national cabinet the Prime Minister has formed with state premiers will need to grow rapidly in reach, speed of action and composition to get ahead of the rapidly unfolding set of events the coronavirus is bringing.
Step one is for the cabinet to reach across the aisle, now that it has already reached across federal-state boundaries. Bringing the Opposition Leader and his deputy in is a big but simple move that will reinforce the national unity that our leaders need to build and project.
Beyond politics, though, thinking of this cabinet as a National Mobilisation Committee during a time of crisis akin to a war seems the right frame of mind. Australia had an Advisory War Council that included the opposition during World War II.
The coronavirus is indeed primarily a public health crisis, but it also comes wrapped in intermingled financial, political, economic, international relations and community stability crises. And the usual ways of co-ordinating government-corporate co-operation will just not work in this rolling set of related crises.
Departments and ministers with individual working relationships with particular businesses and business leaders won't be able to integrate information quickly enough - either to brief the national cabinet on possible actions, or to broadcast national cabinet decisions so that implementation can begin. Such relationships and procedures below the level of this cabinet, no matter how accelerated, like the now-activated National Coordination Mechanism located in Home Affairs, just won't be sufficient.
Decisions that Australians need taken cut across not just Commonwealth-state jurisdictions, but also across public and private-sector boundaries. Some of the people with the power to take critical national decisions are not in any Parliament, but are the leaders of key functional enterprises - for example, major supermarket operators, big logistics companies, and the heads of various private-sector medical firms and hospitals.
Key corporate leaders will be acting, informed by their own experts and driven by their own corporate and institutional drivers, with the nation's wellbeing in mind - but probably a loose understanding of the national implications and imperatives (think of some of the decisions the Qantas chief executive and the heads of Woolworths and IGA have taken recently as examples).
So, the national cabinet can't be left as just government and political machinery, because the result would be reactive to events and the decisions of others, swamped by the disparate decisions of key leaders in critical sectors.
The speed of decision and action required mean that any top-level national decision-making body will need to be fed and connected to the actual sources of power and advice that will allow our nation to manage this crisis - and emerge from it not with a sense of having been controlled by the virus, but with an understanding that we responded to emergent demands as needed, with an overall design and coherence to how we worked.
Think about a prospective decision to close schools in one or more of our major population centres. Unthinkable to do, because of the disruption it will cause to our health or other essential workforces? Or unthinkable not to do fast, if we are to prevent large clusters of infections in our cities?
It's probably both, without rapid and deep planning that brings in first, second and third-order effects. Maybe the big providers and government can find a way that we can close schools to staunch the rate of spread of the epidemic and support the workers and families in these critical sectors. Maybe the answer is to close schools except for the children of essential services workers, and use the lower school populations to implement social distancing there. We'll only find the answer fast enough if we take a different approach to planning and interaction than we have for normal times.
Food distribution, medical supplies production and distribution, power, transport, telecommunications, education and other activities like waste management will also all need to be similarly ruthlessly prioritised and orchestrated as Australian population centres enter various levels of lockdown to slow the epidemic's spread.
Having the CEOs of our big national medical and aged care, food, logistics, power, financial, transport and telecommunications companies being part of advice and decision-making, rather than at the end of complicated chains of communication, will be essential through this time.
This will require more than the machinery in place so far: the well-practiced National Security Committee of cabinet, the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee and Home Affairs' National Coordination Mechanism. It seems to mean giving key corporate leaders a seat at the national cabinet table where they are involved in design and implementation of the big decisions. That "seat" will need to be via teleconference so people are able to work from where their organisation operates best during the crisis and to minimise the risk that key leadership staff fall ill.
All this needs to be heavily laced with what leaders of any kind find hard to do - delegate and act transparently.
Any National Mobilisation Committee, no matter how integrated across government and corporate power centres, will need to delegate much decision-making to others. That is likely to be messy and experimental, but essential.
Even more important than this will be transparency around the actual factors driving decisions. Here the balance might need to shift even more to letting experts - whether public or private sector - speak directly and frankly to the population, unmediated by political overlays. That also means government establishing and empowering consistent individual voices that the public can turn to for coherent and clear information. Laying out some of the nastier scenarios and issues that are involved - as in the case of deciding who gets triaged for scarce intensive-care beds and who doesn't - will be more likely to build public support and confidence than repeated words of reassurance and calm.
It's a counterintuitive fact that all the attributes we need in this crisis will be even more valuable as we emerge from it. That's brought about by the unfortunate fact that we live in an interconnected world, where the previous ways of operating and organising are not suited to category collapse, where boundaries and responsibilities are blurred, and effects compound and escalate. Australia will prosper in this world if we use this crisis wisely.
The first meeting of the National Mobilisation Committee can't happen fast enough.
- Michael Shoebridge is the director of defence, strategy and national security at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
- For information on COVID-19, please go to the ACT Health website or federal Health Department's website.
- You can also call the Coronavirus Health Information Line on 1800 020 080
- If you have serious symptoms, such as difficulty breathing, call Triple Zero (000)
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