As governments have ratcheted up non-medical measures against COVID-19, the communications performance of an array of public officials has been lamentable and embarrassing - agony to watch. Some reporters and commentators, possibly at the urging of editors, have markedly softened their questions. They are doing so for fear that apparent hostility or exasperation after failing to get straight answers might actually undermine confidence in public health measures that all reasonable observers believe to be necessary.
The biggest problem for good management of the epidemic is that the government is not really getting "independent" advice from its independent professional committees. One can expect that the advice is focused on what is achievable, given the constraints. But the committees are being too conscious of other pressures on government, too focused on keeping governments broadly on message, and too focused on protecting the leaders.
They may think that public interest is their foremost concern. But the public has only slight ownership of the processes. Indeed, even health workers actually dealing with patients are complaining of not being consulted, being unable to get basic information about matters such as medical supplies, and of being ignored. The advisers seem to think they can speak, from their grand and mostly bureaucratic experience, for the front-line workers. Their right to do so - and their practical expertise in dealing with the epidemic - is now in contest, and it is largely the fault of a flawed, but deliberate, communications strategy.
What is being concealed is that the advisers are not independent in the way that outsiders would interpret the word. They can - and no doubt do - give frank advice to ministers. But their truth-telling is also tailored to their view of what they believe they can persuade the politicians to do. Their advice is not formal until they get this feedback. And, as panel advice, it is often already compromised by the give-and-take of having come from a committee. It is their conceit that they are calling the shots.
Politicians are disposed to listen, but still have acute antennae for political danger or the size of the purse. Does anyone honestly think that the initial exemptions for casinos, or the ridiculous palaver with hairdressers, was evidence-based? Does anyone honestly think that these decisions followed unprompted advice from the committees?
The advisers may stand (very slightly) outside of departmental hierarchies. But like public servants, they keep their mouths shut even if they do not win the argument. Especially when. They are loyal to the collective decision of the federal and state governments, or, in some cases, where one or more government decides to go it alone, to the relevant premier, chief minister or prime minister.
One cannot expect, and will not see, any of the advisers being frank with the public, or even to their colleagues in the front line, as opposed to the politicians. That might undermine their influence, which depends on the intimate "flexibilities".
A communications strategy is as important to the ultimate impact of COVID-19 as, ultimately, a vaccine or a treatment will be.
The "independent" advisers have not been hopeless communicators - especially at the federal level - because they are stupid, obtuse or have failed to listen carefully or understand the drift of a question. They have been trained in evasion. They will simply not answer questions which invite reflections on the many compromises made in reaching decisions.
Nor is their problem that journalists, with their pesky questions, are frustrating their attempts to get the "right message" to ordinary Australians. Sometimes politicians "go over the head" of journalists to address the public directly, particularly when they feel they are being misconstrued or misrepresented. But that is not the primary problem officials face. Nor are they really trying to conceal "scary" facts - say, about critical shortages of equipment or resources - for fear of inciting further public or professional panic.
Norman Swan has been a much more effective communicator, not just because of his medical and journalistic background, but because of his lack of allegiance to the bureaucratic system from which these "independent" experts come. He's in it for the public and their need to know. He can generally give good practical advice (if not necessarily in line with the constantly shifting official position) on the spot.
The officials are being officials. Not independent. They are trying to conceal the messy business of compromise, including their own compromises. They are loyally concealing bitter arguments, often between ministers of different governments. That's "loyal" of them up to a point - if hardly "independent".
The big "fact" they are hiding is that the Prime Minister - like each of the premiers and chief ministers - is simultaneously juggling different interests and priorities. One is the ultimate path to economic recovery, after the epidemic is "tamed" or reduced to manageable levels. There is nothing wrong with wanting the health "advice" to be in line with ideas about the post-epidemic shape of the economy, the government's post-epidemic views about the size of debt or continuing public spending. Nor with wanting it to fit into broader - more contentious - philosophy about rewarding effort, punishing indolence and fecklessness - even dealing along the way with other health and safety issues, such as aged care, disability care or Aboriginal advancement.
In the US, the President seems to think that the epidemic "crisis" will be - or should be - over soon. He hopes by Easter, so that he can attribute his triumph to the hopes and prayers of his constituents. He wants the massive spending, given to help take America out of the pandemic, to be put to politically useful projects. Perhaps his version of sports rorts.
All politicians, of leftish as well as rightist persuasion, have considered questions of balancing government actions even as they try to minimise the impact of the epidemic. It would be a foolish one who did not. Or who did not wonder if there were any long-term good able to be achieved from the disaster. Of course, the restoration of a healthy, prosperous, full-employment economy, with a healthy population, as soon as possible is a good in itself.
By international standards, Australia was initially ahead of the action, even if it now threatens to fall behind. The US and Britain responded too slowly - in part because they were too long minimising the threat and had other high-priority economic tasks. But then we - just as much as the US or Britain - saw the results of poor epidemic management in Italy and Spain. Britain, in particular, has abruptly gone into hard economic lockdown. So has New Zealand, under the leadership of a person with whose empathetic style (and, on this subject, command of the detail) Morrison hates to be compared.
The committee and the Prime Minister are now having to seem tougher here. It's at odds with his economic agenda, which has already buckled as other nations have thrown everything at the financial crisis caused by the virus. It has been useful to hide unpopular decisions, framing them as being forced by medical advice. Increasingly, it is hard to conceal that politics is wagging the medical-advice dog.
Morrison's irritation has been accentuated by the fast unravelling of a united front from a "national cabinet" of which he was the undoubted leader. Now "politics" has intruded. No one defers to his opinion, or to that of his advisers. Victoria - over school closures - and other states have indicated their willingness to go it alone on particular measures. The Northern Territory and Tasmania have local needs and views. States are closing borders. Some players - state and federal - are leaking, to the detriment of the appearance of unity.
The feds have hardly helped themselves with the appalling fiasco of letting infected passengers from cruise ships go unchecked into the community. Nor with the evidence of a biosecurity collapse at airports. There are serious deficiencies in Commonwealth emergency management, and in how Border Force and federal quarantine authorities have dropped the ball. State incompetence has also been manifest. But, when the matter at issue is the entry of people into Australia, the buck ought to stop with Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton and his grand vizier, Mike Pezzullo.
From a presentation viewpoint, it is not merely a matter of a cynical local media or the complications of a federal system. The media has access to experts not hostage to the compromises or the politicians. The short, sharp answers they can't get from the government's experts are coming instead from a ready supply of academic and professional experts, here and abroad. These will usually have the same broad message, but it will be generally more expert, less equivocal, and invariably more convincing than the official experts.
These other experts are increasingly noting serious deficiencies in the "independent" and expert advice going to politicians. They can afford to be pure. They have also picked up on the failure to do active case-finding in the community. In recent days, the government has widened the criteria for testing, particularly so as to protect health workers. But they are focused on not being surprised - least of all by the prospect that some failure to close a gap has meant that the disease has escaped into the wider population. They are concentrating too much on the usual suspects and not on ways that a few sparks could cause a major conflagration. As now in Italy, or Spain.
Of course it may be still be too early for the inquests. Politicians and the independent experts can claim that they took action and got the conversation going. They surfed on and localised news about the pandemic in China. They encouraged a degree of debate, if only to increase public awareness and as a part of the process of securing general consent to drastic measures when needed. They probably did a fair job, given a shortage of screening materials, in the initial screening of visitors.
It is being increasingly alleged by insiders that the various state and federal committees, whether in health departments or in the master one co-ordinated from within Prime Minister and Cabinet - were all too slow in preparing for an obvious deluge ahead. They seem to have failed to develop educational and advertising materials. They failed to secure stocks of vital medical supplies. Central office bureaucrats may have had good data on issues such as the availability of ventilators and acute care beds, and the "surge" capacity of different hospitals. But it seems clear that they were slow to engage with the health workers who would be dealing with cases on the ground. And even more obvious that the communications "strategies" were nearly all top-down rather than focused on interchanges with outside experts, professionals at the coalface, and the public generally. This will handicap treatment, and may cause more deaths.
Did mainstream or social media create that gap between some theoretical (but not particularly pressing) duty, and some urgent and important personal responsibility? Only in the past week has the messaging focused on the practical beneficial effect of a reduction of the rate of spread of the virus. Were the public doubters - the ones being quoted - overwhelming a message that people avoid large crowds, maintain social space between each other, and regularly wash hands?
It is true that the media's search for novelty, or combativeness, or exasperation about evasive answers was sometimes unhelpful to the official line. But against any tendency to downplay the seriousness of the problem was clear evidence of the impact of the virus on foreign populations.
There may have been some complacency because some commentators, including me a month ago, stressed that the virus threatened older people with pre-existing respiratory or diabetic conditions, but did not pose a great danger to the health of most younger people. That remains true, but we now all stress that the safety of older people, and health workers, depends on containing or preventing the virus getting to the general population. Without containment, the medical system will be swamped.
High mortalities were evident in China right from the start. That's why government, advised by public health officials, moved smartly to quarantine. It's why those returning from abroad were initially closely monitored for signs of fever, flu or symptoms of cold, and why, progressively, even those who have returned without symptoms have been required to enter a personal quarantine. Recognising that some of those returning without symptoms might be innocently shedding and spreading the virus to others, ordinary folk in the community were urged to wash their hands thoroughly, to avoid being in crowds or crowded spaces, and to maintain a distance from other people so that transfer of the virus could be reduced.
The problems of persuading younger folk that the threat was serious did not come only from domestic sceptics, such as Alan Jones. Australians were hearing or seeing the seriousness of the disease being pooh-poohed by Donald Trump, who still seems to maintain that the problem is being exaggerated by Democrats hoping to wrongfoot him in his re-election campaign. Polls suggest his argument is taken seriously in his key constituencies.
Alan Jones thinks the threat is like the threat of climate change - a leftist invention. Those pushing a hard line have undisclosed agendas, he suggests. [If he is right, these activists seem to have succeeded beyond their dreams in undermining the framework of modern capitalism and globalisation, in Australia as much as in the Western world.]
In The Australian, Greg Sheridan writes of a tendency, obvious in the media as elsewhere, to be sceptical and contrary about authority, or almost anything our elders, our betters or our governors say. This is particularly so when such wisdom comes from a once revered - now reviled - "Western civilisation'', he seems to think. By contrast, the Confucian traditions - not least a tendency to look for group rather than individualistic achievement, and a tendency to defer to authority - had allowed such countries to mobilise more effectively.
Hence, no doubt, the hedonism on Bondi Beach on the weekend - regarded by Scott Morrison as somehow "un-Australian", even if only a week before he had chatted about going to the footy. Hence the evidence that many people, including Border Force, are not taking seriously advice about isolation, personal space or crowds. Hence our collective punishment with the "bringing forward" of measures such as bans on public entertainments, the footy, films, and the effective closure of the airline industry.
Health advisers and the politicians were furious that too many people were ignoring advice. But they had undermined their message themselves. The chief medical adviser was all over the shop on whether people should stop shaking hands. People like him had been saying this for some time, but it had not been part of the advice adopted and endorsed by the Prime Minister and premiers. So he waffled and stalled - indeed, shook hands with someone - and made himself and the cause look quite ridiculous. This was re-emphasised within hours when the advice he and his colleagues were now offering changed to bar handshaking. Stalling, evasion, and the misuse of the experience of other countries - such as Singapore over school closures - by other panellists put up by the government as spokespeople have compounded the problem.
Scott Morrison went into this crisis with a serious credibility problem. The public has not forgiven or forgotten his misjudgment of the public mood over bushfires. He has since struggled to regain authority, particularly as he has helped undermine the rule of law with his winners-are-grinners approach to political corruption in public handouts. His very position, and the very nature of the crisis, has given him a platform of command and control. Normally, leadership is particularly defined by conduct in a crisis. But Morrison has yet to seem to fit into the boots his position has given him. One cannot say he has risen to the crisis.
A communications strategy is as important to the ultimate impact of COVID-19 as, ultimately, a vaccine or a treatment will be. The whole point of the strategy of greater isolation is about managing the call on resources, and not overwhelming services. If that fails - because the public can't, or won't, get it - the death toll will be many times higher than it should be. COVID-19 deserves a better class of enemy at the press conference than it is meeting in the form of the Prime Minister, or his expert advisory team.
- Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times. email@example.com
We have removed our paywall from our stories about the coronavirus. This is a rapidly changing situation and we want to make sure our readers are as informed as possible. If you're looking to stay up to date on COVID-19, you can also sign up for our twice-daily digest here. If you would like to support our journalists you can subscribe here.