Now is the right time, given the remarkable flattening in Australia of the COVID-19 rate of infection curve, to pause and reflect on the elements of the achievement and the way forward. Just because as a nation we have done very well doesn't mean that we shouldn't see where we might improve. We have a long way to go and we should build on the flexibility that has characterised the best of what we have done.
Our justified satisfaction in our achievement is magnified when we look at the international wreckage caused by COVID-19. We have been very fortunate in our health outcomes and if good luck has played a part we should be thankful. We have also been fortunate in our leaders.
Let's avoid describing them as the best in the world as that is just jingoism, but certainly there have been many elsewhere who appear worse: erratic, ignorant, boastful and/or careless. There hasn't been much of that in Australia. Above our leaders have been diligent and hard-working.
Flexibility means many things, including so-called scaleability in the federal economic response, jurisdictional variability in the health and lockdown measures taken by state and territory governments, and erstwhile political opponents working harmoniously with one another in previously unheard ways.
This has enabled governments to take several bites at the one cherry in reacting flexibly to quickly evolving circumstances.
It has also led to a certain amount of willingness to admit mistakes, although that has not been a common characteristic, a bridge too far for many leaders.
There have been several obvious mistakes. The Ruby Princess saga is the standout one.
Cancelling federal and state parliamentary sittings is another. But any mistakes will be judged not on the initial errors alone but on how transparent and fair we are in our response to them.
It appears that federal parliament will be revived, initially by a week-long sitting in May. Hopefully state and territory parliaments will follow this example.
Opposition leaders should push hard on this. Executive government has shown how much it enjoys working without much scrutiny from parliament or the opposition.
The Berejiklian government is to be congratulated on eventually calling an independent inquiry, headed by Bret Walker QC, into the Ruby Princess affair.
That should have been its first response rather than the criminal investigation headed by the Police Commissioner.
The messaging has not been perfect and continues to have some flaws, inbuilt contradictions and confusions. Some rules and exceptions don't pass the pub test, like excessive clamping down on quietly sitting in cars or on park benches.
Leaders have pushed some personal barrows and sometimes been long-winded when brevity was called for. The spotlight can be like a drug.
But ultimately these imperfections will come to be regarded as minutiae. More important in the long-term bigger picture is what the pandemic shows about our national characteristics.
Many have observed that the pandemic has forced us to look at ourselves, our way of life and our national characteristics.
Ultimately we will be judged as a nation on our fairness and on our inclusive treatment of the vulnerable and the strangers within our midst.
Now is the time to take stock and, where necessary rectify our responses if they have initially fallen short.
Our initial response to foreigners has failed the test of generosity, not to mention self-interest.
The apparent bungle regarding the disembarkation of infected travellers from the Ruby Princess can at least be explained by confusion or carelessness.
But the treatment of the crew-members remaining on the ship has been cruel, hard-hearted and unworthy of us. All we have seemed to want is to have them out of sight regardless of any danger to their health.
The Go Home ASAP treatment of foreign workers has also been unworthy.
It has also been short-sighted given that international travel restrictions preventing crucial immigration over the next twelve months means that it is in our national economic self-interest for them to stay in Australia, with income support, if they wish to do so.
Our care for Australians caught overseas working, travelling or cruising has also been patchy. Many still need assistance desperately.
The market option seems to have been given priority when other governments, like the UK, have taken more extensive direct care of offshore citizens. DFAT has done some good work but not on the scale the situation demanded.
Vulnerable Australian citizens come in all shapes and sizes. The pandemic has thrown a spotlight on their needs whether they are Indigenous communities, homeless people sleeping rough, casual workers and/or students.
The government has taken a conscious decision to largely exclude them from the mainstream JobKeeper and JobSeeker programs at least initially. The already enormous size of the federal economic rescue package may explain this decision but they should never have been excluded.
There is also a hierarchy of occupations built into our economic rescue packages. This stems partly from political lobbying by powerful organised business interests and partly from an unconscious, old-fashioned and narrow view of how our society works.
The victims have been alternative occupations such as the arts, media and charities. Perhaps we just don't define ourselves in this way. We must not leave these industries behind. Charities are all suffering overwhelmingly increased demands and decreased resources.
Now is the time, as the the government economic rescue package begins to reach individuals, companies and organisations, to revisit the situations of those who are missing out or being forgotten. It is never too late to rectify our omissions.
- John Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University
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