Spare a thought for Scott Morrison during these still early days of the struggle to rescue Australia, and Australians, from the effects of coronavirus. People are, properly, debating the merits of policies of eradication and containment, or the severity and focus of renewed social distancing policies. Morrison's government has tried valiantly to absorb the economic, social and political impact of lockdown and quarantine policies, including on employment and a resumption of economic activity. But Morrison's strategy is essentially still in one basket - the hope that scientists will sooner or later develop a vaccine.
It may not happen, and he knows it. There are different teams of scientists, partly collaborating and partly competing with each other, and all publicly announce "encouraging" results, having the no doubt incidental benefit of keeping their funding running. We all hope that some, or all of them succeed, and sooner rather than later. But the world, and Scott Morrison, cannot know if they will succeed, or, if they do, when it will happen.
Can any other achievement or distraction serve to show, ultimately at an election, that the suffering and the sacrifice has all been worth it? To be sure the government deserves enormous credit for containing the virus to a death toll only about 1 per cent of most of the nations with which we compare ourselves. Will this be enough two years from now? Or must the government have moved on - with or without a restored economy or a disease beaten into relative impotence?
Nothing has yet been found or discovered that shows no vaccine will work. But some of the more recent evidence about antibody resistance, and its persistence, has been discouraging. There are still optimists. There are others who point out that no one has yet found a vaccine for the common cold, a member of the coronavirus family, or any of the other Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndromes, also coronaviruses, in spite of much longer lead times, and serious public and private investment by research laboratories around the world.
It may also be that the attempted sabotage of the operations of the US Centre for Disease Control by president Donald Trump, as well as his non-cooperation with the World Health Organisation, may hinder vaccine development, if only because of the role of both organisations in gathering and focusing expertise on epidemics, and in quality control over research and research facilities.
There may be a consolation of sorts, though we are by no means there yet. That is by the finding of an effective treatment for COVID-19, which cuts the death toll, and reduces the suffering of those affected. This may make fresh waves of infection less of a scourge and make the population and the polity somewhat more relaxed about the continuing spread of the disease among the population. But no treatment, antidote or cure can substitute for general immunity. Nor can it permit reopening our borders.
The present accepted wisdom is that Australia must remain largely isolated from the world until a vaccine has been developed and proven, and controls can ensure that travellers entering or leaving Australia are effectively vaccinated. Until then, international air travel is suspended, and while trade in goods and services can continue, it has to do so without the capacity of those who have manufactured or sold the products coming in or going out to personally service or supervise their product, other than through the internet. As significantly, tourism and air transportation industries are seriously hampered.
Even the problem of travel within Australia remains problematic, and when a complete resumption can occur (including, perhaps, to "bubbles" such as New Zealand) is beyond the capacity of prime ministers, treasurers or premiers to predict. While Victoria or NSW, or possibly both, are out of the equation, and while spacing provisions limit passenger numbers, the airline industry will be deeply unprofitable.
No-one can blame Morrison, or his health or economic advisers, for the failure of the pandemic to be predictable, or its failure to come., and then to go so that the community can pick up, three months later or so, where it was before. We did not have the experience, though we closely studied the experience of others and learnt a good deal from it. Our mortality and morbidity have been almost trifling compared with most of Europe and the Americas, with the US and Britain, in particular, the poster nations for failure to listen, failure to act, and, particularly in the US, abandonment of public duty.
Though Morrison initially wanted to be seen alone on the bridge, even as he took premiers and chief ministers into his councils, he ultimately accepted with good humour both the political and local needs of premiers to adjust responses to local conditions, including with different approaches to school closures, and to setting up border barriers and internal blockades and quarantine requirements. He was wise to; the more obviously when inevitable mistakes, or bad luck or very bad judgment, caused disasters, such as with Border Force and Commonwealth failures at airports and over cruise ships, with state failures over cruise ships, and, later, inadequate supervision of hotel quarantine arrangements, including the management of security guards. The public has been relatively forgiving of stuff-ups, particularly if there has been enough song and dance to make it likely that systemic mistakes will not be repeated.
But Morrison knows that government cannot simply twiddle its thumbs until a vaccine or even a cure can be found. Nor can he simply respond to circumstances, such as the further waves of infection caused by breakdown of distancing controls. His economic strategy has faltered because of regional outbreaks and the reimposition of controls; increasingly Morrison has had to be impatient with resumed controls, particularly when they have been imposed at state or territory level. Different premiers have responded differently to local evidence of the virus again spreading in the community - often at the same time railing against controls imposed by other states.
The premiers and chief ministers have, generally, been cautious and conservative. Morrison's anxiety about a sustainable recovery increases by the minute, and he is increasingly impatient, if still reluctant to attack or criticise the premiers, Labor or Liberal. He knows, intellectually, that quick and strict distancing controls are necessary for local outbreaks; increasingly he has found himself as the advocate for taking risks and having a go, lest the economy sink without trace.
Events in Victoria over recent weeks, and their spill-over into NSW, demonstrate his limited control over events. It is perhaps in this context that we are ramping up a sense of national security crisis, including secret police powers on a model adopted from China - and by people sometimes seeming to have the same mindset. And announcing the commitment of further vast sums on defence capital spending
Right now Scott Morrison can claim credit for what he prevented. Two years hence, however, he will be judged by what he has built, promoted and inspired. All of that we have yet to see.
Deliberately missing opportunities
There were - are - people who have seen great social and philosophical opportunities in the disruption caused by the pandemic, quarantine, closures of business, and mass unemployment rendered somewhat less painful by massive government spending and new income maintenance schemes.
Here, suddenly, was a government unafraid of public sector debt and deficits, creating new and more generous social safety nets. Could we emerge with a more generous spirit towards poorer Australians, instead of the spiteful belief that anyone on a welfare benefit was a cheat or malingerer, to be punished by arbitrary and repressive case management more focused on coercion than assistance?
Might our experience with social isolation regimes make possible new regimes of work from home, perhaps (as is being canvassed in New Zealand) with four, rather than five-day working weeks? There was to be an emphasis on job creation, having special urgency because businesses that had sustained some of the new unemployed were never going to come back. Could this be an opportunity for fresh ideas about building public and social infrastructure, including re-investment in schools, hospitals, health care and better programs for children at risk, childcare, for aged Australians, disabled Australians, Indigenous Australians, and vocational training?
Could the job of rebuilding environments and communities after disastrous bushfires in January become in itself a vehicle for improved facilities, communications and social capital, rather than a slow and rather ineffective attempt to partially restore what had been lost by residents?
Could economic urgency and the need to create business confidence and stimulate business and consumer activity infuse some compassion and higher civilisation into an increasingly nasty and empty public space?
Or was it to be same-old, same-old, ratchetted up only somewhat more than normal in counter-cyclical measures such as the dole, and infrastructure programs - roads, rail and dams, which whatever their overall economic benefit are increasingly ineffective in sopping up unemployment? Was there going to be some ideological house-monitor, ensuring that no program brought back anything that had been thrown away during years of budget austerity and efficiency dividends? Did ideology rather than circumstance dictate that almost all new employment initiatives be out in the private sector - where "real work" providing profits to entrepreneurs and donors is done, as opposed, apparently, to the "non-work" performed by doctors, nurses, teachers, policemen and soldiers?
A same-old same-old with the dispensation of "tax cuts" as the generator of new spending, new investment? Against experience over the past decade that businesses invest and create jobs not with tax incentives but with confidence that demand is increasing, markets are bigger, consumers are more inclined to spend? A large proportion of those who have suffered economically in the pandemic will not be focused on maxing out the credit card following tax cuts. And all consumers will continue to be fearful of another pandemic hit.
We have seen spiteful and unnecessary measures emphasising, perhaps for the edification of the Institute of Public Affairs and Foxtel, that there was to be no let-up in the culture wars. Thus universities and university staff are being excluded from any benefits even as university income was significantly down because our borders were closed. Or the insistence on additional cuts for the ABC, and for the arts sector, even as practised rent seekers, such as the alcohol industry, were allowed to write their own rules. Which has starved cultural institutions such as the National Library, but lavished money on a museum to the arms industry at the war memorial? Which gives JobKeeper money to ministers of religion but not airline stewards? With infrastructure spending seemingly determined to do nothing about climate change?
One might expect that National Party representatives within the Coalition have no particular zeal for a mean-minded response, at least if it interferes with time-honoured traditions of being given large sums of money to be distributed, without accountability or transparency, to favoured constituencies and lobbies. But it seems clear that the surprising and refreshing flexibility of Morrison and his Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, does not extend to a wider view of the role of government, or to any restoration of public service provision of goods and services, now handed over to for-profits companies, and church and social organisations.
It is, to be fair, both a creature of his disdain for socialism, or collective action as opposed to the promotion of self-reliance and "having a go to get a go". It is also, of course, a reflection of a conviction - rarely sustained by the facts - that goods and services are more efficiently provided by the private sector.
But even if Morrison does not want his coronavirus legacy to be an expanded public service, or one performing more welfare functions, he still has opportunities to make Australian government better for his having been here. He has largely disdained organisational reform for the public service. But he has so far ducked on measures that might make public service more responsive to the community, and more obviously ethical and transparent.
He could look past his own disgraceful conduct in the sports rorts affair (much of the disgrace of which came from his attempts to justify the unjustifiable) and a pattern, by successive Coalition governments, of attempting to avoid ethical standards and controls it had invented itself. It could create a strong integrity commission, able to act of its own initiative, and able to conduct public hearings, including about the conduct of ministers, minders, and party officials as well as of contracted-in agencies exercising discretions over public money, or coercive power over others.
He could also order an honest and independent inquiry into the accountability regimes operating over security and law enforcement agencies, including a review designed to stop the spectre of secret trials, the punishment of journalists, and the abolition of concepts of public interest.
A lesson from 1975 for Morrison
This week saw a revisiting, via the release of correspondence to Buckingham Palace of the decision by Sir John Kerr to sack the Whitlam government in 1975. The correspondence itself, as well as comments by former palace officials, confirms my opinion that while Kerr had the power to do what he did, he acted while he was facing a political crisis and before it was a constitutional crisis.
Be that as it may, Kerr's decision installed Malcolm Fraser as prime minister, a decision confirmed by the electorate, and at two further elections. Fraser discovered that 1975 decision had sharply divided Australians and made it difficult to govern, least of all in the sort of radical conservative way (after alleged Whitlam government profligacies) he had promised. Instead he mostly sought to reconcile and reform, a decision many of his colleagues, not least his treasurer, John Howard, could not forgive.
One essentially bipartisan project he took up was the implementation of the systemic reforms of public administration, which had been recommended by the Kerr Review - while Billy McMahon was prime minister and picked up by Whitlam. These gave us, in time, the Judicial Review Act, the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, the Ombudsman and the Freedom of Information Bill.
Fraser was, in all respects, a better prime minister and a better man than Scott Morrison. But it is interesting to note that when he was asked about his lasting achievements and monuments soon after he lost office, he nominated the administrative reform package and FOI. These were, he recognised, measures that made government more accountable to the citizens and which took power away from the centre. At the same time, however, it made government better for being more principles-based and consistent, less secretive and less subject to arbitrary decision-making. Morrison could learn something from him. A legacy of imagination, building and expanding of the Australian mind rather a mean-minded diminisher, nitpicker, aggrandiser, abolisher and preventer.
- Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times email@example.com