Prime Minister Scott Morrison has seemed to be spending the last days of his 2021 preparing to reproduce the same sort of mistakes, almost exactly a year ago, that destroyed much of his reputation and capacity to govern.
It's a pattern now so ingrained that one despairs of his ever learning. Develop a problem that should have been anticipated by good staff work - so obvious that the failure to address the particular issue is commented on right from the start. Ignore it, deny that a problem even exists, or pretend that it is a problem for other players, perhaps the states.
Let the problem fester, to the point where the failure to address the issue is itself becoming an issue. Finally, have some urgent discussions with staff to apply a marketing Band-Aid to the problem, one that does not deal with the underlying issue. Be prepared, if necessary, for a complete reversal of previous statements, while simultaneously denying any inconsistencies, and blaming others for any misunderstandings or failures to deliver. Afterwards, claim credit for the success, if any, of the revised policy, as if the original stumbling block, announcement or decision had never been made, and the patchwork had always been the intended solution.
Scott Morrison always seems to come to problems late. He is not proactive, but reactive. His instincts are not good. Nor is his foresight, or executive judgment. Either he is getting terrible advice from his enormous staff of political advisers and his department, or he is ignoring the advice he is getting. In any event, he is almost always in trouble because he does not anticipate events that are highly predictable, even likely. His incapacity to deal decisively with such matters distracts him from other crises in government, and inhibits his ability to move on after a problem has been neutralised.
It's probably getting worse, because of trying to make his day-to-day "solutions" fit easily into a pre-conceived general outcome. On the pandemic, for example, he has long wanted a resumption of economic activity ahead of public health management, and an end to lockdowns, border closures or other obstacles to the free movement of people. He has long wanted complete access to shops, markets and workplaces, and a marked reduction of mandatory measures such as mask-wearing, quarantining, controls on crowd sizes and social spacing. He let himself believe that such changes would happen naturally as most of the population was immunised and the risk to the general community declined, even as some refused vaccinations. He and NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian - and later her successor, Dominic Perrottet - have been consistently taking the most optimistic view of health advice as not discouraging the taking of risks with public health. People of their broad ideological approach in other nations, such as Boris Johnson in Britain, have trodden a similar path, equally disastrously.
Morrison was far too late in responding to the signals coming out about a surge in cases associated with the Omicron variation of the coronavirus, which is now, like the Delta variant that preceded it, quickly taking over as the most prevalent form. Mercifully the surge in disease incidence has so far been mostly at the milder end, rather than as a source of hospitalisations, intensive care treatment and deaths. This has meant that major health facilities have not been overwhelmed. But public facilities for establishing and confirming infection have been overwhelmed, with long queues of vehicles leading to hours out of the day for ordinary members of the community.
In some cases those who have been queuing have not been there because they fear that they have the condition, but because it has been some condition of interstate travel, quarantine, or work arrangements. Every day hundreds of thousands of Australians have waited patiently in the long lines; every day delays in getting results have increased as testing machinery has been overwhelmed. The capacity of the state, or the private sector, to "surge" testing has been compromised by the number of qualified staff able to administer tests, and limits on the capacity of testing machinery.
Until the middle of the week, the Commonwealth seemed to be indicating this was primarily a problem for the states, now apparently in charge of all practical measures against the pandemic, save for some especially vulnerable groups such as the aged. It was soon obvious that it went well beyond this, particularly once it became clear that the number of active cases was increasing exponentially. Particularly in NSW and Victoria, it was also clear that daily notifications considerably understated the actual prevalence of the disease, because tens of thousands were being discouraged by long queues, and many thousands of others by not reaching the top of the queue on particular days.
The complexity of standard tests raised the question of whether rapid antigen tests could substitute, and, if so, whether such testing would be subsidised by the Commonwealth or the states or both. RATs are fairly reliable and, in particular, can reasonably substitute as evidence of disease-free status while travelling or attending work, and in cases where there are no, or few serious symptoms, of an active condition. But Morrison came to the benefits of RATs late, and to the implications of inconvenience, and other costs, to ordinary Australians, even later. That it came to a head over Christmas (indeed hundreds of thousands of Australians spent a good deal of Christmas Day in testing queues) tended to underline the fact that the Prime Minister was nowhere to be seen. There were days of speculation about whether he was on holiday or not, about who was acting prime minister if he were (given the indispositions of Barnaby Joyce) and whether, indeed, he had taken his family abroad again. He hadn't, it appears, but that became obvious only after days of silence.
One might have thought he had learnt something from his 2020 experience, when he was heavily criticised for taking a fun family holiday in Hawaii as bushfires raged in eastern Australia, or even from the criticism he endured when he used his personal RAAF run-around, at an expense of thousands to the taxpayer, to jaunt up to Sydney for Father's Day. He has resentfully suggested that critics have been opposed to his taking holidays, or being with his family; the real criticism has been about his self-indulgence in making free use of the facilities, about his unavailability, and, indeed, about the deceitfulness of his office (and implicitly himself) about his whereabouts.
These are not good impressions in the lead-up to an election, the more so because they evoked public memories of perhaps the worst period of his prime ministership. But they are also serious distractions from both his election planning, and his getting his house in order before the election. The Christmas holiday period - usually ending at about Australia Day - ought to be an opportunity for some contemplation about his strategy and tactics, as well as about urgent tasks of ordinary government. In 2019-20, and up to a point 2020-21, he had some time for bad impressions to subside. He also had some novel distractions, such as the pandemic itself, to draw attention away from his self-indulgences, and his compulsive secrecy and refusal to account for his actions.
But at this stage of the 2022 electoral season, he does not have the time. Still less does he have the flexibility, the agility, or the credit with the electorate for any major changes of course, whether on pandemic management or other tasks of government.
Treasury financial forecasts show that Morrison has put aside tens of billions for an election war-chest - for decisions made but not yet announced. A good deal of this will involve the sort of corrupt pork-barrelling that has become a hallmark of the government's style, but other substantial sums will be devoted to particular middle-class groups seen as primary constituencies of the Coalition, or to interests, such as the fossil fuel lobby, given to continual demands for the further appropriation of public resources into their profit and loss accounts. Whether there is to be a budget before the election is still not clear, but one can be certain that no opportunity to announce new policy and programs will be missed.
Beyond this, the "ordinary business of government" requires - and has more or less been promised - substantial public investment in aged care, in disability care, and in mental health care. No doubt Morrison wants some signature announcement on violence against women, and about toxic workplace cultures, as well as further announcements on climate change, the environment, defence and Indigenous affairs, particularly on the question of whether and how Aboriginal opinion can be heard in national policy-making. And Morrison continues to signal that he has an agenda on the right of religious groups to discriminate against others, and on a low-rent, tiny-impact anti-corruption organisation.
The past two years have shown the capacity of the pandemic to derail smooth planning and expectations. They have also shown that bold plans to assimilate the virus and to ignore its impact in vulnerable communities can be destroyed if new forms of the virus get out of control. All the more so at a time when many of Morrison's hopes and expectations are based on the notion that infected people without symptoms, or only mild symptoms, can live harmlessly in the community without challenging the economic revival. The big problem with that theory is that such people have the capacity to create an enormous reservoir of disease, initially unmonitored by the public health system and well capable of flaring up into serious cases and deaths. Australia does not want the Omicron bushfire to die out of its own accord. We want it doused, not left with continually smouldering coals on its fringes.
For all of his dilly-dallying, one can hardly pretend that Morrison has been unaware of the risks, whether to the health of Australians or the fortunes of the Coalition. It's what has made his apparent policy paralysis seem inexplicable or fatalistic.
His own officials and ministers, as much as state premiers and leaders and officials all over the world, were telling him a month ago that the arrival of the Omicron variant from southern Africa had changed the nature of the pandemic. It was just as, about a year ago, the arrival of the Delta variant had transformed a good deal of the acquired experience of coronavirus management, including what was understood about infectivity, how the disease was passed from person to person, and, probably, the effectiveness of vaccines in preventing infection, even as it still seemed to moderate its impact among those who caught it.
Morrison himself was among the first to announce that Delta was a game-changer, which would force government, including premiers and chief ministers, to review their strategies. He had to; the different patterns of Delta were among the reasons he invoked to explain some of the delays, miscalculations, and general mistakes of the vaccine rollout, supply shortages, and tactical stuff-ups that so characterised public health action against the virus in 2021. It was a part of his pattern of blame-shifting, indeed of blaming everyone but himself for a very slow start to mass vaccinations, for delays in reaching any sort of point in which herd immunity was supposed to occur. It was responsible for decisions that effectively excluded non-white Australians from repatriation flights, and for the impatience and disbelief with which virtually everyone - apart from his acolytes in the Murdoch media - greeted his every announcement it was nearly time for freedom from any public health controls.
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Later it was a stick with which to beat premiers, particularly of Western Australia, Victoria and Queensland - the Labor states, in short - for their alleged failures over lockdowns, border closures, and vaccination rates. Who could blame him for not anticipating how bad things could get when Delta was a mutation rather than the thing itself, when it spread at rates and probably by methods that had not been the case earlier, and had upset all of the calculations that he, his ministers and his tame advisers, especially but not exclusively out of the health bureaucracy, had initially advised?
And later still it was a part of his explanation for why laissez-faire lockdowns, of the sort practised in NSW by former premier Gladys Berejiklian, were so unsuccessful in restraining and containing the virus - indeed seemed to spread it all over the nation, including in states which had attempted more professional containment methods. By now, of course, Morrison had convinced himself that most of the population was now entirely immune from the virus thanks to nearly universal vaccinations, and that the time had arrived at which we had to "learn to live" with any remaining morbidity - and even smaller mortality - that occurred, mostly among those foolish enough to refuse vaccination.
Morrison has, by now, virtually surrendered to the states' leadership of the practical fight against the pandemic, even as he has been trying, rhetorically at least, to have a response where there is agreement about trigger points, and some general unity of purpose. He has remained spiteful about border controls and closures, but it is an argument he does not seem to be winning, despite the applause of News Corp organs.
He clearly has at least some glimmer of understanding that Omicron - a new mutation, and one apparently much more infectious, if not, apparently, as likely to cause serious illness - involves a need for a new focused and careful attack, without assumptions based on past behaviour. It is impossible, however, to describe his response - or that of Dominic Perrottet - as responsible, measured, or evidence-based.
Based on what we are seeing, it has to be asked whether he has the courage, or the imagination, to win this one.
Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times.
Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times.
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