The trouble with culture wars is that they spoil you for the real thing.
The Morrison government is happiest when it's dealing with symbolic issues - wokeness and political correctness, the Anzacs and the history wars, the battler on the land - issues where all it has to do is strike an attitude and invite people who share those values to support it. This sometimes involves proposing legislation, but if that goes down in the Senate the government isn't too bothered: the point is to wave the flag, not to get anything done.
With something like stopping electoral abuses, for example, the government has the luxury of starting the campaign when it likes and stopping it when it likes. The problem was imaginary in the first place, and can be solved at any point simply by changing the subject. Cultural wedge issues can be quite successful with an easily distracted electorate, and the government is very good at them. It's not nearly as good at real life, unfortunately, and it's really terrible at deciding which is which.
The distinguishing feature of a real problem is that it has its own timetable. You can't just say it's over and we've won and everybody should move on. Bush and Obama and Trump and Biden could all declare Mission Accomplished, but the war in Afghanistan was over when the Taliban said it was over, and not before. It's much the same with COVID.
Scott Morrison has said that there won't be more lockdowns, that we're not going back to shutting down people's lives, that we have to push through. "There will be other variants beyond Omicron and we have to ensure, as a country ... we are putting in place measures that Australians can live with." It's an encouraging statement, yes, but I can't see COVID's signature anywhere on the document. It may have its own views.
It is certainly true that there will be other variants. Rho, Sigma, Tau and Epsilon are doubtless already coughing in the wings. We can bet that they'll be more infectious than Omicron, because that's how viruses gain territory. When it comes to deadliness, though, or vaccine resistance, every new variant is a new roll of the dice, and there's absolutely no guarantee that next time round we won't get an absolute stinker on all fronts.
If we really did believe, as a country, that there were going to be more variants - that we were now well into what our descendants would know as the COVID decade - what would we do differently? We'd probably make fewer broad statements about what was and wasn't over, for one thing. For another, we'd accept the need for structural change.
For the past 20 years, at least, we've been running down our hospital emergency systems on the basis of cost-benefit analysis. There was no point, people said, in building a system that could deal with a worst-case scenario if that meant that 10 or 20 per cent of beds would be empty 90 per cent of the time. Redundancy was inefficient.
What COVID has shown us, though, is that lean management has its costs. When a pandemic hits the emergency department, the economy is on oxygen support in the next bed. We surely have to work towards an Australian society with a markedly larger hospital sector. We have to devote real national resources towards research into more nimble vaccines, better masks, and better and faster tests. We should draft our programmers into devising a contact-tracing app that actually works.
No government likes admitting there are things it doesn't know, which makes it difficult to plan for uncertainty. Governments don't get any credit for disasters that have been successfully avoided, which makes it difficult to budget real money for hypothetical threats. Even so, there have to be real redistributions.
It's economically justifiable to spend money on avoiding disasters. How much money? Well, the worst possible damage divided by the odds of the worst happening. Compared to two years ago, we now have much better and much larger estimates of both of those figures, and it's time we reached the obvious mathematical conclusions (and exactly the same, of course, applies to global warming).
"Push through" is good advice for spiderwebs, but bad advice for high-voltage cables. The government has to offer solutions that work for both.
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.