DAVID SOLOMON. The Government could do better

Mar 27, 2020

There’s a simple way for Prime Minister Scott Morrison to assert some real leadership and focus the attention of the nation on how the corona virus pandemic should be confronted: he should sack the two Ministers who have demonstrated most publicly their incompetence in dealing with it.

First to go should be Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton. He (along with Morrison himself) might have been good at stopping the boats but he and his department didn’t do enough to stop or limit the arrival of the virus on our shores or (more importantly) at our airports. An absolutely basic precaution, in force in many Asian countries when the possibility of the virus spreading from China was only just being contemplated, was the universal screening of incoming passengers for signs of fever. So far as I am aware, three months later, it is still not happening.

Next is the dud Government Services (and what a misnomer that is) Minister, Stuart Robert, who fantasised a cyber attack on the MyGov website to explain its collapse on Monday, denying that it had crashed because of the demand from potential Centrelink users that had been placed on it, following the government’s latest announcements about assistance for those who had lost their jobs as a result of the effect of the virus.

The people who blithely ignore Mr Morrison’s admonitions about social distancing and panic buying, and who aren’t impressed by his invocation of the spirit of the Anzacs and those who battled the Depression (the last Great Depression, that is) might take some notice if he showed he was serious about disciplining his own Ministers where they have let the side down.

There will be others whose competence will be judged by history, and the inevitable Royal Commission that will be appointed once we have recovered from this catastrophe to determine with the benefit of hindsight what we might or should have done better.

There are two main aspects to this – health and economic – and already no shortage of criticism. A common theme is too little, too late.

I wonder though, whether there is a more fundamental problem. From the very beginning, much of the argument has been about what kind of economic stimulus is needed to get us through the crisis and to build a ‘bridge’ to the other side.

But this isn’t a situation where a stimulus could work. People who have money, or are given financial support, aren’t going to go out and spend, except on necessities. They aren’t going to buy travel services (banned) or eat in restaurants (ditto) or other forms of entertainment. They won’t be buying new televisions or other furnishings (though some want freezers, which are suddenly unavailable). Surely someone must have told our government decision-makers that all the measures they were implementing would result in most shops being shut anyway. And they should have worked out that most people want to hold on to what they’ve got, till they reach the ‘other side’ that the Prime Minister reminds us will be there.

Part of the latest government package seems to recognise this. The virtual doubling of the Newstart allowance will provide crucial support for many who have lost (or will soon lose) their jobs. It is hard to understand, however, why this won’t be implemented for another five weeks. The unemployed (including those already on Newstart) need it now.

From the beginning, the government has been committed to providing most of its financial support to business – three-quarters of its first package. While its assistance for the unemployed and others on social security is means-tested in various ways, support for business depends only on the size of the business. A business which is surviving through the crisis and able to keep its employees is getting the same kind of support as those businesses that may go to the wall because they happen to be in the wrong industry – such as tourism. Government aid for business (but not people) is not related to need. Why not?

The states appear not to have been consulted about any of these financial measures and have been left to bring in their own tax and other changes, independently of those being implemented by the Commonwealth.

Meanwhile, the so-called national cabinet has been dealing with mitigating the impact of the coronavirus on the health of the citizenry (and the hundreds of thousands of foreigners who are trapped here – not much mention of them).

The national cabinet is a glorified name for COAG – the Council of Australian Governments, a body that has existed since 1992 when it replaced the Premiers Conference (a name which did not reflect the dominating presence in its meetings of the Prime Minister and his federal colleagues).

It suited the Prime Minister to seek to elevate the importance of this body, not least because it added weight to the authority of its decisions. But he had little choice. In many respects, the States (and Territories) have the constitutional powers that need to be utilised in the battle against the coronavirus pandemic. The Commonwealth’s powers (unlike its finances) are quite limited.

That was demonstrated when the national cabinet’s divisions were exposed last weekend. Those divisions were not party-political. Liberal-National Party NSW and Labor Victoria were aligned against him over school closures. Previously Liberal Tasmania had simply ignored and turned its back on everyone else by trying to isolate the island state from continental Australia.  Tasmania’s example was quickly followed by Western Australia and the Northern Territory.  And then Queensland, though it could not ignore the integration of its Gold Coast economy with that of north-eastern NSW.

Australia, of course, is not the only federal jurisdiction trying to grapple with the virus. In the United States, the most populous states have taken the lead in meeting the health crisis, given the absence of any recognition till very recently of its likely disastrous impact by President Trump. Here at least the Federal Government was quick to accept expert advice about the dangers to the nation, whatever the deficiencies in its implementation of measures to combat them.

Footnote – some history. There have been some references by politicians and others to the War Cabinet – World War II, that is – suggesting (wrongly) it provided a precedent for bringing the Leader of the Opposition into Cabinet discussions. Under both non-Labor and then Labor Governments, the War Cabinet contained only a limited number of senior Ministers – no-one from the Opposition. However, throughout most of the war, there was also an advisory war council, with senior Ministers, the Leader of the Opposition, and about three other senior Opposition members. War Cabinet met on average about once a week – the advisory council about once every three weeks. Some reports say it was quite influential, particularly before Labor took power, as the two non-Labor Prime Ministers, Menzies and then Fadden, lacked a majority in the House of Representatives.

David Solomon is a former legal and political journalist.

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