DAVID SOLOMON. The Government could do better

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.


David Solomon is a former legal and political correspondent. He has degrees in Arts and Law and a Doctorate of Letters. He was Queensland Integrity Commissioner 2009-2014.

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9 Responses to DAVID SOLOMON. The Government could do better

  1. Avatar Allan Kessing says:

    May I point out one small mercy that we’ve had (thus far)?
    Imagine if the long weeks of conflagration had occurred simultaneously with this current crisis.
    As of Saturday, at least on ABC RN, the “service announcements” have changed – a soothing, young female voice tells us that “corona virus is a mild disease and most people recover quickly…”?
    This is interesting given the apparent panic on high and the national lock down – tory governments are not noted for the unprecedented largesse of the last weeks.
    This evening the Treasurer warned that t his would take years to “repay” though without specifying by whom, to whom.
    If those who recover have immunity (there are mixed reports of people suffering subsequent episodes) then would they not be more likely to be carriers?
    Would they not be more hazardous due to no longer having obvious symptoms?
    Indeed, if they may not even be aware of having had anything other than a cold.

  2. Avatar Dr Michael Powell says:

    These are not ‘stimulus’ packages but survival arrangements and yet the huge write-off arrangements seem largely aimed at stimulating car purchases – up to to 150,000 for essential Mercedes purchases. What possesses this government?

    While the Opposition has been deliberately omitted – and Solomon is right about WWII arrangements – Morrison is intent on politically sidelining Albanese (who?) for the later big election push as the Messiah from the Shire who Saved the nation.

    It is nauseating to see such incompetence rewarded. If Shorten was now PM the whining would be at pitch only discernible to LNP voters, Sky News and dogs.

  3. Avatar Richard Ure says:

    Brendan Murphy would not be missed either https://is.gd/AwLEra to be replaced by Norman SwanIt has just been announced 3:30 pm Friday all overseas arrivals are to be quarantined Victoria has 5,000 rooms the position of other states not yet announced at least by The Guardian.

    The Robodebt case which Stuart Robert defended to the last despite its obvious arithmetical shortcomings, is about to be settled but apparently some recovery action is still being taken while queues lengthen at Centrelink office doors. A reduced Mutual Obligation requirement still exists (4 applications a month). This requires wasteful, job creation administration at several levels. Many people, who will no longer be working for their most recent employer, will be hanging out to return to that job. Does this mean they have to have evidence they have been re-applying for their old (currently not existing) job?

    The measures for business (instant asset write off, guaranteed loans, wage subsidies) are all derisory or pointless and are unlikely to be taken up. So until there are more, you can write off any worthwhile assistance to business.

    Mathias Cormann is not justified in claiming the Opposition’s view are just politically motivated, the reality is they tend to preview steps the government or even state premiers take a few days later.

  4. Avatar Peter Timmins says:

    ‘ likely to get a leader’s dividend in the ratings-even Trump has reached a record high in the polls.’

  5. Avatar Peter Timmins says:

    Good stuff David but Dutton at least is safe just about always I expect, and the PM is likely to get a
    The absence, until today as a result of a two hour virtual meeting of the G 20, of multilateral international action to deal with this global crisis is also remarkable. Shame on us and others for not recognising this earlier and acting accordingly. In our neighbourhood PNG recorded its first case on 13 March, and immediately declared a State of Emergency and its arrived in some places in the Pacific.
    We won’t fix this crisis even when we get things sorted here.

  6. Avatar john austen says:

    Dr Solomon: thanks.
    Couldn’t agree more! Again!!
    But for one thing: it is possible the ‘nationhood’ power could be invoked by the Commonwealth Government – the case is far stronger than for bushfires. And the need to stop State Premiers showboating even greater.
    Yet even so, your essential point is the key: for the Government to do so – if Morrison et al expect to be taken seriously by everyone – they must behave seriously not just like a club of smug bullies.
    Your round of Ministerial sackings is the necessary start.
    Even more: I suspect the lack of gravitas /widespread public mistrust – further fueled by egocentric, irresponsible media – means the ‘roll-out’ approach so far has been the only way to make progress, so far.
    Best wishes

  7. Avatar Stephen Saunders says:

    So, Sydney and Melbourne airports are still receiving repatriation flights, arrival checks are still la-la, buses and trains (less so planes) are still at one’s disposal?

    Suddenly, the mega cities seem far too close, for us in Canberra. And in other domestic destinations.

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