IAN McAULEY. We should be thankful that Morrison wasn’t our PM in 1939.

Mar 18, 2020

In his gauche handling of the coronavirus situation, Morrison has once again proven himself  incapable of understanding the task of leadership in a democracy.

The speech Menzies didn’t deliver

From a neglected file in the Commonwealth Archives, a draft speech for Prime Minister Menzies:

Fellow Australians, it is my melancholy duty to inform you officially that there has been an outbreak of war between Britain and Germany.

That means my government will be unable to deliver its promised fiscal surplus for 1939-40.

As the war progresses there will be a long period – perhaps years – of tough economic times, but my government will make sure we attend to the interests of small businesses and provide investment allowances to incentivise military production.

Don’t let this event distract you from your normal lives: on Saturday I will be at the MCG to enjoy the cricket.

God save the King!

That is the broadcast Prime Minister Menzies didn’t deliver on 3 September 1939 when Australia entered the conflict to be known as the “Second World War”.  (OK, I made it up.)

His actual speech, replete with imperialist flourishes (he probably wrote it himself), is on the Australian War Memorial website. Apart from a reference to “supplies, foodstuffs, money” it does not mention the coming war’s likely economic consequences

By way of contrast, last Thursday, as most of the world came to appreciate the scale of the  coronavirus threat, the Morrison Government’s clear priority, conveyed in its press release, was its “$17.6 billion economic plan to keep Australians in jobs, keep businesses in business and support households and the Australian economy as the world deals with the significant challenges posed by the spread of the coronavirus.” (Emphasis mine.)

On the following evening, as the extent of the virus became more evident, Morrison went on air with a different, but only slightly different, tone. The 97 second video clip is worth watching, not only because it conveys his usual insecurity and insincerity (evident in his  familiar high-pitched and clipped speech) but also because it exposes his points of emphasis when he says “While this is a global health crisis [light tone], there are very real and significant economic impacts [serious tone].”

No doubt, when Menzies made his speech on the outbreak of war, economic issues were very much on his mind: he held the dual portfolios of Prime Minister and Treasurer. His department would have been working on crucial issues to do with manpower, trade isolation, industrial capacity and all the necessary adjustments to a war economy. This was not the time to talk about such matters, however.

He understood one of the founding principles of government – that the first duty of government is the protection of its citizens. That’s a principle stated 3800 years ago in the Code of Hammurabi, a principle spelled out in national constitutions, a principle acknowledged as a foundation of democracy, and a principle articulated by Morrison’s predecessor, Malcolm Turnbull.

But Morrison’s message was not about that duty of protection. He stressed that while the virus might be tough for older people and those with compromised immune systems (fatal for some) most will experience only a “mild” inconvenience. His emphasis was not the lives of the few, but the “jobs and livelihood” of the many, and he intended to “set Australia up to bounce back stronger, when the crisis is over”.  That same evening he urged Australians to follow his example and to go off to watch the “footy”.

A moral choice

There are many ways countries can approach the coronavirus crisis. Their chosen approach should be guided by moral principles.

The approach at one extreme is to let the virus rip, accepting as collateral damage a surge of deaths and associated distress as overloaded health systems apply a brutal triage regime. The priority, for the good of ninety-something per cent of the population, is to get back to business-as-usual once herd immunity is quickly established. This is the path Italy seems to have taken, through neglect rather than through design. It’s fast, efficient and brutal.

It is what moral philosophers call a “consequentialist” or “utilitarian” approach: accept the collateral damage, trading off some people’s interests for the benefit of the many, without regard for human rights. Consequentialism lay behind the brutality of revolutionary communist regimes; those who stood in the way were to be eliminated for the collective good of realising the party’s utopian vision.

The approach at the other extreme is to contain, isolate and possibly eliminate the virus, essentially as has been achieved with infections such as smallpox and polio. This has been the approach in Singapore and some other prosperous east Asian countries, and, if we are to believe it can be scaled up to a population of 1.4 billion, it has been the approach in China, applied with strong controls. It may work, it may not.  (If Australia could replicate China’s claimed performance, scaled by population, the virus would be well on the way out once we suffer 1 500 cases and 50 deaths.)

Most countries are adopting polices between these extremes, hoping to “flatten the curve” to ensure health systems are not overloaded, to attend to those needing the most concentrated care, and to buy time for curative therapies to be developed (and possibly a vaccine further down the track). Such approaches have regard for the rights of the most needy and those at highest risk, and would be classified by moral philosophers by the adjective “deontological”, or the more-commonly-stated principle that desirable ends do not justify unjust means – a principle articulated or implicit in the moral codes of most religions and humanitarian philosophies.

In his early moves, with his emphasis on treating the virus as an economic problem, Morrison was putting his government towards the consequentialist end (the means justify the ends) of this spectrum.

Political commentators such as Ian Verrender and David Speers suggest that Morrison misjudged the nation’s political mood. Indeed, there has been little resistance to extreme measures taken in other countries, and there is no reason Australians would object to them. Public opinion seems to be shifting more to Singapore than to Italy. It’s plausible that Morrison simply got it wrong: he seems to flounder in any situation that isn’t covered in the Marketing 101 textbook.

Or possibly Morrison believes that a prolonged economic downturn associated with a “flattened curve” would do him more political damage than a severe crisis in 2020 followed by a quick recovery (albeit off a dismal base) over 2021, in time for the next election. Marketing relies on short memories.

Either way – a utilitarian disregard for people’s rights, or a cynical political calculation, morality doesn’t seem to have been a strong consideration in Morrison’s political tactics.

What Australians need now, rather than political spin (such as attempts to draw invidious comparisons between Morrison’s economic interventions in 2020 and Rudd’s in 2008) is a clear statement of where the government’s approach lies along this spectrum. This should be followed by politicians’ withdrawal from the stage, with the task of administration left to the guidance of trusted experts such as Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy and his state counterparts, who would treat communication with the public as an task of giving advice and clear information, rather than a political exercise in  marketing spin.

In 1939 Menzies was able to call Australians to come together to confront a national emergency. Curtin was able to do so again in 1941 when the Pacific War broke out. These were both tough political warriors, from different sides of an ideological fence. But they both understood that the first duty of government concerns something on a higher moral plane than protecting the cash flow of small business.

Ian McAuley is a retired lecturer in public sector finance at the University of Canberra.

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