It is not obvious that Morrison would win a public relations battle with the states

Sep 1, 2021
Scott Morrison

Given the vaccine rollout debacle, Scott Morrison would struggle to convince voters he has handled the pandemic better than state premiers.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and the Commonwealth have lost a lot of cred in recent months over vaccines and vaccination programs. He did not focus sufficient resources in areas that were accepted as primarily Commonwealth vaccination responsibilities such as in aged care, Indigenous Australians and people with disabilities in institutional care. And carers, seemingly subject to particular neglect, even now.

The premiers seem to have already persuaded most voters about local responses to local problems, rather than one-size-fits-all solutions on the always minimalist Morrison model. They have never been prepared to go along with consensus decisions, particularly as interpreted from time to time by the prime minister, if they believe them to be inappropriate within their own jurisdictions.

All the more so if they think — and they do think — that Morrison has been unfairly indulgent to the political and economic interests of his own state, NSW, at the expense of other states and territories. Morrison, and in particular his Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and Health Minister Greg Hunt, excoriated Daniel Andrews over his 2020 management of the pandemic, as did News Corp newspapers. But when similar circumstances arose in NSW, and were managed far less firmly and efficiently by a Liberal premier, these critics have been silent, even supportive of tactics they once described as mad, dictatorial and wild over-reaction. One can expect that even a still mild-mannered federal Labor will be constantly reminding voters of what was said and done.

When and how do we decide how many casualties are acceptable?

Morrison was leaning primarily on political and economic advice, not health advice, in drawing up his “roadmap” of stages by which the economy would emerge from the depths of the pandemic. It was factored on expert health advice from the Doherty Institute about the range of consequences, in terms of infection rates, hospitalisation rates, and death rates, with particular levels of vaccinations. The calculations were also dependent on assumptions about the continuing effectiveness of case finding and treatment, allowing for a good deal of variation with the various morbidities and mortalities if relative efficiency could not be maintained. By whatever assumptions, it was clear people would continue to get infected and die — indeed probably a lot more than now — and that for some years sharp lockdowns would be needed, though not at whole state level. Preventive strategies such as masking and social separation will continue to be needed.

There are continuing uncertainties about the behaviour of the virus, the long-term efficacy of some vaccines, and whether children should be vaccinated. Doherty is a best-guess, but still fraught with these uncertainties.

I stress that the decisions about the working “minimal levels of vaccination” were made by politicians and bureaucrats from a menu of possible scenarios of the probable effect at different rates. The Doherty report made no recommendations as such. It ought to be impossible for Morrison (or the premiers) to blame the doctors or the epidemiologists if the outcomes are at the worst ranges. Based on British and American experience of infection, hospitalisation and mortality rates after high levels of vaccination were achieved, the outcomes could be far worse.

Morrison received a grudging endorsement of the outlines of his theoretical plan from premiers and chief ministers. But it was adopted as a broad strategy, not as a detailed plan. The deal was not reasonably capable of being described as a “contract” between the National Cabinet and the Australian people. Not one of the premiers, even the hapless and increasingly hopeless Gladys Berejiklian, has any intention of foregoing their own freedoms within their borders. They are the ones who will suffer if the plan fails. This is even if they also, like Berejiklian, are desperate to be in a position to relax lockdowns and to let business operate again.

Politically canny premiers have been determined to make the decisions that seemed best in their local circumstances, such as on school closures. There was no way, for example, that Morrison could get Western Australia to change its border arrangements (and I do not expect that he can do so now, at least while the pandemic rages in eastern Australian.) The light touch methods adopted by Berejiklian, in closer conformity to national “agreements” than in the other states are now part of the package dismissed as weak, too little and too late.

Premiers are also entitled to tartly insist that many of the plans Morrison has attempted to impose would have had worse results had not premiers followed their own advice and their own instincts. The biggest failure, which Labor is trying to sheet home to Morrison personally, is the debacles of organising the vaccines and the vaccinations, as well as those caused by an ideological attempt to contract out much of the delivery. Those failures were, of course, the more severe for continuing high levels of unvaccinated vulnerable groups, uneven availabilities of vaccines, and the recent NSW-Commonwealth habit of failing to accept responsibility for bad management. Berejiklian has a scolding approach which blames the victims, (mostly conveniently not of Anglo-Saxon background) accusing them of non-compliance, and misbehaviour. NSW Police, with a similar dim view of people of “foreign” background, has continued, at higher amplitude, its usual hectoring, coercive, non-accountable and intrusive approach to Sydney westies.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, leaders have had to juggle the relative priorities of either eliminating the disease, or getting it under control on the one hand, and getting the economy going again. The Commonwealth and business lobbies and the ranters from News Corp may be right, up to a point, in thinking that premiers have regarded lasting damage to the economy as the Commonwealth’s problem, while concentrating on eliminating local flare-ups. Be that as it may, it is a brave politician who will talk cheerfully about “acceptable” levels of deaths, particularly when, as now, NSW simply does not have the disease under any sort of control. Berejiklian may have given up and now think one can never eliminate the virus. But other leaders have done a far better job, and without anything like the assistance lavished on the state by the prime minister.

Morrison may get plaudits of business interests in pushing for a re-opening of the economy. He can join to that constituency people exhausted and impoverished by lockdowns, and with an increasing tendency to regard public health controls as assaults on their freedom. But he would be wrong to think that the population at large is ready to drop the ball, or ready to casually dismiss fatalities as being in an acceptable range. He need only look at state election results, and, in particular, the results in Western Australia where the Liberals were almost wiped out. I doubt that he could win an election on the treachery of the premiers and chief ministers or a popular view that he, rather than they, have the credentials to carry on the struggle, medical or economic.

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