JACK WATERFORD. Morrison has all of the flexibility in the world

Jun 3, 2020

No modern Australian prime minister has faced the political, economic and social challenges of Scott Morrison. But it’s a funny sort of crisis because no prime has ever had such access to the extra resources he can call to bear — if he wants to.

It’s an odd position for a person not particularly fitted, by temperament, background, imagination or intellectual bottom for the role of leadership out of a crisis not of his, or his government’s making. Yet some of his other skills, and what has happened so far, suggest that he may succeed in a way that few of his peers around the world will do.

It’s early days yet, of course. The first part of the challenge was in preparing Australia to face a Coronavirus pandemic. On the figures, Australia has done admirably so far, though the task is far from over, and, indeed, may never be completely over.

One can criticise individual actions, not least some of the messaging, which is supremely important when one is trying to mobilise the entire population. But a comparison with other countries shows that Australia faced amazingly low mortality and low morbidity in the first wave of the pandemic and that Australia (and New Zealand) did remarkably well compared with countries with which we normally group ourselves.

Indeed, even after making allowances for the particular dumbness of the political leadership of Britain and the United States, and, perhaps, the different seasons of the southern hemisphere, it was an outstanding result.

One can speak with admiration of what was provided for,  including, as it turned out, resource-deployment of intensive care beds far in excess of the numbers of seriously ill patients encountered. And of the general success of the timing, and the type of behavioural public health measures designed to limit the spread of the disease into the general population, including social distancing, lockdown, and business closures, as well as solid case tracking.

Some outbreaks should not have occurred — particularly with the Ruby Princess, an appalling mismanagement for which there will probably be no ultimate accounting at the federal level. There was also very poor management of crowds at airports, and a failure to realise that the people from whom Australians were most at risk were not people from China, but from the USA. Some well-paid and very senior officials, rather than well-chosen junior scapegoats should suffer for these misjudgements and their consequences, but with that or not (and I expect not) at least government has learned from the experience.

They may need it because there is still a significant risk of further waves of exposure, with most of the population, but especially older people and those with compromised immune systems, such as people with diabetes, asthma and respiratory and cardiac conditions, still without any form of immunity. The death toll from a second, or third wave, of the condition, may well be much higher than in the first. It was with Spanish flu a century ago.

For unsatisfactory reasons, we have only the haziest idea of how many people have been exposed to the virus, including those on whom it appears to have no effect at all, those who became carriers and spreaders without developing any symptoms of Covid-19, and those who had only a mild illness. Indeed, even as more than a score of research institutions, including in Australia, are racing to develop a vaccine against the virus, we still have no solid information (from within Australia or anywhere else around the world) of whether and to what extent previous exposure gives immunity from further infections, and for how long.

It is not impossible that there will prove to be only mild immunity for less than a year, and that any vaccine developed will work, to the extent that it does, only for a year or so, as with most modern flu vaccines. The virus is constantly mutating. It is worth remembering that medical research has yet to develop an effective vaccine against any member of the coronavirus family, including the common cold.

Australia and New Zealand, and some other South-East Asian countries such as South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore have had such initial success that they have been able to scale back the extent of behavioural controls designed to contain and reduce the spread of the virus. But some of these are already encountering new waves of disease, or, in some places, new sources of it, for example in migrant labour camps.

Evidence of new waves requires a reversion to strict social distancing, restriction of access to crowded public spaces, strict quarantine and isolation for those at particular risk. For prime ministers, premiers and chief ministers, the problem of this lies in re-mobilising populations, particularly those who have interpreted the success of resistance to the first wave as evidence that the initial measures were an over-reaction, rather than a proof that such measures are amazingly effective. [Those inclined to doubt this, should consider the mortality in the US or Britain, both places where isolation and distancing controls were half-baked, late, and in many cases half-hearted.]

But to this cohort will be added people whose personal and family suffering from the economic shut-down, unemployment and reduced income, has gone on, from their point of view, too long.

Already in most countries, political leaders have found it difficult to resist calls from business, or from pressure groups, for the relaxation of controls before medical folk in control of containing the pandemic think wise. One can, of course, be too cautious: no one who argues for tougher controls, or their indefinite duration, can ever be proven wrong.

But moving too fast provides a serious risk of again setting ablaze a fire that, for the moment at least, was nearly out, as well as of making the disease endemic, particularly in poor or vulnerable areas, and thus ever smouldering as it awaits just the right conditions (such as a free ride on the flu season now that the southern hemisphere is about to enter winter) for another major outbreak.

As events with the National Cabinet, and different state or territorial decisions about the staging of relaxed controls show, these are matters on which minds can differ, or where local factors make for different risks.

But Morrison’s leadership is not only being tested in relation to decisions about when controls are being lifted, or when, and at what pace, the economy is restarted. The government moved decisively, about the time of shutting the economy down, to increase the budget deficit, increase social payments and benefits to those suddenly unemployed, to create a scheme by which wages and salaries could be maintained among about three million Australians (it initially promised six million) but by a staggering calculation error provided for only half, while leaving itself with a budgeted underpayment of more than $60 billion.

The fate of this unexpected “saving” — or immediate lack of need for borrowed money originally intended to be spent — is still contentious, regardless of how strongly the prime minister and the treasurer, John Frydenberg attempt to foreclose its redeployment.  It will prove politically very difficult not to redirect the money into additional spending, whether to new (and probably higher) payments to those unemployed as a result of the shutdown, or to sections of them (such as casual workers, students, non-Australians or people such as laid-off university staff or the arts industry deliberately left out of the new social safety nets.

The national and state responses to deal with victims of the economic shutdown have been reasonably generous by international standards, as well as by measurement of the proportion of gross domestic product involved. But there are still clear losers, some with political clout or capacity to capture public sympathy.

And, after all, a government generally predisposed to an ideology of balanced federal budgets, reduced government debt and reduction of the size of government went against virtually every instinct to borrow big and blow out its deficit in its efforts to restore the economy as quickly as possible. That involved not only a calculation (very wrong as it turned out) about the cost of helping particular groups of employees but also about the total sum of money needed to kick-start the economy.

Leaving aside questions of how reduced spending will affect members of particular groups is the question of a reduced stimulus from lower spending, less cash greasing stalled economic wheels, and the incentives and confidence needed among small entrepreneurs who have been severely impacted by the shutdowns and need real help if they are to return to business, or replaced by new ones.

Scott Morrison can put on a doleful air and pretend that he has seriously blown out the deficit and that he cannot go a dollar further — indeed most rein in as far as possible even the spending for which he has made provision. He has, in particular, made a real virtue of intentions of cutting back substantially higher unemployment and Newstart payment rates in September, by then, he hopes, the greater proportion of Australians will be back at work.

Those who have lost their jobs because of Coronavirus are, of course, good solid and decent Australians, just like him. Those who were already on the rolls before the pandemic arrived are again to be regarded as scroungers, work-shy, and to be dealt with in an arbitrary and coercive manner, to punish them for their lack of initiative. Senior social security bureaucrats, if not the hapless folk at the front counter, can hardly wait for a reimposition of their cruel, inhumane and increasingly mechanised controls.

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