MUNGO MACCALLUM.- Team Australia on the Corona virus

Scott Morrison’s National Cabinet is working pretty well so far.

There is contention – some premiers, notably Daniel Andrew in Victoria and Gladys Berejiklian in New South Wales reckon the Commonwealth is dragging its feet and all have made it clear that if necessary they will go their own way if they feel it is in the interests of their constituents.

But there are decisions being taken and a degree of consensus as the urgency of the crisis becomes more apparent. However, there is still a feeling that Morrison could have done better, that he could and should have invited the federal opposition to join Team Australia.

And Anthony Albanese has made it clear that he feels snubbed, and that the rejection has more to do with partisan politics than considered policy. But he is not pushing his case too hard, perhaps because he knows his history.

There is a precedent: Labor took precisely the same approach in World War II. The party’s great leader, John Curtin, was in minority government in desperate times, but when he formed his war cabinet he was adamant that expanding it beyond his own members was not an option, not negotiable.

The then reborn leader of the opposition, Robert Menzies, was radiating availability, eager to grab a share of power. In his brief earlier term as Prime Minister he had gone to London, where he had lobbied shamelessly to be included in Winston Churchill’s wartime cabinet. And he had some support in Whitehall; a handful of Tories even suggested that he should take over as leader to head a new trans national government on behalf of the British Empire.

Needless to say, Churchill was not impressed and when Menzies returned to Australia, nor was Curtin. The Prime Minster made it clear to his colleagues that he wanted no political disputes in making the momentous decisions before him. He was the man in charge – his government was, for the minute, precarious, but it was the government.

Menzies was leader of the opposition, and his principal task was, as the title implied, to oppose – to bring the government down and replace it. The conflict of interest would have been unworkable.

However Curtin threw Menzies an olive branch: he implemented the Advisory War Council, a loose coalition comprising the war cabinet and members co-opted from both side of parliament. Its functions dealt with military strategy along with munitions production, transport and the general infrastructure associated with the war effort.

Menzies agreed with alacrity and the arrangement lasted throughout the war. The Council had no formal power, but its decisions were usually accepted automatically by the government. And in a less formal setting, this is similar to the system that is prevailing during the response to the pandemic. The opposition is not in the national cabinet, but Albanese, the health spokesman Chris Bowen and other relevant shadow ministers are well and truly within the loop.

In last week’s one day sitting Bowen went out of his way to thank the real health minister, Greg Hunt, for his consideration in listening to Bowen’s suggestions. And although Labor spokesmen , including both Albanese and Bowen, are now criticizing what they see as Morrison’s sluggishness in moving towards more drastic measures, there is little or no real agro.

But nor is there consensus, and nor should there be. We still have an opposition, with a right and a duty to oppose. That is called democracy. And if some people find it uncomfortable and inconvenient, well, tough.

Mungo MacCallum was a senior correspondent in the Canberra Press Gallery


Mungo MacCallum is a veteran political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy.

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9 Responses to MUNGO MACCALLUM.- Team Australia on the Corona virus

  1. Tony Mitchell says:

    Remember vividly the liberals continually boasted how they protected our borders, and – “stopped the boats” ; …………..but somehow missed that bloody big cruise liner in Sydney loaded with coronavirus cases.

  2. Clifton Miller says:

    My sense is that due to inept financial management and current attempt to buy our way out of a health crisis that this country is now a banana republic; massive increases in national debt, government now paying most employees, government by decree not debate; a compliant and shallow media, electoral fraud and criminals in the ranks. No wonder we have so little faith in our leaders.

    • Richard Ure says:

      For several weeks, the government has been foreshadowing a residential rents announcement. Instead, they have been diverted just before the weekend to reinvent Centrelink and create an additional Centrelink 2.0 with a whole lot of new rules to obey. Clever.

  3. Allan Kessing says:

    Small point – as a classicist Mungo should that know the phrase should be “proffered an olive branch”.
    One throws down a gauntlet or smacks such a one as Pig-Iron Bob about the head with it. Repeatedly, failing a handy 2×4.
    It is heartening to learn that the ACTU’s Sally McManus, has been able to work with the otherwise reprehensible Christian Porter.
    Here’s hoping that he lives up to his given name, breath not being held.

  4. Jocelyn Pixley says:

    The economic historians of World War II indicate that Menzies, before two of his backbenchers crossed the floor and he lost office, was not an effective war manager. He appointed too many business friends to run various war departments. Curtin only kept Essington Lewis (BHP Manager) to arrange munitions, because Lewis was efficient. Curtin refused all of Menzies’ invitations to form a national government. To Curtin, only a proper Labor government could effect their reforms (that Menzies much later never gave up). I agree Menzies surprised Australians, and also the Canadian PM for his wanting to be in Churchill’s war cabinet!

  5. john austen says:

    Mr MacCallum:
    I’m not sure we follow the same papers etc.
    The ones I look at often make it seem more like a state-of-origin barney than a team. And just like the classic RL stoushes, it is replete with brawling on the sidelines for the cameras rather than keeping the action on the field.
    Take the states’ border closures which look hypocritical and pathetic in light of lack of equivalent restrictions for vulnerable / hotspot localities within. A special mention here for queensland’s ‘lock out or up the outsiders while we all go out and vote’ directives – helpfully sent to me in western sydney apparently in search of praise and ensuring I don’t sully their germ-free state (as if). How much better it would be for the national cabinet via the Prime Minister to announce such closures.
    Then there are public dissents – use of the mass media to lobby for changes to the national approach. I am not referring to independent commentators and experts who have every right and indeed should make their voices heard and listened to. But dissents by politicians and officials engaged in this most serious decision-making process. Such dissents in public (in front of the media) rather than where they belong, even if well-intentioned, must have the effect of diminishing the authority of those who the dissenters want obeyed. Why not resign if they can’t live with the decisions? Presumably the perpetrators know all that, and if they don’t maybe such decision making is a paygrade or so above them.
    Next is a range of evident Commonwealth-State coordination failures – say cruise ships, airports – reported as finger pointing / turf wars between governments and especially agencies (notably involving ‘border force’), reminiscent of the bushfires. In my experience, such publicly visible failures are merely manifestations of wider issues.
    Meanwhile at least some Parliaments have been shut out of the action for a while, although the sins here of the Commonwealth might (again) be less than the States. And there is plenty more.
    True, much good seems to have been done via the ‘national cabinet’. And there is some hope the aberrations are diminishing. But to my mind, the gravity of the situation means those involved deserve a big kick up the backside rather than a pat on the back.

  6. John CARMODY says:

    Mungo MacCallum credits Anthony Albanese with knowing his history but is pretty weak on it himself. Menzies was not the Leader of the Opposition when Curtin was “in minority government in desperate times”; it was WM Hughes. Menzies [who had been displaced as Prime Minster in 1941] did not take over that position until 1943 after Curtin had achieved the greatest electoral victory that the ALP has ever had. Therefore [quite apart from Menzies’ own equivocal pre-War attitudes towards fascism and the bellicosity of the countries which would, eventually, be Australia’s foes in World War II], there was absolutely no reason why Curtin should invite into his wartime cabinet a man who was in such poor standing within his own party.

    A far more important point, which MacCallum’s panglossian piece ignores, is the scandal that in neither Canberra nor Sydney is the Parliament currently sitting. THAT is not a sign of a democracy, notwithstanding the weak special-pleading of his concluding paragraph.

    • Allan Kessing says:

      I’m not a fan of tweeters but
      @PhillipAdams_1 Mar 26
      Email from Barry Jones this morning – “the postponement of parliament puts more power – total power- in the hands of the executive – and nobody questions it, least of all the Opposition. It is in fact a coup”.
      Apart from that minor matter of all this largesse – silly me, remembering 1975 I thought that the Supply Bills had to pass both Chambers.
      Or is SmoKo invoking War Powers? Pity the nation that has such a leader.

  7. Thanks to P & I for the excellent coverage of well, everything. I especially enjoy Mungo MacCallum’s writings, and the history of past war-footing cabinets is instructive.

    Something which has not yet been addressed is the vexed question of 2,500 U.S. Marines about to land in Darwin for their annual deployment. They would certainly be bringing the coronavirus with them – the U.S. military has lots of confirmed cases. It would seem madness to allow these people into our country as “exceptional” or “essential”.

    But no Minister has made a statement about the cancellation of the war rehearsals in the Northern Territory yet. Where is Duttz when you need him? Still in “detention”?

    This is exactly when the Minister for Nearly Everything should be decisive and say “stay away” as the German Government did recently when 30,000 U.S. military personnel were due for a six nation war rehearsal in Europe.Towards justice and peace,
    Jo Vallentine

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