MUNGO MACCALLUM. The balancing act is becoming more precarious.

Feb 24, 2020

We can no longer pretend that Australia is not largely dependent on our great northern neighbour,its physical and economic health and crucially, its goodwill.

Thankfully, coronoavirus has had little direct impact on Australia – to date, few cases and no deaths.

The response has been swift and effective – diagnosis, treatment, quarantine and isolation have all been implemented to prevent the infection from spreading into the community.

There have been complaints of overkill, but when dealing with a potentially lethal epidemic, a belts-and-braces approach is not just an acceptable policy – it is the only sensible one. Our much criticized bureaucracy deserves considerable credit.

However, while the direct impact may be minimal, the indirect effects have been far more serious, with the threat of worse to come. The Australian economy has taken a clobbering.

Education and travel, two of our biggest earners, have been smashed. But the damage has been far more extensive – the entire trading sector, which our general standard of living, is now in danger of the kind of bust that can easily lead to recession.

We are not talking of the odd niche market, like the drop in the demand for rock lobsters; a whole range of exports and imports have been thrown into doubt as orders for products and services have been postponed or cancelled. Business and consumer confidence have been shot, and may take a long time to recover.

And there has been a resurgence of anti-Chinese sentiment, with the craziest conspiracy theories alleging that the virus was unleashed deliberately in, a form of germ warfare – bigoted nonsense, of course, but enough of a worry to require rebuttal from both Beijing and Canberra. COVIS19, are we are now told to call it, is casting a long shadow over both the economy and the society

And it is now one that we must confront:we can no longer pretend that Australia is not largely dependent on our great northern neighbour,its physical and economic health and crucially, its goodwill.

In the past we have been able to take this for granted, because the relationship, at least as far as trade goes, has been mutually beneficial – the hiccups, when they have come up have been quickly remedied. But what if there is serious rift – if our subservience to the United States alliance gets to the breaking point and we are, finally and reluctantly, compelled to choose between the two megapowers?

The prospect is not fanciful, and is becoming less so as America bases in Darwin show signs of ramping up to a more active military posture. Scott Morrison is relying on the assertion that, under his watch, the economy is strong and will remain so. But he also regards our defence pacts with Washington as non-negotiable.

He is desperate to maintain the balancing act, but it is becoming more precarious by the week. And now a microscopic organism has revealed a preview of the dire consequences of being forced to make a choice – or, more probably, having one thrust upon him,

And of all the unintended consequences of the coronavirus, this could easily become the most dangerous: the knowledge that despite all the bluster about how we will make the decisions about who runs Australia, it is just more empty rhetoric. We are not entirely impotent. But we are certainly vulnerable.

Mungo MacCallum is a former senior Canberra correspondent.

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