TONY SMITH. Government in perpetual crisis.

Mar 24, 2020

Dealing with the corona virus epidemic requires extraordinary measures by governments. Unfortunately, the Australian government’s response has been piecemeal and does not inspire confidence.

Since the removal of Malcolm Turnbull from the Liberal leadership, the federal government seems to have been in permanent crisis. Some issues have originated in the behaviour of Ministers including Taylor and McKenzie. Others such as the bush fires, climate change, domestic violence and corona virus challenge government to respond. Many observers have deplored a lack of strong and clear leadership from Turnbull’s successor.

Current Coalition leaders have set themselves up for failure by intemperate actions and statements. Mr Morrison’s unparliamentary stunt bringing a lump of coal into the chamber and his spectacular insistence on shaking the hand of a reluctant woman in fire ravaged Cobargo create poor images. His insistence on going to ‘the footy’ and subsequent ban on large gatherings entail their own contradictions. No wonder the PM has a reputation for addressing matters of image rather than substance.

Nationals’ leader Michael McCormack is similarly prone to hyperbolic assertions which echo down the months. His claim that Labor’s emissions target would mean the end of night footy looked particularly silly when sporting events were abandoned because of choking bush fire smoke. His assertion that anyone who did not support the Coalition during the 2019 election should ‘get off the grid’ might yet return to haunt him as well. As power companies increasingly use renewable sources, ‘the grid’ is diminishing as a haven for advocates of coal.

When the mother and three children were murdered horribly by the children’s father in Brisbane barely a month ago, domestic violence received national attention. It was heartening to see members of parliament stand for a minute’s silence and to see the prime minister attend the funeral. If similar acts of respect were shown to all victims of domestic violence, week by week, then perhaps those in authority would appreciate the need for profound and continuous action rather than short bursts of activity around high profile cases.

Just as the domestic violence epidemic continues, so too does the bush fire crisis. In the national spotlight, the prime minister claimed that the government would do whatever it took to aid recovery. But two months after the height of the fires, victims still await assistance to clear their properties and for quick access to grants or loans. Calling the virus pandemic an emergency does not justify forgetting the promise to be with those who suffered so badly in the fires.

Days after the New South Wales Health Minister made a call to abandon shaking hands, the prime minister decided the advice was correct. There is advice about hand washing but not about drying hands in public washrooms. Should we shake them then? The advice about avoiding people who have had contact with the virus is not helpful because people are not wearing signs revealing that they are potential carriers.

During the bushfires, the New South Wales rural fire services chief inspired confidence. The federal chief medical officer does not give similar reassurance. His handling of the question of Peter Dutton’s infectious status is confusing. Perhaps, despite government claims that they are taking expert advice, the experts and politicians are too close. As this is a genuine emergency, the national cabinet should include opposition representation. If Mr Albanese were included in the COAG style national cabinet, the opposition might agree to the shutting of federal parliament, which seems advisable. Parliamentarians could then demonstrate the working from home model that they recommend for other employees and students.

The financial response to the virus has some merit. It is however, a worrying sign that the economy has achieved such priority. It is as though the government thinks of the epidemic as primarily an economic issue and this does not encourage confidence in its ability to confront the health challenges.

People generally seem to be taking the virus seriously. They are making sacrifices for the common good. Whether they will continue to dig even deeper into their resources however, will depend upon the quality of leadership. The measures taken by government must be based in science. They need to be proportional and clearly explained. No more hyperbole, please!

Dr Tony Smith is a former political science academic with interest in elections, parliament and political ethics.

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