Virus won’t wait for our leaders to stop playing word games

On June 15, at the peak of Australia’s complacency on the coronavirus, Scott Morrison took a gentle shot at his New Zealand counterpart Jacinda Ardern. He did not mention her by name, but he wanted a share of the global adulation she was receiving at the time.

Australia, he explained, had “the balance right between our health and our economic objectives”.

“Whereas other countries imposed strict lockdowns, we have been able to keep large sectors of our economy open and functioning, including construction, manufacturing, agriculture mining, as well as large parts of the retail sector,” the Prime Minister told the Committee for Economic Development of Australia.

Scott Morrison was eager to spruik Australia's approach to tackling coronavirus even as the second wave begining.

Scott Morrison was eager to spruik Australia’s approach to tackling coronavirus even as the second wave begining.Credit:SMH

That boast seemed easy enough to make, even allowing for the risk of a second wave. The death rate in each country was just four people for every million. Australia had achieved this “enviable health outcome” with stage three restrictions; one notch below New Zealand’s.

But the virus was already spreading unchecked through Melbourne, and would soon force the city into a lockdown ever harsher than New Zealand’s. As Richard Baker revealed in this newspaper on Friday, patient zero in the Victorian outbreak – a night duty manager at one of Melbourne’s busiest quarantine hotels – had tested positive for the coronavirus on May 26, more than a fortnight before Morrison claimed to have a world-class model.

Now our death rate is more than three times New Zealand’s at 15 people per million and the shutdown of the Victorian economy is set to prolong the national recession. Victoria already lost almost 200,000 jobs, or 5 per cent of its workforce, in the first lockdown between March and May. The state government now expects 325,000 jobs to be lost in total by September.

But it could have been much worse. As the wrecking ball of recrimination continues to swing between the Commonwealth and Victorian governments, it is worth remembering that Australia’s initial response to the pandemic in March was more stringent than Morrison would have preferred.

He wanted to keep schools open and allow the free movement of Australians across state and territory borders. The premiers, led by Daniel Andrews and Gladys Berejiklian, insisted on stage three restrictions. But the Victorian and NSW leaders did not have it all their own way. They were on Morrison’s side in the argument over state borders, but could not prevent their fellow premiers from isolating their respective states.

Australia’s federation provides a check on Commonwealth and big state power that has no equivalent in New Zealand. The six states and two territories are responsible for health, education and policing – the critical levers in managing a pandemic once the national border is shut to foreign arrivals. Ardern had all those powers in her office. Morrison, governing on his own, may well have lost control of the first wave.

Australia’s compromise model achieved suppression of the virus by April, only to have it return with a vengeance within two months. New Zealand had eliminated the virus for just over 100 days before it flared again this week. Neither country can brag now.

The Victorian outbreak has revealed the inherent fragility of Australian identity. The old colonial rivalries, Melbourne versus Sydney; Queensland versus NSW, have always been there. But the culture had safely boiled them down in the 21st century to these trivial arguments: is Melbourne a more liveable city than Sydney, and who will win the rugby league state of origin?

But a more substantial shift was underway, drawing the people of the two cities closer together, and separating them from Queensland, and the rest of the Australia. The clearest expression of this trend has been at the ballot box. The past two federal elections have seen firm Labor majorities in Sydney and Melbourne cancelled by coalition supermajorities in Queensland.

These relatively new cosmopolitan bonds have been shattered by the Victorian outbreak. Andrews would have expected every other state and territory to close their borders again. But it has escalated to the point where states are treating each other with a poll-driven callousness usually associated with asylum seekers. NSW deserves special mention. The decision to leave about 100 Canberrans stranded at the Victorian border for a week before they were allowed to return home ranks as one of the most childish in the health crisis so far. These people had the necessary permits to travel, but someone in the NSW government thought they should head back to Melbourne and hop on a plane to Canberra instead. It took a week of negotiation between the ACT and NSW to bring NSW to its senses and let these people drive home under escort.

It has been exhausting to watch leaders buck pass. Each significant problem to date has involved shared responsibility between the Commonwealth and one of the most populous states. The Ruby Princess set the tone in March. Neither Morrison nor Berejiklian thought it was their job to stop that boat. Back then, Morrison’s office was involved in a whispering campaign against the NSW Premier, which extended from the Ruby Princess to her conduct in early meetings of the national cabinet. The mobile has been on the other ear for some weeks now, pushing the line that the Victorian Premier is solely to blame for the second wave of infections and deaths because he had rejected the Commonwealth’s offers of defence assistance to secure the hotel quarantine system. Conveniently that argument absolves the Commonwealth for the catastrophe in aged care – the one area of health policy it is directly responsible for.

The cold war threatened to explode into open conflict on Tuesday when federal defence minister Linda Reynolds issued a statement directly contradicting Andrews. He had told a Victorian parliamentary inquiry: “I don’t believe ADF support was on offer.” She replied with a detailed list of offers.

Victoria’s emergency manager commissioner Andrew Crisp clarified the record on Andrews’ behalf the following day. Crisp said he had spoken to Australian Defence Forces in later March. “During these discussions I did not seek nor did representatives of the ADF offer assistance as part of the hotel quarantine program,” he said in a statement. “Subsequent communications with the ADF on the 12th and 15th of April did not relate to ADF assistance as part of the program.”

It was an extraordinary back and forth. Morrison and Andrews are well aware of the game each man is playing. They maintain a veneer of civility while each side probes for a weakness through proxies.
Andrews has developed a stock answer whenever a federal minister takes a shot at him. He doesn’t care what the minister thinks because he has a direct line to the Prime Minister.

Morrison, for his part, cannot afford to provoke Andrews into a direct personal reprisal. He knows, as well as Andrews does, that a federal election will occur before the next state election. Morrison could lose power if there is a big swing in Victoria. Berejiklian coincidentally is in the same position. She will also face the voters after Morrison.

All three will say they are not interested in politics at the moment, but no one really believes that. The buck passing reeks of politics as it was conducted in 2019, when scrutiny was taken as an affront and days, even weeks were wasted in word games.

The virus has no interest in which leader can stonewall the best. It will continue to hunt out gaps in our safety net while our leaders play catch up with their past mistakes.

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