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The prime minister believed the reopening of NSW would mark a swing in positive sentiment. He is now rushing to cover testing failures and redefine close contacts and hospital admissions. By Geoff Kitney.

‘This is just about politics’: Scott Morrison redraws the pandemic

Prime Minister Scott Morrison during a press conference at Parliament House, Canberra, this week.
Credit: AAP Image / Lukas Coch

Australia has a lot of elections. It’s not just because we have lots of governments – local, state and federal. It’s also that we like to turn them over very rapidly, by the standards of most democratic countries.

Since 1975, the average time between federal elections is just two years and six months. This makes the current term of the Morrison government a bit unusual. The coming election is likely to take place almost exactly three years since the last one.

Many would say it feels like a lot longer. That is more than just a feeling. The Australia that votes this year is very different to the one that voted three years ago. The Covid-19 pandemic has shaken the national foundations.

For much of the past three years we have been cut off from the rest of the world. We have been broken into pieces by the squabbling over internal borders. Living “normally” has become impossible. Uncertainty has become our constant state. Fear has been our most discomforting emotion. Anger to the level of simmering violence has been on the streets of our cities. The police and security agencies have shifted from focusing on external threats to focusing on internal threats. Security sources talk of a real risk of violent, politically motivated attacks. MPs are worried that they may be targets.

Partisan politics has stretched political dialogue to the extremes. Consensus and compromise – the fundamental pressure valves of democratic politics – have been shouted down by loud and angry voices unwilling to concede anything to others with different views.

A fundamental tenet of our democratic system – that the first duty of governments is to protect the lives and welfare of their people – has been challenged. The question has been raised – by former prime minister Tony Abbott – as to whether there comes a point where it is too expensive for the state to save the lives of the elderly with only limited life expectancy.

Abbott complained that Australians were “living in a health-policed state”. He was one of the first to cheer the New South Wales government’s decision to override  health advice and remove most Covid-19 restrictions. “It’s only thanks to NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet,” Abbott said, “that we’re still able to look forward to a decent Christmas.”

The NSW government’s decision to expose its citizens to the full force of Covid-19 was a triumph of politics over science. Or, more correctly, ideology over science.

Since the early days of the Australian pandemic there has been a vocal minority opposing health measures that restricted the movements and actions of Australians. Governments of all political beliefs followed the advice of the experts and implemented tough policies aimed at achieving zero spread of the virus.

While the most obvious dissenters from these policies were the crowds that began marching in the streets of the major cities – mostly ragtag groups, many motivated by conspiracy theories imported from the United States – there were always elements in the political mainstream who were uncomfortable about the crimping of individual rights involved in the fight against Covid-19.

Libertarian philosophy has been a growing influence in the Liberal Party for the past few decades, as it moved to the right, initially under the leadership of John Howard. The party that was once a broad church of progressives, moderates and conservatives has steadily tilted further to the right. Some Liberal moderates say they don’t recognise the Liberal Party they joined a couple of decades ago.

The politics of the Covid-19 pandemic have exposed the depth and strength of the libertarian/right-wing forces inside the party. As governments imposed tight anti-Covid controls, poured vast sums of public money into the economy to keep it from collapsing, and accrued significant levels of debt, there was a growing sense on the right that there had to be an aggressive counterattack to begin reversing these changes as soon as was possible.

As the next federal election looms closer, the Morrison government has responded to this internal pressure. Scott Morrison has begun drawing battlelines for the election that define the Coalition’s agenda as getting government out of people’s lives and liberating the electorate from the strictures of the two-year battle against the pandemic. “Can-do capitalism” instead of “Don’t-do government”. “Freedom” instead of “control”.

When Dominic Perrottet became NSW premier, Morrison believed he had a useful ally as he moved to encourage Australians to feel that his government had guided the country through and out of the worst days of the pandemic – and was now getting out of the way.

Perrottet and Morrison aren’t close personally. But while Morrison’s political philosophy seems highly flexible compared with Perrottet’s strong libertarian instincts, Morrison expected Perrottet would be a powerful ally in promoting his story of liberation from intrusive government.

The relationship between the prime minister and the new premier got off to a shaky start, however. Less than two weeks after he was sworn in as premier, Perrottet announced NSW would open its borders to international travellers, forcing Morrison to assert that decisions about opening Australia’s borders to the world were for the Commonwealth to make.

When Perrottet called his new cabinet together in early December to discuss the removal of all Covid-19 restrictions, he did not consult Morrison. At that meeting, the focus was entirely on NSW – as it had increasingly been under his predecessor, Gladys Berejiklian.

The internal dividing line between right-wing ministers and moderates has been clear in the government’s discussions, with the right arguing strongly that the government should lift all Covid-19 restrictions and the moderates urging a more cautious, step-by-step opening.

At that stage the new strain of Covid – Omicron – was just emerging. The health advice was that the early signs were that Omicron was less severe than Delta. The economic advice was that the NSW economy was in good shape to “open up”. Business and consumer confidence was strong and people were ready to get out and spend ahead of Christmas.

With his deputy leader Stuart Ayres strongly of the view that, despite Omicron, full opening up was still the best course for NSW, Perrottet decided that the risks were likely to be sufficiently manageable to “live with Covid”.

No consideration was given to whether NSW should inform national cabinet of its intentions before proceeding. In fact, NSW, like the other states and territories, took the view that the original ideal of national cabinet – that no one should move until all were ready to move – had long since become redundant.

From the early days of the national cabinet process, decisions of the group were taken as guidance rather than as binding for all cabinet members – as reflected in the different decisions on state and territory border closures and in the flexibility that each state and territory had to act on the advice of their own health experts.

Despite the initial hiccup over opening up to international travellers, Morrison quickly endorsed Perrottet’s removal of the state’s Covid-19 controls. It was time to “change gear” and for Australia to move past the “heavy hand of government ... shutting down people’s lives”, he said.

Morrison urged other states to quickly follow the NSW lead. Like Perrottet, Morrison remained confident that the community would be safe because of vaccination rates, which were some of the highest in the world.

But there was disquiet inside the NSW Coalition. The concern was that consideration of whether to remove all Covid-19 restrictions was based on outdated health advice about the risks posed by the Delta variant. The health advice on the likely impact of the Omicron variant was sketchy at best – especially the potential impact on the health and hospital systems of a dramatic increase in infections.

Those who supported opening up – including Morrison – expected that case numbers would rise sharply, but because Omicron appeared to be less severe in its effect on people, it made little sense to continue focusing on infection numbers. The important figures would be for hospitalisations and numbers in intensive care. They gambled that the public would be reassured by relatively small increases in hospitalisations and severe illness.

But as infection numbers soared, the public response was near panic. People rushed to get tested. As demand for tests exploded, and the test, trace, isolate and quarantine system fell apart, there was no well-thought-through or resourced system to replace it. The foundation of the regulated Covid-19 response of the past two years disappeared within weeks.

Governments – state and federal – were unprepared. Lessons that should have been learnt from the mismanaged national vaccine rollout and the need to be prepared for surging public demand from an anxious population were forgotten. Experience overseas was ignored. Again, a flat-footed federal health bureaucracy seemed oblivious to the risk that community anxiety would lead to a new crisis, equal to the one caused by the lack of vaccine supplies.

The competence of the health bureaucracy is one of the important side issues of the whole pandemic. Health policy professionals believe that the performance of the health bureaucracy throughout the pandemic highlights their concerns about the rundown of competence and the increased politicisation of the federal public service. This is a long-term change  but one that has been accelerated by recent Coalition governments. Appointments and promotions that owe as much to political allegiance as to professional competence have seen a hollowing out of the quality – and independence – of policy advice.

The integrity of public policy has been undermined – another important element of the growing list of accountability issues that hang over the Morrison government. But overlaying these concerns has been the more fundamental issue of the competence of the decision-making politicians – and especially the prime minister.

Morrison now insists that the federal government always had large reserves of rapid antigen tests. He blames the states for not being ready for a surge in demand but in doing so raises serious questions about why it wasn’t possible to have a co-ordinated national cabinet plan ready to deal with surging demand. It was the blame game again. Nothing is ever Morrison’s fault.

No doubt, Morrison has been unlucky. His “miracle” political win in 2019 – and the chance it gave him to make his mark as prime minister – was eclipsed in the first year of his term by the politics of the Covid-19 pandemic. Coronavirus issues have dominated the government’s agenda. If Morrison had big ambitions for his government, they have been overshadowed. There is little evidence, however, that he had those ambitions.

Morrison came to the prime ministership almost by accident – he was in the right place at the right time. He was smart enough to put himself there and there is little doubt that he was ambitious for himself. But as a self-proclaimed “transactional” leader, his focus has never seemed to be beyond the immediate. He seems not to be an instinctual leader.

Morrison is a loner. He is not an ideas person. His modus operandi has been to manage rather than to generate and pursue a policy agenda. Even taking into account the challenges posed by Covid-19, it is hard to see what he would have done with his prime ministership in the absence of it. He seems to see things as being okay as they are, rather than seeing challenges for the country that his government needs to deal with.

His short horizons meant that, at almost every turn of the pandemic, apart from the initial decision to close the borders, Morrison has failed to see the danger ahead.

First it was the dangers of having inadequate supplies – and suppliers – of vaccines and the advantages that could come with early, rapid and comprehensive delivery of shots. He was complacent. Second, after mismanaging the vaccine issue, he failed to see ahead that the same problems of supply and delivery of Covid-19 tests might arise. To say that this was the fault of the states is to abrogate his role as the nation’s leader.

While he made the right decision early in the pandemic to bring all the nation’s leaders together and have them meet as a national cabinet to co-ordinate a national response, the experience has fallen well short of the promise.  As a result, national cabinet has been far less effective than it could have been.

In the past few weeks – as Omicron has swept eastern Australia – Morrison has attempted to reassert the role of national cabinet and his place at the head of it. But the solidarity that was apparent in the early days of its existence has long since broken down. Morrison is largely to blame for this, having played partisan politics with the states that have chosen to take a “safety first” course. Attacks by Morrison and his ministers on Victoria, Queensland and Western Australia have been almost relentless.

Knowing that he would face internal dissent from the freedom advocates in the Coalition if there was any move to reimpose measures such as lockdowns, Morrison has called several emergency meetings of national cabinet to try to take pressure off the systems dealing with Covid-19.

Morrison persuaded the state and territory leaders to agree to redefining a “close contact” as someone who had spent a minimum of four hours in a family setting with a Covid-infected person. This seemed a particularly puzzling change given that previously a minimum of 15 minutes in close proximity to an infected person in any setting was considered sufficient.

State sources say that the states accepted this change on the proviso that it was not a binding decision and that they could, if they preferred, maintain their own close-contact guidelines. WA signalled it was unlikely to adopt this narrower definition when it begins opening up in early February.

This week, Morrison took a new proposal to national cabinet to narrow the definition of Covid-19 patients in hospitals, arguing that many of those counted as Covid patients had in fact been admitted to hospital for other conditions.

“This is just about politics,” a state official told me. “They are trying every way they can to find ways of making the numbers look less disastrous.”

The government has also made politically damaging stumbles as it has tried to adjust to the Omicron threat. After the pre-Christmas national cabinet at which the states pushed for a decision to bring forward the minimum period between booster shots from five months to four, Morrison defended the five-month period.

Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese backed the states and called for a four-month minimum, prompting Health Minister Greg Hunt to brand Albanese as “utterly irresponsible” and behaving in a way “unworthy of somebody who wants to be a PM”. The next day Morrison announced that government experts had advised the interval be reduced to four months.

He made a similar concession on rapid antigen tests. Initially, Morrison refused to make them available because “not everything can be free” and because the government did not want to undermine business. With a national cabinet meeting due on Wednesday – and with the states and territories likely to form a united front in favour of free tests – Morrison announced a limited number of 10 tests over three months would be free for concession card holders. The problem of where concession card holders might be able to find them was left unaddressed.

The Morrison government now faces political fallout from the Covid-19 crisis, which it has desperately hoped to avoid. With unfavourable polls, it had forgone the possibility of an end-of-year election in the hope that the electoral climate would improve in the early months of this year.

Before the emergence of Omicron and with growing confidence that Australians had grown weary of lockdowns and restrictions, the government calculated that the promise to get government out of people’s lives and give back their freedom would provide a sound basis from which to launch the government’s campaign to be re-elected.

It anticipated that opening up to live with Covid-19 would come with a rush of business and consumer confidence, which would generate a positive political mood and favour the Coalition. Instead, people feel no more free than they were with lockdowns and restrictions.

The national mood is more anxious and more negative than it has been since the last election. The Christmas and new year holiday season, which Morrison promised would be back to normal, has been massively disrupted. Businesses are being hit hard by the absence of worried customers and by large numbers of staff absent either with Covid-19 or trying to get tested for it.

The shambles that has followed the mishandled move to “living with Covid” has undermined the government’s claim to be better managers than Labor and deserving of voters’ trust.

Morrison had expected that with Covid anxiety largely behind us before he calls the election, the Coalition could run a successful scare campaign targeting Albanese and Labor – just as it did in 2019 against Bill Shorten.  Morrison’s stunning, unexpected victory at the last election convinced him that he could win another term, coming from behind.

Coalition figures believe Clive Palmer’s massive advertising spend is being more effectively targeted than in 2019 to win over disillusioned and angry voters whose preferences will help save existing marginal seats – and possibly to win seats from Labor. But Albanese is running a very different campaign to Shorten. He is presenting fewer targets on which the Coalition can run scares.

The last election seems so long ago. So much has changed in Australia since then it will indeed be a real miracle if a 2019-style campaign works a second time.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 8, 2022 as "Scott Morrison redraws the rules of the pandemic".

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Geoff Kitney is a former press gallery journalist and foreign correspondent.