Panic! At the Costco

Really, we should not be surprised. Panic buying isn’t an aberration – it’s the logical extension of a political system based entirely on selfishness and indifference, on the hoarding of wealth and property. It is what happens when government persuades the public that it is the problem.

It is difficult to remain credulous as Scott Morrison says hoarding is one of the most disappointing responses to coronavirus. “Stop doing it,” he says. “It’s ridiculous. It’s un-Australian … That is not who we are as a people.”

Perhaps Morrison doesn’t remember his election campaign launch last year. He’s not alone. Few lines proved enduring, although this one is: “I will not punish Australians for taking responsibility for themselves and their families.”

Morrison’s society is one where people look after themselves first. The path is a clear one, he says. “Create a life and a family together. Work even harder to support them and give them the choices and hopefully an even better life than the one that you have.”

He nods occasionally to supporting others, but for the people in this world it is always an afterthought. There is a simple refrain, which his parents followed: “They saved, they planned.”

Morrison’s promise has always been lower taxes. More money for you, and less for them. He says life is not about what you accumulate, then outlines the simple, honest and decent aspirations of people who want more than what others have.

And then, a year later, having triumphed on the promise of greed, he says: “Stop hoarding. I can’t be more blunt about it. Stop it. It is not sensible, it is not helpful.”

Crises are greeted by the best and worst in people, and the worst in people is what put this government in power. They won on grift and seem surprised the country doesn’t trust them. You cannot reassure a public you’ve never succeeded in leading.

This isn’t just Scott Morrison. The contraction of government services across decades has left people isolated and mistrusting. They have been told to depend on themselves, and that is what they are doing. A government that won’t promise healthcare or education can’t be expected to guarantee groceries. The ungenerous spirit that empties shelves is acting on the absence of leadership we have been offered.

Morrison believes his success is in being an everyman. It is an everyman who goes to the football when the prime minister shouldn’t. It is an everyman who addresses the nation and says “stop it” like he is scolding a child.

Everymen go on the holidays they’ve planned. They make promises to their children. Their choices are simple because they believe their lives are simple.

Everymen are ordinary, like Scott Morrison promises to be ordinary. The problem is ordinary people cannot lead countries. They don’t have the capacity, don’t have the insight or the empathy. They cannot reassure because they have nothing large enough – intellectually or emotionally – to draw on for reassurance. Scott Morrison is proof of that. Panic buying is proof of that. The many people who suffer from this virus will be proof of that.

We shouldn’t judge the people lining up outside supermarkets or fighting in grocery store aisles for toilet paper, but we should judge harshly the celebration of greed and selfishness that put them there.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 21, 2020 as "Panic! At the Costco".

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