The sheer scale of it

Perhaps the government simply cannot visualise it. It is possible they are unable to fathom what is happening, to appreciate its size.

Certainly, that is the impression Stuart Robert gave when the myGov website crashed under the weight of 100,000 people trying at once to ask for help.

“My bad,” the minister for Government Services said, “not realising the sheer scale of the decision on Sunday night by national leaders that literally saw hundreds and hundreds of thousands, maybe a million, people unemployed overnight.”

Somehow, Robert makes his culpability sound like indignation. For a sentence that starts in the first person and finishes with a million desperate citizens, there is no doubt as to which end of the scale has his empathy.

Everywhere, the lines outside Centrelink were likened to the dole queues of the Great Depression. The image is neat but it is also right. “Life is changing in Australia, for every Australian,” the prime minister, Scott Morrison, said. “And life is going to continue to change. For many, young and old, 2020 will be the toughest year of our lives.”

In the face of this, Morrison is talking about haircuts and barre classes. At a time of great national crisis, he confesses he doesn’t know what the latter is or how to say it. This might suggest it is an odd point of focus for a press conference about public health.

Morrison has special rules for personal trainers and wants shopping centre food courts to remain open for takeaway. He has decided twice as many people can go to a funeral as a wedding. He says all jobs are essential because it is essential to have jobs.

Morrison’s response to this crisis is piecemeal and shambolic. His press conference on Tuesday night was the sort of policy improvisation that could have started with the words “Yes, and…” Two weeks ago he was going to the football.

The prime minister is balancing the health of the public against the health of the economy, and doing neither very well. Each is hurting the other. What is needed in both areas is large-scale and decisive action.

We need radical measures to limit the spread of the virus. If a shutdown is necessary, the prime minister should stop nibbling at the edges of one.

If the government is willing to make comparisons to the Great Depression, it must envisage a comparable response. National building projects must be started and people employed in them. Money must be borrowed and we must consider that the tax cuts that have not yet come into effect should not come into effect.

The other lessons of the Great Depression must be learnt, too. Work must be done to pre-empt deprivation and the spike in suicides that came after 1929. The words Morrison speaks now are important and they must be about inclusion and social cohesion.

Perhaps on the other side of this we will be a society more aware of vulnerability. Perhaps we will care more for the old and the sick. Perhaps we will understand better the lives of the poor.

These things are by no means given. To start with, we need a prime minister who can speak with clarity and compassion, and guide us through.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 28, 2020 as "The sheer scale of it".

A free press is one you pay for. Now is the time to subscribe.

Sharing credit ×

Share this article, without restrictions.

You’ve shared all of your credits for this month. They will refresh on July 1. If you would like to share more, you can buy a gift subscription for a friend.