Paul Bongiorno
Morrison’s coronavirus awakening

There in the prime ministerial courtyard of Parliament House, Scott Morrison finally admitted his world had crumbled. “Life is changing in Australia, as it is changing all around the world,” he began his news conference midweek. “Life is going to continue to change as we deal with the global coronavirus. This is a once-in-a-hundred-year type event. We haven’t seen this sort of thing in Australia since the end of the First World War.” All this is true, but the next bit is highly contestable: “Together we are, of course, up to this challenge.”

Morrison’s reference was to the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. As the ABC’s medical expert, Dr Norman Swan, points out, we are back to where the world was then. We do not have a vaccine; there is no immunity in the general population, as there is with the various strains of the flu; and all we have to control the disease are containment and isolation.

A week ago, in a confidential briefing note from Health Minister Greg Hunt’s office, the government’s strategy was spelled out in dot points. The aim, according to the note, was to flatten the bell curve “so we have only 1-2m infected per month. Worst month expected to be June easing by September and all done be [sic] December.” But over the past week, the average rate of coronavirus infections was rising by 23.7 per cent a day, according to one Labor researcher. Based on these figures, if the government had done nothing more this week, there would have been 2000 new cases next week and 1.5 million cases by Anzac Day. But if we can halve the rate, we cut the Anzac Day figure by almost 97 per cent, to just 37,000.

Morrison’s government has been slow to the awakening on the medical and economic fronts. It is all about risk management, according to Norman Swan, who agrees with what Professor Bill Bowtell, a key adviser on the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, says. Bowtell was scathing of the government’s green light for last weekend’s major sporting fixtures. He told The Australian Financial Review the decision was “reckless and beyond stupid”.

On the economic front, the contrast with New Zealand makes the point. The Ardern government announced a massive stimulus package, close to 4 per cent of gross domestic product. Australia’s first effort was just under 1 per cent and it has taken only a week for the penny to drop that this was well short of the mark. Helping to focus the government’s mind was the dramatic collapse in travel, threatening the viability of airlines. Qantas has cut all its international flights and domestic ones by 60 per cent. Virgin has also suspended all international flights and cut its domestic services by half. Morrison’s response was a further $715 million relief package for the aviation industry, which includes waiving fuel excise and other charges.

Finance Minister Mathias Cormann spoke of the “grim reality” that some businesses would close because of the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic. Like his cabinet colleagues, he focused more on hospitality and tourism; but as more and more people come to terms with what “social distancing” means, and as bans on indoor gatherings of 100 people or more are applied, the word “some” is an understatement.

The lack of decisive action initially was linked to Morrison and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg not wanting to “do a Wayne Swan” – and instead holding on to their overhyped core promise of a budget surplus. Now that the health emergency – or, as it was formally declared by the governor-general on Wednesday, a “human biosecurity emergency”– has escalated into an economic crisis, those old shibboleths have to be discarded. Otherwise we are heading for a deep recession, if not a depression.

Respected economist Chris Richardson says “there does need to be a mindset change in Canberra”. He told The Saturday Paper: “It’s a new world; you can’t cut interest rates any more to boost a weakening economy. Under these circumstances everything comes down to the budget.” Richardson echoed the International Monetary Fund in saying Australia is in a better position than most rich countries to go deeper into debt. He said to protect the country “in the short and long term the government will need to spend a lot of money wisely”.

Richardson does not quibble with analysis by Crikey’s Bernard Keane, who says the government can afford a $100 billion stimulus. In fact, Richardson says it may have to be more than that. Among the measures mooted would be the government replacing the majority of lost wages and salaries. The estimated cost of $150 billion over two quarters would push our net debt to 27 per cent of GDP, still well below Japan’s 150 per cent or the United States’ 80 per cent and rising. President Donald Trump has started to throw big money at the disaster, no doubt recognising it is an election year. The virus is no longer a hoax but a direct threat to his own political survival.

Morrison’s call for national unity and resolve, and his creation of a “national cabinet” made up of himself, the premiers and the chief ministers, has been widely welcomed. On Tuesday night the teleconference among them went late as a raft of new measures to contain the virus was agreed upon. But Morrison’s unwillingness to invite Labor leader Anthony Albanese into the cabinet is jarring. The fact is the government needs the opposition’s support to get its measures through the parliament as expeditiously as possible. Albanese says Labor will continue to play a constructive role and “now is not the time for politics”. He almost certainly means it’s not the time for ham-fisted politics.

Morrison called Albanese on Tuesday morning, as the Labor leader was visiting bushfire-ravaged communities on the New South Wales south coast. Albanese readily agreed to the prime minister’s suggestions to limit the number of MPs needed in Canberra next week to pass legislation. It will be 90 in the representatives, with pairing arrangements maintaining the government’s majority. The Labor leader took the opportunity to discuss the parlous state of the airlines and supported calls for taxes and charges to be waived.

Three federal politicians – two Coalition senators and cabinet minister Peter Dutton – have already tested positive for the coronavirus. Using the cover of encrypted WhatsApp messages, the government whips urged members to advise them immediately if there were new cases. They were also asked not to inform the media first. Social-distancing rules will be adhered to in both chambers but at Albanese’s insistence there will be question time on at least one of the days.

Not everyone on the government backbench is happy with the arrangements, and some are worried Morrison’s handling of the crisis has been a long way from convincing. “He’s out of his depth,” was the view of one. Probably the most telling example was the confusion last weekend over handshaking. Morrison said it was safe on Sunday morning, only to say it wasn’t by Sunday afternoon. And then there was the spectacle of the prime minister having to clumsily backtrack on his determination to go to his beloved “Sharkies” rugby league game. Albanese read the mood better and pulled out first. It must have hurt: his Rabbitohs beat Morrison’s team.

The fact is, governing is done more by the seat of the pants than anyone is willing to publicly acknowledge. Morrison’s early assurance that he had a plan was shown to be more about marketing than reality when the nation ran short of coronavirus test kits and hospitals reported a shortage of masks and personal protection gear.

Even so, Dr Norman Swan is not alone when he says not even the marketing is up to scratch. Swan told ABC TV the communication should be much more sophisticated, so people can be engaged and informed. He said people are frightened because “they feel they’re not getting told the whole story”. This fear is leading to the panic buying of toilet paper and other staples. Swan says the “whole story” behind Wednesday’s decisions are “more people will probably die as a result of the decisions today, but maybe they would have died anyway, just in July. This is the cold hard fact of the matter.”

Newspoll found a hugely significant 76 per cent of Australians were worried about the impact of the virus on the economy, which translates to worries about their own economic security. Fifty-one per cent were worried about the preparedness of our public health system. No doubt the states can share some of the blame here, which is scant consolation.

After trailing Albanese as preferred PM since the January fires, Morrison regained a four-point lead, although the Coalition still lags behind Labor and the prime minister’s performance is 12 points in the negative territory. Polling analyst Andrew Catsaras says people obviously want their prime minister to do well, but he hasn’t yet regained their confidence. By his own prognosis, Morrison has another six months of crisis to rise to the challenge.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 21, 2020 as "An uncertain prognosis".

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Paul Bongiorno is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a 30-year veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery.

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