Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Government’s crashing failure in face of crisis

If anything crystallises the brutal impact of the coronavirus crisis in Australia, it is the thousands queued outside Centrelink offices around the country this week. The lines began forming the day after the prime minister announced that vast sectors of the economy were to be shut down, with income support for those affected. Here was the intersection of life or death measures, crashing the livelihoods of millions and again exposing a government response that was poorly thought through and executed.

The witness for the prosecution was none other than the minister for Government Services, Stuart Robert. In one of the most gormless interviews ever given by a senior minister, Robert left even Alan Jones flabbergasted. He told the 2GB shock jock that it was “my bad, not realising the sheer scale of the decision on Sunday night by national leaders that literally saw hundreds of thousands, maybe a million, people unemployed overnight”.

Robert was on Jones’s show ostensibly to explain why the myGov website had crashed, leaving thousands frustrated and fearful their promised income support would not be delivered. The minister said “decent people” had found themselves in circumstances of unemployment for the first time in their lives. They were regarded as “decent” because – unlike the usual cohort who need the unemployment benefit – their predicament was through no fault of their own. Here we had a window into the thinking of a government that treats the unemployed as “leaners” and unworthy of taxpayer-funded sustenance to keep them out of penury.

Initially, Robert tried to blame a cyber attack for the incredible failure of the myGov website. On Jones’s show, he said he “probably should have waited for the investigation before jumping the gun”. He said he’d prepared over the weekend for traffic to increase from 6000 to 55,000 – but the site crashed after nearly 100,000 people tried to access it. He promised to fix it. He didn’t, and it crashed again on Tuesday. He also promised more staff to keep the call centre open for 12 hours a day. “Why not 24 hours?” Jones chimed in. The minister said because he didn’t have enough people. “Well, employ more,” Jones retorted, adding that there are plenty out there looking for work.

Not so forgiving was shadow Government Services minister Bill Shorten. He went to a more fundamental issue with the original Robert obfuscation. Shorten says we should be telling people the truth. He said when the government was confronted with the collapse of its information technology, it immediately chose “to resort to a fairytale rather than just be upfront with people”. Shorten told ABC TV “the only way we are going to get through this is if the government acts in a trustworthy manner”.

Shorten blames incompetence for the “cock-up” – as well as the government’s relentless cuts to social security. He’s certainly more strident in his criticism of the government’s response than Anthony Albanese; but he no longer has the burden of being the leader, seeking a national consensus in a time of coronavirus.

Shorten didn’t have to look far for support from those on the queues. Some emailed The New Daily. One said he was in the queue not for the dole but to get the pension: “I’m nearly 68. Supposed to get it in 7 weeks after lodgement of documents, but when I get close I get a new letter and the 7 weeks starts all over again.” Another, Chris Konstandinou, said he had applied for a disability pension after a permanent injury in September last year. He’s lost count of the number of times he’s had to resubmit forms and paperwork. “I still get letters from Centrelink requesting the same documents,” he wrote. “That’s how dysfunctional it is.”

The chief executive of the Council of Small Business Organisations Australia, Peter Strong, says the one to two million people who have been forced from their jobs by the government’s coronavirus containment strategies shouldn’t be in the welfare queues in the first place. Strong says the temporarily ramped-up unemployment benefit should be called an income replacement payment. He says they are “displaced workers” – and the $1115.70 fortnightly payment that doesn’t come in until the end of April is grossly inadequate. In some cases, it is a quarter of people’s regular wages. If the government wants to support businesses and workers to resume after the crisis, Strong says, it should follow Britain with a direct wage subsidy of up to 80 per cent of current wages. This call is supported by unions and the Australian Industry Group.

Strong says the payments to small businesses are more likely to be used to pay rent and utilities. There won’t be much left over to pay employees when customers, especially in retail, are being urged to stay home and no income is coming through the door. Strong would like to see parliament recalled to temporarily amend the Fair Work Act so that hours of work and some other conditions can be adjusted without penalty. As it is, he says, employers are liable for fines unless a time-consuming negotiation with the unions is ratified by the Fair Work Commission. Labor’s Tony Burke is unsympathetic to this view, pointing to the joint success of the United Workers Union and the Hotels Association, which were able to temporarily vary awards with Fair Work’s ratification.

The government does seem hamstrung by the lessons of the global financial crisis. Haunting Scott Morrison are his attacks on Labor’s “reckless spending”, but economist Stephen Koukoulas says this is misguided in the current dire situation. “Who’s worried about budget deficits when the future of the country is at stake?” he says. Still, Morrison continues to be piecemeal. Sure, bigger pieces than we’ve seen before, but he acknowledges even more will be needed. The prospect seems to scare him. He told Alan Jones that “when you’re making the scale of change that we are to these payments and the safety net, there will be other items that we’ll need to go back and address”.

The Australia Institute’s chief economist, Richard Denniss, says we are not facing the usual “counter-cyclical downturn”. He says this is bigger than the global financial crisis. “This is the first time in history a government has crushed an enormous part of its economy on purpose.” There is no quibble with the purpose – which is containing this pandemic – but there is no denying the economic crush either.

Anthony Albanese says he wants the government to succeed. It is in that light, he says, that Labor is pointing to the need for more generous income support for more people. He says confusing messages from the prime minister and the premiers are just adding to the anxiety of Australians.

Denniss says Morrison should stop talking about “targeted and temporary” measures and look to “structural and permanent” ones. By that, he means a much bigger role for the public sector. This turns on its head the mantra of “small government” making way for private enterprise. The private sector is being crippled and it needs the government to fill the breach. As he did in The Saturday Paper last week, Denniss says it’s time for Kevin Rudd’s school halls to be painted. Eleven years later, they need maintenance, and this would give real jobs to the unemployed and to struggling private firms.

The moment of bitter truth is rapidly approaching for Australia. Much as escalating cases and a rising death toll forced Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s hands in Britain, the rate of increase here will cause a national health disaster if left unchecked.

Our world-leading number of tests gave Morrison something to boast about midweek. At 163,000, it is almost five times as many as Britain and 25 times as many as the United States, he said. But these tests have unearthed a rate of infection increase running on average at 25 per cent a day. On that rate, Australia will have 90,000 Covid-19 cases by Easter and 2.5 million by Anzac Day. Commonwealth deputy chief medical officer Paul Kelly says with the highly infectious virus one person infects three others, which can lead to 400 catching the virus in a month. This is why social distancing is so important.

Intensive care specialist Professor Hugh Montgomery told Britain’s Channel 4 that it is not until day 10 of a diagnosis that the illness worsens for most patients. It’s then that hospitalisation, intensive care and ventilators are needed to save lives. This reality led Morrison to announce that elective surgery in public and private hospitals around Australia will be postponed to enable “health services to prepare for their role in the Covid-19 outbreak”.

Victoria’s premier, Daniel Andrews, flagged during the week that his state would have to go into a stage 3 lockdown this weekend. In Britain, it was not until Johnson shut down the nation that people knew things were getting serious. Australians, with our “she’ll be right, mate” ethos, need Morrison to stop urging calm and instead clearly warn of some very uncomfortable realities heading our way.

It’s a matter of life or death.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 28, 2020 as "A crashing failure".

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