Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Covid-19 lockdowns and the PM for NSW

If a picture is worth a thousand words, nothing was more eloquent than the joint news conference of Scott Morrison and Gladys Berejiklian at the prime minister’s Sydney accommodation, Kirribilli House, this week. The Lodge in Canberra has been relegated to temporary digs status, giving reinforcement to accusations from Victoria that Morrison sees himself as “prime minister for New South Wales”. Like John Howard, he’s turned Sydney into the capital of Australia.

There on the lawns of the government guesthouse that Morrison calls home, the nation was told “the pandemic continues to evolve, it continues to set its own rules”. To many, what it sounded like was, “having got lucky early on, but having failed most tests since then, the virus is still in charge and not me”.

When Berejiklian made her midweek announcement that the continuing high incidence of community transmission of the highly infectious Delta strain was forcing her hand, she refused to go to a more stringent lockdown. Left in place were restrictions experts refer to as lockdown-lite, which they warn will prolong the agony.

The most compelling explanation for this blind spot is that the premier is finding it very hard to eat the humble pie the virus has forced on her. In May she boasted at the Liberal Party’s Federal Council, to warm applause, that she “had made sure we had the systems in place to be able to weather whatever came our way, so that we wouldn’t ever go into lockdown again”.

Citing research by the Burnet Institute, the ABC’s Dr Norman Swan said a tougher lockdown like the one imposed on Melbourne in its second wave was needed to contain and eliminate the community spread of the Delta variant. Otherwise, it could take until Christmas to achieve this goal.

Those restrictions would include measures such as an evening curfew, a five-kilometre travel limit and tighter retail restrictions, with a definition of “essential businesses”. Berejiklian is still refusing to define “essential”. Community leaders such as the mayor of Fairfield, Frank Carbone, say the premier’s reluctance is leading to confusion, with many feeling intimidated by a heavy police presence enforcing rules they are not clear on.

Unresolved is the tension between business and health. In The Sydney Morning Herald, economics editor Ross Gittins wrote that Berejiklian’s problem “is that she was being held up as the national pin-up girl of governments’ ability to cope with the crisis while minimising economic disruption”. She has been described as “the woman who saved Australia” for her reluctance to lock down NSW. No one was a greater supporter of this than the prime minister himself. Morrison praised Berejiklian for not going into a full lockdown two days before she capitulated to reality. But, as Gittins says, “prosperity isn’t much good to you if you’re dead”.

Privately, Morrison believes the other states were trigger happy when it came to bringing their business activity to a shuddering halt with lockdowns. His reluctance to come quickly to Victoria’s aid in its last lockdown had the Andrews Labor government bristling with indignation. Its reaction to the $5.1 billion support package jointly funded by Sydney and Canberra was swift and uncompromising. The Age in Melbourne was told by the premier’s office that “Victorians are rightly sick and tired of having to beg for every scrap of support from the federal government.” Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, Victoria’s most senior federal Liberal, accused the state Labor government of playing “petulant, childish”  politics.

In a media blitz on Wednesday morning, the prime minister hammered the message that Victoria was given millions more than other states per head because of its protracted second lockdown. He told Channel Nine the state was offered three-quarters of a billion dollars a week in support, without the state having to request it. It’s an interesting argument, when all it proves is that what he’s offered this time is much less. It also reminds people of what can be done when Morrison is willing to do it.

The incontrovertible fact is this: without a substantial proportion of the population fully vaccinated, the only tools available to prevent community transmission of a more dangerously infectious virus are regular testing, masks, social distancing and restriction of people’s movement. And, without a doubt, more purpose-built quarantine facilities along the lines of Howard Springs in the Northern Territory, which has seen no leakage of the virus. Morrison’s stubborn refusal to accept his constitutional responsibility in this regard is not going unnoticed. Labor’s Anthony Albanese has been tireless urging the federal government to step up.

The reality is that every lockdown imposed over the past 18 months, barring the outbreak due to Ruby Princess passengers returning to Tasmania, has been caused by the virus escaping the hotel quarantine arrangements imposed on arrivals from overseas. Can anyone in Australia be unaware of the fact that the current Bondi cluster heading beyond 1000 infections and spreading throughout greater metropolitan Sydney and beyond is due to a quarantine failure? It was triggered when an unvaccinated limousine driver ferried an international air crew to their hotel. Midweek it emerged removalists from Sydney had transported the virus to Melbourne, seeding a fresh outbreak. And at 11.59pm on Thursday Victoria entered a snap five-day hard lockdown as the number of cases of the Delta variant rose to 18.

The Transport Workers’ Union is now calling for its members – drivers, truckies, airport workers and the like – to be given fast-tracked vaccines. Berejiklian and her chief medical officer, Dr Kerry Chant, are left haplessly explaining that the Commonwealth has not supplied enough jabs to meet these demands. Berejiklian says Morrison assures her that will change in September. No doubt she is hoping he will be better than his word so far.

Former Liberal prime minister Malcolm Turnbull told The Project the inability of the federal government to secure enough Pfizer vaccines for Australia was “an epic fail”. He said it was the biggest failure in public administration he could recollect. “The vaccines were able to be got,” he said, “because other countries got them. What we lacked was leadership.”

Turnbull was reacting to a news report that another former prime minister, Kevin Rudd, had directly approached the chairman and chief executive of Pfizer, Dr Albert Bourla, in New York to secure faster access to the vaccine. According to a letter sent to Morrison, which was subsequently leaked to the ABC, Rudd approached the pharmaceutical giant’s chief at the request of frustrated Australian businessmen in America.

Rudd set up a Zoom meeting with Bourla, he says, because Pfizer executives had told the Australian businessmen that was the most effective approach, and they were surprised the current Australian prime minister had not done it. Just as surprised was a former senior executive at Pfizer, Dr John LaMattina. LaMattina told 7.30 that if he were an Australian “and seeing the rest of the world getting all these vaccine doses and my country was late to the party, I’d be a little disappointed to say the least”.

Health Minister Greg Hunt scoffed at Rudd’s helping hand, saying it did nothing to progress negotiations he was having with the Australian head of Pfizer. Why he then waited until the Rudd letter story emerged to announce he had organised for the delivery of millions of Pfizer doses to be brought forward is open to conjecture.

Morrison showed more urgency in campaigning for Mathias Cormann to become secretary-general of the OECD. At that time he made 50 phone calls to other world leaders; he made not one to the head of Pfizer. This contrasts with the former prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu. Bourla told Israel TV that its then PM had called him 30 times. Similar direct interventions came from the prime ministers of Japan and Canada, which led to both countries getting millions of extra doses.

Rudd angrily reacted to Greg Hunt’s scoffing, saying the Health minister should resign for leaving Australia a developed-world laggard in vaccination. He said he never claimed responsibility for Australia’s contracts with Pfizer “and would definitely not seek to associate himself with the Australian government’s comprehensive botched vaccine procurement program”.

Key Labor people in Canberra were delighted by the Rudd story. It vindicated their claims that Morrison had only two jobs in the pandemic – vaccine and quarantine – and he failed with both. One Sydney MP said the reaction in his electorate to the current crisis is more negative for Morrison over vaccines than it is for the premier over the lockdown.

And in brutal political terms this would have to be a worry for the federal Liberals. A consolidated Newspoll analysis over the past quarter suggests Albanese is on track for a narrow majority election victory. The poll picked up a 1.8 per cent swing to Labor in NSW. Liberal strategists concede that to hold government Morrison would need to pick up seats in his home state, and on that swing he would not.

According to the poll, the high-water mark for the Coalition in seats won in Queensland and Western Australia at the last election won’t be maintained. In fact, there have been significant swings against the government in both states.

Of course, such polls measure what is happening now and not what may happen come the election, which is likely to be held later rather than sooner. May 2022 would be a reasonable bet, but some in the party have little confidence the government’s handling of the pandemic will be markedly improved by then. When your whole pitch is that you’re the better manager, it’s not a great look.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 17, 2021 as "Can I speak to the manager? ".

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