Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Always late to the rescue

The prime minister’s people went ballistic – much to the bemusement of the Queensland premier’s officials, who were involved in the planning of a special-purpose quarantine facility in Brisbane. The trigger for the shouted conversations down the line from Canberra was as telling as the “over the top and petty” tone described by one senior adviser.

The feds had taken great exception at being pre-empted by the leaking of various elements of the inter-governmental memorandum of understanding (MOU) relating to the facility. The Palaszczuk government had dared to brief the media that it had finally reached an agreement with the Commonwealth on the construction of the nation’s third dedicated Covid-19 camp, at Pinkenba, near Brisbane Airport.

Eighteen months into the pandemic, which has now led to another ferociously more infectious wave engulf most of the nation, Scott Morrison is clearly anxious to start looking like he is getting ahead of the game. He is of course playing catch-up but wants to make sure every post from here is a winner.

Morrison’s people complained to the Queenslanders that they had wrongly put out that the memorandum had been signed when it was still awaiting both leaders’ signatures. To make their point, some minor changes were included in a new version of the MOU, which the premier happily signed to get the job done. Annastacia Palaszczuk had been pressing for a purpose-built facility since December – and the Sydney quarantine failure in June had given ample evidence to the fact her pleas had merit.

But if the premier was looking for more urgency, she didn’t get it. The federal government insisted that it retained absolute discretion to utilise contractors engaged in building Melbourne’s quarantine facility at Mickleham. Brisbane’s now won’t be operational until mid next year – another frustration for Palaszczuk, who would also like her preferred site near Toowoomba to go ahead. The private developers there say it could have been up and running by now if it were not for the Commonwealth obstinance.

Aside from federal–state tensions, the episode captures Morrison’s failures of leadership handling the crises that have come the nation’s way since the 2019 election. He was very late agreeing to demands from the premiers of Queensland, Victoria and Western Australia to replicate the Howard Springs quarantine camp near Darwin, to reduce the threat of more leaks from hotel quarantine. As it is, hotel quarantine was only ever supposed to be a stopgap measure, proposed by the premiers on the presumption that the pandemic would be quickly over. This has proved to be sadly mistaken.

There is clear evidence that the Delta variant arrived when the virus escaped hotel quarantine with people coming from largely unvaccinated countries. United States presidential adviser Dr Anthony Fauci told CBS America at the weekend “the more you get infections, the more spread you get, the greater opportunity the virus has to continue to evolve and mutate”.

In New South Wales the virus is outrunning the incremental lockdowns, exposing a population rushing to get vaccinated much later than would have been necessary had Morrison been more successful in his vaccine purchase approach. The prime minister is now scrambling to secure Pfizer vaccine from wherever he can find a willing seller. It was Poland on Sunday – and there are reports Australia has raided half a million doses from the United Nations’ Covax scheme, set up to ensure poorer countries get access to vaccines.

This has prompted the chief executive of the Australian Council for International Development, Marc Purcell, to warn that Australia would never be able to recover from Covid-19 and reopen its borders until developing nations were also vaccinated.

At the same time, the public health crisis is shaking Australians’ trust in the ability of the federal and state governments to handle it. The Australian Financial Review reported the latest True Issues survey by JWS Research, taken in July, which shows faith in the capacity of Scott Morrison and the premiers of NSW and Queensland “falling off a cliff”.

Longest-suffering Victoria has an equally divided state over its premier’s tough stance, although the 50-50 split is unchanged since February.

Veteran Liberal backbencher Russell Broadbent has been overwhelmed by the response to his invitation on YouTube and social media for comment on vaccine passports or mandates. People are mightily concerned about the crisis and impact on their livelihoods, he has found. Broadbent elicited 35,000 responses on YouTube and 1200 individual emails. He says passions are running high, with opinions strongly for and against coercive measures, but many in business see such measures as the only way to live with the virus once Australia can hit 80 per cent of the population fully vaccinated.

So far Morrison’s response is not to have a policy on mandating vaccine passports, although Broadbent points out that Medicare is already providing a de facto vaccine passport with its online certificates. The unresolved question is what legal protections can be afforded to businesses that see the issue as a matter of safety for their employees and customers. Anthony Albanese has not answered this either.

Midweek, the prime minister talked up the accelerating rollout of vaccines, after his failure to deliver for the most vulnerable in the aged care and disability sectors and Indigenous Australians was exposed in NSW.

Not to be missed either is the number of children testing positive in Victoria and the ACT. This hit home when shadow finance minister Katy Gallagher, who is also chair of the senate select committee tracking the handling of the pandemic, had her 14-year-old daughter Evie catch the virus at school.

Gallagher and her partner are fully vaccinated with Pfizer. She is now the principal carer of Evie and has been provided with personal protective equipment, but she says she fears for her 16-year-old son who is in the next room and, like his younger sister, is unvaccinated. Gallagher told ABC Radio that, as a mother, she feels it is a “failure of our response to Covid”.

The senator, who previously was ACT chief minister, says she is “one mother of thousands out there”. She says there is no plan for vaccinating teenagers and with another high school in the ACT listed as an exposure site “we need to get on top of this quickly”.

Getting on top of things quickly is not something Morrison does well. He tries to hide this behind appeals that he is being measured and cautious. His political opponents will have none of it – and you know they are on to something when their partisan attacks have more than a ring of truth about them.

Albanese has begun referring to the “Morrison–Joyce government” – on a gut feeling that the reinstalled Barnaby Joyce is a negative for the Coalition, which also happens to be bolstered by research.

On Tuesday, when veterans, their organisations and refugee advocates began demanding Australia do something to get people out of Afghanistan, Albanese joined the chorus. He said, “Scott Morrison is characterised by always responding too little, too late. He waits until there’s an absolute crisis before he acknowledges there’s an issue, and then he blames someone else.”

Morrison rankled veterans’ advocates on Sunday when he said he “wished things were different” but not everyone who deserves our protection would get it. But midweek he answered many critics when the first Australian air force plane went into Kabul to retrieve our citizens, visa holders and some former staff. The fact that we shut our embassy and withdrew our diplomats back in May did not make the task any easier.

But the prime minister firmly rejected calls from Labor to follow the example of Bob Hawke in 1989, who granted permanent residency to 19,000 Chinese nationals here, mostly on student visas, following the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing. Bill Shorten told the Today Show that many Afghans in Australia were from the Hazara minority and there was no way they could safely be returned home. Albanese lent his weight to the call, saying all Afghans on temporary visas, including the 53 in long-term immigration detention, should have their uncertainty and fears ended.

Morrison did talk about allowing more Afghans in as part of our humanitarian cohort, but not if they had attempted to come “illegally” – a cynical description given that no matter how people come, it is not illegal to claim asylum.

Morrison defended our 20-year “longest war” as worthwhile in the name of freedom. Australian soldiers dying for freedom is never in vain, he said. But whose freedom is the question? Apparently, it is not the freedom sought by those who flee the Taliban’s tyranny.

Morrison ruled out following Canada or other nations in offering to take up to 20,000 Afghan refugees. He even ruled out following Tony Abbott’s special exemptions for refugees from Syria and Iraq.

The vehemence of his assertion of an unchanged boat people policy smacks of a desperate prime minister itching for another border security election. It may have worked for a similarly hard-pressed John Howard in 2001 but two decades later, in light of all that has happened, it looks particularly tawdry.

It is not the lifeline he needs to rescue his political fortunes.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 21, 2021 as "Always late to the rescue".

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