Opinion

John Hewson
How Scott Morrison failed on RATs

I was staggered to be informed some years ago of a significant Liberal Party dinner held in the run-up to a state election, which offered an opportunity for business and community leaders to meet with and cross-examine the premier-aspirant on major policy issues and challenges.

Apparently one of the guests listed these challenges, seeking an indication of the likely response from a Liberal government. The aspirant’s response was an event-stopper: “I guess we will muddle through as we have always done.”

It has been a most unfortunate aspect of government in Australia over many decades that leadership can be characterised as “muddling through”.

Governments have been totally unprepared, with no actual, planned response for a challenge that has arisen. Mostly, they have responded day-to-day, doing basically as little as they could get away with until the point where the urgency passed. They would feel that they got away with it, ignoring the magnitude of the lost opportunity and the cost to our national interests.

Scott Morrison has gone to great lengths to give his overall Covid-19 response an air of respectability by claiming to be acting on the basis of the science – ignoring his political manipulation of that advice  and suggesting this is done with the overarching support of the national cabinet.

Without being unkind, the Morrison government’s response to Covid-19 has been little better than “muddling through” and on recent evidence the “muddling” is continuing with the rush to ease restrictions as a perceived pre-election imperative. He has done this, of course, in the context of the Omicron variant tearing through the eastern states, again with inadequate supply of booster doses and a lack of clarity on rapid antigen tests.

I can report on both points from recent personal experience. Speaking with our doctor and pharmacist to arrange booster shots, the reply was “no supply”. My wife then purchased two rapid antigen test kits from a service station for the incredible cost of $65.

There is wide variability on both supply and price for these kits, posing the very serious risk of price gouging, as the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has also noted.

Against this background, it is very hard to understand why the Morrison government is resisting making the tests freely available to all who need them. It surely can’t be just to benefit mates in the wholesale chemist trade. The decision to offer a limited number of free tests to concession card holders – without having secured supply of these tests – is little more than a gesture.

The lack of booster doses echoes all the original vaccine hubris about the government having tied up a huge supply that never came in time. It should be noted that genuine world leaders in Covid-19 response, such as Israel, are now pushing for second booster shots, while most people in Australia have not been able to get even their first.

Morrison has been quick to shift the benchmarks against which we might judge the effectiveness of his response. As daily case numbers have blown out considerably to more than 30,000 per day in New South Wales, we are told that case numbers are not that important. Rather, the focus should be on the rate of hospitalisation. Still, this rate quadrupled between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve in NSW. There have been many reports from healthcare workers of intense strains on the system – the overloading of the emergency call network and of ambulance and paramedic services, of tiredness and fatigue, and of delays and failures in PCR testing.

Nevertheless, Morrison has been at pains to say that the health system is coping, even with active cases exceeding 300,000 nationally and hospitalisations above 3000. Morrison has also shifted to increase acceptance of “living with Covid”. He says we are in “the new phase” of the pandemic and “people will need to take responsibility for managing their own health at home”.

I suspect and fear that the rush to ease restrictions last month, simply for reasons of political expediency, will in time be seen as an important and costly turning point in the management of the pandemic. It is particularly distracting for Morrison to be boasting of world-leading vaccination rates and a low death rate in the face of this.

While most of the policy focus in relation to the pandemic has understandably been on health and the economy, looking forward some attention should be directed to the foreign policy consequences of the pandemic.

In this regard I read an interesting contribution recently by historian Walter L. Hixson in CounterPunch, under the title “America’s foreign policy death spiral”. In Hixson’s view the challenge is this: “The paradigm that ensnares American diplomacy cemented some 75 years ago with World War II and the Cold War. Those cataclysmic events forged an enduring American national security state characterized by unlimited global intervention, cultivation of an ever-metastasizing ‘military-industrial complex’, and endless and often racialized enemy-othering followed by highly destructive yet ultimately losing wars replete with devastating blowback on the ‘homeland’.”

Hixson argues for the urgent establishment of a “new foreign policy paradigm of cooperative internationalism centered on combating climate change, population control, control of infectious disease, investment to deal effectively with poverty and global migration, dramatic demilitarization, and renunciation of arms
as well as human trafficking”.

He suggests that America “take the lead in resurrecting and strengthening the United Nations to better enable it to pursue the mission of promoting global security, anti-racism, and universal human rights”.

My interest in a global reset of foreign policies stems from recent efforts to establish the Council for the Human Future to focus and stimulate global discussion and debate about the 10 megarisks we have identified to human survival. These risks include the decline of key natural resources; mass extinction of species and the collapse of ecosystems that support life; human population growth and demand beyond Earth’s carrying capacity; global warming, sea-level rise and change in the Earth’s climate; widespread pollution of the planet’s systems by chemicals; rising food insecurity and failing nutritional quality; wars utilising nuclear arms and other weapons of mass destruction; pandemics of new and untreatable disease; the advent of powerful and uncontrolled new technologies; and the universal human failure to understand and act preventively on these risks.

In my view, there is a further risk to do with leadership: if world governments continue to try to “muddle through”, the issues will drift at an alarming pace and could soon become existential. This point is particularly pertinent to the need to be better prepared for the next and future pandemics and the need to recognise the significant risk to future human survival of the failure of governments to pay genuine attention to the science, evidence and expert advice – what could usefully be called denialism in relation to the seriousness and urgency of these risks.

In Australia’s terms, what have our governments learnt from decades of extreme weather events such as bushfires and droughts, beyond the crippling costs of their inaction, and how are they preparing better for the inevitable repeats of such events? It is not enough to simply claim “I don’t hold a hose” or to kid ourselves by incorrectly boasting about how we’ve led the world in the health and economic response to Covid-19.

Solutions to major global challenges are generally beyond the vision and capacities of most governments and policy authorities acting individually – there are no simple, silver bullet solutions. As Hixson points out, “cooperative internationalism” is a basic requirement to an effective global response.

In a sense, the global response to the pandemic has been in this spirit – governments working collectively and collaboratively within a shared global objective. Expertise, experience and vaccines were shared. Sure, more could have been done and the whole operation done more effectively, but it showed how such a framework can work.

A key point is that global governments need to be searching for ways to work together for the global and national good, avoiding unnecessary confrontation and adversarial behaviour. In our case, rather than being confrontational with the Chinese we need to seek areas such as climate where we could work together in partnership, for instance in technology development and sectoral transition strategies.

Clearly it may be necessary to develop a global framework to drive this internationalism. As founding chair of the Council for the Human Future I have written recently to UN Secretary-General António Guterres supporting the Millennium Project’s proposal for a new United Nations Office for the Prevention of Catastrophic Risks. The basis for the approach to Guterres was his recent warnings about the various “catastrophic risks facing humanity”.

Not unexpectedly, Guterres’s response was to encourage me to get Australia’s UN representative to propose it for “formal inscription on the organisation’s agenda and subsequent vote by the membership”. We have independently been told that the proposal has been “socialised” – gaining some support from both UN staff and membership.

This leads me to challenge those who will seek to govern us after the next election to be the world’s first government to commit to a strategy for the human future and to begin by committing to move the necessary motion at a meeting of the UN General Assembly.

Australia deserves a better new year’s message than the one delivered by Morrison. It was every Christmas cracker rolled into one, with a touch of sunburnt country thrown in. He even dragged out the no-backwards-stepping animals on the coat of arms. We need a government with a longer-term vision, and a way forward for our nation, in what will be a  particularly challenging global environment post-pandemic.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 8, 2022 as "Muddling through".

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John Hewson is a professor at the ANU Crawford School of Public Policy and former Liberal opposition leader.