Opinion

Chris Wallace
Morrison and Perrottet’s laissez-faire pact

If you think a day is a long time in politics, try a week. This one started with Scott Morrison showing off his massive barramundi. It finished with Australia’s uncontrolled Omicron outbreak likely finishing off his government’s chance of re-election.

In between, Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese showed the difference between him and his predecessor, Bill Shorten, in the struggle to wrest government from the Coalition. Instead of sticking rigidly to a losing approach, Albanese quickly switched tactics at a critical moment in the struggle.

The roots of this week’s dramatic pivot in national politics lie in the unholy policy alliance of Morrison and New South Wales Premier Dominic Perrottet. Both men are laissez-faire when it comes to whether people live or die from Covid-19.

Neoliberal economic philosophy and a brutal Darwinism are combined in Morrison and Perrottet’s privileging of business interests over public health at the price of avoidable deaths, severe illness and long Covid.

From the pandemic’s beginnings in early 2020, Morrison favoured the spurious “herd immunity” approach, leaning against moves to contain Covid-19’s spread.

Substitute “polio” or “smallpox” for “Covid” and it’s obvious how deadly the herd immunity approach would have been, especially absent a vaccine at that stage to head off a full-blown public health disaster.

Australia was saved initially through staunch action by state premiers, whose prudent management, including lockdowns, prevented scores of avoidable deaths and chronic illness for many people.

Morrison’s malign partisanship saw him and, notably, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg politically target Labor premiers doing the right thing by their communities while staying silent about Liberal premiers with the same policies.

The tragic subplot of the drama was former NSW Liberal premier Gladys Berejiklian’s segue from initial solidarity on sensible action with the other premiers to a “freedumb” flirtation with Morrison. This led to a significant outbreak of the Delta variant in Australia, emanating from lax policy in Sydney, and to further lockdowns that would have been otherwise unnecessary.

Berejiklian bowed out under a corruption cloud and was succeeded by the John Howard-anointed conservative right-winger Perrottet. Perrottet became premier on October 5. Omicron was detected in Sydney for the first time on November 28.

There was copious evidence from around the world by then of Omicron’s extreme transmissibility, exponentially beyond that of the super-transmissible Delta variant. Perrottet nevertheless urged Sydneysiders to eat, drink and make merry.

On December 15 he scrapped most public health measures that were helping to contain Covid-19. Morrison endorsed and applauded Perrottet’s action that day and repeatedly since. Less than a fortnight later, with cases going through the roof, Perrottet partly reversed course – but by too little and way too late.

The result is a massive wave of Covid-19 throughout Australia, in numbers previously beyond imagining, all flowing from the boy premier’s laissez-faire approach to life, death and public health, and Scott Morrison’s active support for it.

Over the past fortnight Australia went from having one of the lowest per capita  Covid-19 infection rates in the world to one of the highest – a shameful blot on Perrottet and Morrison’s records for all time. As the wave rose, the system began to buckle.

Hospitals began to groan under the combined weight of admissions and coronavirus-driven staff shortages. But what would Perrottet and Morrison care about those getting pounded on the health system’s front line? Doctors, nurses and ancillary staff are merely workers, after all.

Coalition claqueurs echoed government messaging that Omicron was a “milder” form of the virus, taking advantage of the fact that, like other variants of Covid-19, it produces a range of results from death to asymptomatic infection. Hospitalisations are a lagging indicator, of course, and that gave Morrison and Perrottet a bigger window to keep their approach going.

Queues for PCR testing quickly grew to unmanageable levels. Rapid antigen tests (RATs) became impossible to find and for many, as business gouged on prices, hard to afford.

When the Coalition cut the last cord on Australia’s Covid-19 defence system, essentially telling us to buy and administer our own tests, it was the last straw. This could well be Morrison’s fatal political move.

On Monday, doubling down on his statement late last week that the market rather than government should meet the demand for RATs, he declared, “We just can’t go round and make everything free.”

Even some fairly reliable organs of influence for the government quailed as Covid-19 numbers swelled and the testing crisis grew. “Morrison’s penny-pinching on COVID tests doesn’t add up”, declared a headline in The Australian Financial Review, for example. But Morrison dug in. There was a reason.

Swinging voters of the kind Morrison needs to win the election – those who voted for the Coalition last time but are wavering now – are especially responsive to the risk of Labor as a high-spending and taxing government.

Morrison’s “we just can’t go round and make everything free” statement had a dual purpose. It was designed to catch the eye of precisely those swinging voters and burnish the false perception of him as a leader of fiscal rectitude.

At the same time it was designed to wedge Labor, which knows this perception is a problem, despite its objective record over the past 50 years of delivering spending and taxes as a percentage of GDP at lower levels than Coalition governments.

So it was on Tuesday that Albanese and Labor shadow treasurer Jim Chalmers did the media rounds, criticising the government for abandoning Australians who couldn’t get, or couldn’t afford, tests – but without saying what it would do in government.

The crucial moment came on Tuesday night. After describing a series of Coalition knockbacks, from the prime minister down, to invitations to discuss the national testing crisis, the ABC’s Laura Tingle interviewed Albanese on 7.30 instead.

Tingle bowled a series of underarm balls to Albanese, opening the way for him to say RATs should be free and universal as bowel cancer tests and mammograms have been in Australia for years. He failed to make contact with the ball.

Social media lit up in anguish. There was a visceral spasm of pain among Labor apparatchiks on WhatsApp and Signal trying to find out why Albanese chose not to hit the obvious six on offer. Why couldn’t he simply say the words “Rapid antigen tests should be free and would be under a Labor government”?

The answer is that Labor was trying to keep the focus on the government’s failure and not fall for Morrison’s wedge – tactics that in normal circumstances make good sense from opposition. But such is the crisis engendered by the cumulative impact of the Coalition’s mismanagement that, in this specific moment, it was not going to be enough.

“Morrison’s brought our country to its knees,” one swinging voter told me in a fairly typical comment about the government this week. “It’s the images of people queueing up, sick.”

“I could see the Covid in the room,” said another of their experience waiting to get a booster shot. “It was next to a testing station. There were people coughing in the queue, into their masks.”

As images of a pandemic disaster of mammoth proportions spooled through voters’ news feeds, and supporters despaired at the wordy nothingburger from him on 7.30, Albanese showed he might not get it right first time but if not would fix it quickly.

On Wednesday morning he went out ahead of the national cabinet meeting and hit the six Labor desperately wanted to galvanise the momentum for change. “Rapid antigen tests should be free and available,” Albanese said. “We are in a pandemic. Everyone needs access.”

Morrison’s ashen face later, a world away from the happy barramundi-bearer of only a few days before, suggests he knows his “we just can’t go around and make everything free” line on RATs has mightily backfired. By the time he came out of national cabinet, he was proposing 10 free tests over three months to concession card holders.

Between them, Morrison and Perrottet may have done damage to the Coalition from which it will take years to recover, such is the visible inadequacy of their leadership at a time of deeply felt national crisis.

Labor’s relative weakness in NSW was Morrison’s big hope in his bid to hold onto office. The Coalition had a plausible path to survival if it could pick up enough seats there to make up for likely losses to Labor in Western Australia and Queensland. Perrottet’s plunging of NSW into pandemic crisis has likely put paid to that.

It will be karma for the herd immunity-loving Morrison if he gets trampled by voters eager to put his laissez-faire approach to public health policy behind them.

Whether the election is in March or, at the risk of bringing federal parliament back, in May, Morrison’s too-smart-by-half politics is finally catching up with him.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 8, 2022 as "Laissez-faire to middling".

A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.

Chris Wallace is associate professor at the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation, University of Canberra, and the author of How to Win an Election.