Opinion

Chris Wallace
The prime minister says: Let them eat Covid

The Morrison government’s “let them eat cake” approach to running Australia took a hit this week when Liberal treasurer Josh Frydenberg tested positive to Covid-19.

Frydenberg’s Twitter presence dimmed. Missives paused from the man many see as the inheritor of the Liberal leadership should Scott Morrison stumble at the coming federal election.

The radical herd immunity approach followed by the New South Wales Liberal boy premier, Dominic Perrottet, and enthusiastically encouraged by Morrison, has ruthlessly hit home, infecting the member for Kooyong.

“Like thousands of Australians,” he tweeted at 8.20pm on Friday, January 7, “I tested positive today to Covid-19. I have the common symptoms and am isolating with my family. My thoughts are with all those who have Covid – this is a difficult time but we will get through this.” At time of writing, Frydenberg has not tweeted again.

No one wishes Frydenberg ill. Australians’ sense of a fair go thankfully still, for most people, means not wishing a potentially lethal illness on political opponents. I wish him a speedy recovery.

Nevertheless, Victorians could be forgiven for a degree of schadenfreude over Frydenberg’s positive status, given his righteous “freedumb” lectures during the Andrews government lockdowns in 2020 and 2021. The hubris came from a politician who had survived the biggest scare of his life at the last election: Frydenberg was worried up to and including election day itself that he could lose his seat.

Over the past fortnight Frydenberg will have experienced the dawning realisation that he really could lose it this time around. With the next federal election just a breath away, reality has pierced the Kooyong bubble.

His may not be the absolute richest electorate in Australia, but it’s not far off. And the cake-eaters of Kooyong are not happy.

When Morrison visited Victoria before Christmas – in a trial run of the coming campaign – he headed for the second-friendliest territory for him in Melbourne: Katie Allen’s Kooyong-adjacent seat of Higgins. Morrison likely chose it to avoid inadvertently bumping into Kooyong resident and Climate 200 founder Simon Holmes à Court, or “Simon HAC” as the Kooyong indies fondly call him, and copping a climate policy earful.

Journalists billed and cooed as Morrison got his hair scissored by a Higgins barber. Citizens bitched and moaned at the slaveringly soft-focus coverage of the visit. Man gets haircut: wow.

Higgins and Kooyong residents let it slide off their backs. Morrison is just another Liberal prime minister, after all. And Liberal prime ministers – they’ve seen a few.

Morrison would get a different reception now. The Kooyong cake-eaters and their Higgins neighbours face semi-empty supermarket shelves. They’re queueing to try to buy some of the dwindling to non-existent supply of rapid antigen tests, essential to our daily work and life as the Morrison government now runs it.

Liberal turned independent Julia Banks tweeted a picture of a pharmacy this week, showing people in a queue several shopfronts long waiting to buy RATs. It is around the corner from the Higgins barbershop where Morrison got his nauseating pre-Christmas trim.

This is not life as Kooyong and Higgins people know it. Queueing is for the little people. Queueing is for people in the former Soviet Union. Queueing is not for Liberals. This is a self-evident Kooyong and Higgins truth. Life has been turned on its head.

Frydenberg claimed in his tweet that “we will get through this”. As with so much Morrison and his ministers say, this is not wholly true.

We won’t all get through this. We’re not all getting through this. People are dying. In the seven days to time of writing, 217 Australians died – 217 young, middle-aged and old people – from Covid-19.

Covid-positive intensive care patients are at record levels. The hospital system and GP practices are buckling under the pressure of soaring infections and inadequate supplies and infrastructure. Supply chains are breaking as production and transport services are hit.

Nursing homes are on a knife edge about whether to stay open or close due to staff shortages. Workers can’t get – or if they can, many can’t afford – RATs and so don’t know whether they could or should go to work or stay home. Schools are about to reopen and the ventilation systems haven’t been attended to and the kids haven’t been vaccinated yet.

Pause to reflect on just one aspect of the crisis this week: SBS Canberra bureau chief Anna Henderson’s Wednesday night report about a meeting between the aged-care sector and the Morrison government over dire staff and personal protective equipment shortages in aged-care homes. One aged-care sector source didn’t want to be named, Henderson said, because they feared retribution from the federal government department overseeing them. Retribution.

The savage, reckless, wantonly negligent public health policy of the federal government that is supposed to protect us – and above all, make sure people in places like Kooyong and Higgins never face the horror of queues and half-empty supermarket shelves – has plunged Australia into a debacle of massive and unprecedented proportions.

But wait. There’s more. Enter the Djoker.

The Australian Open is akin to a pagan religious festival for tennis lovers in the second half of January every year. It’s a weirdly wholesome yet sexy, freewheeling sports fest for the international racquet set, who fly into Melbourne, play hard (in both senses) and fly out again until the following year.

People of a certain age know the Australian Open as “Kooyong”, as in “Martina Navratilova won Kooyong in 1981 but Chris Evert beat her the year after that”. It’s because the tournament was held at the Kooyong Lawn Tennis Club from 1972, the year Josh Frydenberg started walking, until it moved to the Melbourne Park complex in 1988.

Tennis was the biggest thing in young Josh’s life. He was a pro tennis player who didn’t quite get there. His psychologist mother and surgeon father opposed Josh’s plan to drop out of school in the 1980s to have a crack at the big time. The closest he got was playing full-time tennis during his gap year and twice competing at the World University Games.

When you look at the treasurer, don’t think he’s living the dream. Being member for Kooyong, treasurer, and maybe even prime minister one day, is Frydenberg’s second choice. He’s only 10 years older than Roger Federer. Think what might have been.

And now to be fighting Covid-19 and having to sit by and see his own government make Australia the laughing stock of the international tennis scene and wider sports world after locking up reigning champion Novak Djokovic in a hotel full of, well, refugees – why, it’s kicking a man when he’s down. It’s worse than queueing.

Rusted-on Kooyong Liberal voters may, like Warringah voters did in 2019, think, “Not this time.” They will be shifted by the general impression and reality of incompetent government from Morrison and his motley team.

Since New Year’s Day the prime minister has blown up all three aspects of his core re-election pitch to voters.

Morrison’s claim that the Coalition are better economic managers is in tatters after his ridiculous “push through” Covid strategy tanked the economy, with large numbers of Australians going into de facto lockdown in their own self-defence.

His border security record is now farcical in light of the bullying, contradictory, Kafkaesque performance surrounding Novak Djokovic’s cancelled visa, imprisonment and, after a successful legal challenge, release.

His third and paramount claim – to superior competence in government – is revealed as the most spurious of all. Whichever way you look – work, school, shops, hospitals, transport, everywhere – the shambolic mess that is Australia right now is down to the decisions of Morrison and Perrottet.

They say people never forget the way a politician makes them feel. Morrison has filled many Australians with fear and dread as they try to dodge a deadly disease, try to get to work to put bread on the table, and try to find a supermarket with bread on the shelf in the first place.

At this rate perhaps it might even be merciful relief for Frydenberg to lose his seat. There’s always the seniors tennis tour. There’ll probably be free cake in the tournament green room.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 15, 2022 as "Let them eat Covid".

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