Comment

Chris Wallace
A letter from Camp Cooker

In France last weekend Prime Minister Anthony Albanese got a taste of the pleasures underlying Paul Keating’s old “Paris option” concept. Keating privately enjoyed the fantasy of life in the French capital as a psychological escape from the serious, grinding work of national government. It helped him endure it.

The evident warmth between French President Emmanuel Macron, his wife Brigitte Macron, Albanese and his partner Jodie Haydon will perhaps fuel Albo’s own “Paris option” fantasy, especially as his job gets much, much harder in coming months. In fact, it’s dramatically more difficult already.

The Reserve Bank’s monetary policy turnaround has been savage. What incoming Australian prime minister ever faced three sharp interest rate rises in less than three months as Albanese has – two of them since assuming government, most recently on Tuesday – driven by events quite separate from Labor’s win?

The inflation threat driving the Reserve Bank’s policy reversal is due partly to external factors, including the war in Ukraine and its resulting energy price shock. But higher energy prices are also due to supply constraints flowing from successive federal Coalition governments’ obstruction of an orderly switch to renewables, which have been cheaper than coal and gas for some time.

The obstruction was active, through subsidies and other forms of market interference, and passive, through neglect of the national grid infrastructure upgrades needed to smooth the transition. So the Ukraine war isn’t the only reason for energy price hikes. Bad homegrown climate and energy policies under a near decade of Coalition government have helped push inflation higher, too.

The Coalition’s criminal climate policy has also contributed to the extreme weather events that are now routine on Australia’s east coast.

On Wednesday, Albanese visited the inundated Hawkesbury region with Minister for Agriculture and Emergency Management Murray Watt, New South Wales Premier Dominic Perrottet, and local federal member for Macquarie Susan Templeman, among others.

Templeman’s political history is telling. The former journalist ran unsuccessfully for Macquarie at the 2010 and 2013 elections. She finally wrenched it off the Liberals in 2016 and won it again in 2019.

At the 2022 election, Templeman won a third time, having turned Macquarie from a marginal to a solid Labor seat. Her electors’ front-line experience of the worsening consequences of Coalition climate policy was likely a factor in that shift. The voters of Macquarie are, to put it mildly, sick of recurring floods and made their views clear through the ballot box.

Like Macquarie’s Hawkesbury region, other flood-ravaged parts of regional NSW include rich farmland where crops have been swept away three times in a year. That’s another factor fuelling the inflation the Reserve Bank wants to crush. Eleven-dollar lettuces? Suck it up. Or, if the Reserve Bank has its way, buy fewer of them.

Then there is Covid-19. The number of people sick with the virus is creating labour shortages that interrupt public and private sector service delivery, and disrupt physical supply chains, in turn making inflation worse as buyers bid up the price of scarce goods.

A thousand people are dying every three weeks from Covid-19 in Australia right now – another problem demanding Albanese’s attention. Not that you’d know it given the behaviour of politicians across the spectrum. Like children covering their eyes and not seeing what’s in front of them, assuming it doesn’t exist, most are currently inert on Covid-19.

This is despite an already bad situation poised to worsen as the immunity-evading BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron subvariants take hold. Hospitals, which are understaffed by design, are at breaking point with the exhaustion and burnout of health workers now more than two years into the pandemic. There are widespread staff shortages due to Covid-19 infections.

The false assumption that pandemic policy choices are binary – “mandates or not” – has seemingly paralysed federal and state governments. It’s up to Albanese and Health and Aged Care Minister Mark Butler to wind themselves up for action. Not via mandates but through a massive, persuasive, culturally multifarious public health campaign explaining and encouraging people to do what works best against Covid-19: distance, fresh air, N95 masks and vaccinations.

It could contribute to the anti-inflation fight in a way that might mitigate the need for interest rates to be pushed quite so high. Fewer sick workers means decreased staff shortages, which means more effective supply chains. So, some scarcity would ease, and related price hikes along with it. Alternatively, a busload of people, including some prime-age and otherwise healthy Australians, could continue being delivered to morgues each day, and likely more as BA.4 and BA.5 become more prevalent.

If Albanese and Butler can lead a combined federal and state government campaign to enlighten, persuade and otherwise encourage citizens to be their best pandemic selves, the government will have made an inroad into the individualistic, neoliberal mindset that captured Australia under the Coalition.

If the Hawke government could run a successful public health campaign to get men to use condoms during the AIDS crisis, saving many lives in the process, it’s not much to expect the Albanese government to run one persuading people to wear N95 masks – over, rather than in the vague vicinity of, their proboscis.

These multiple challenges constitute Albanese’s day job in the immediate future. No one should begrudge him a working weekend in Paris, least of all the weaselly Coalition MPs who got us into this mess in the first place.

Yet as the Macrons and Albanese and his partner did friendly business at the Élysée Palace, two dozen election experts gathered at Old Parliament House in Canberra to examine the poll that made the Paris trip possible. This was the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia’s election 2022 workshop, the latest in a string of such events held after every federal poll since the 1970s.

Sitting in the Members’ Dining Room at the back of the building, they had a majestic view up the hill to today’s Parliament House – when they could bear to wrest their eyes from slides dissecting the contours and wrinkles in the government-changing May 21 vote.

It was the drum that alerted them to the political event unfolding on the grass between the old and new parliament buildings early on Saturday afternoon. A “freedom movement” rally was under way. A hundred people gathered around a flatbed ute with a pleasant young female MC and PA system perched on top, conducting amplified chats with identities familiar to the crowd.

This was the hard core of the “cookers”, as Canberrans call them, referencing the addled people whose minds have been broiled by internet conspiracy theories and other forms of alienation.

They regularly blocked intersections and created a spectacle around town during the late-Morrison period. The Australian Federal Police thought the Canberra winter would make them disappear but some hung on despite the cold and here they were raging against the… machine?

This self-declared “freedom movement” has its own origin story, according to one charismatic speaker’s vivid account. They had been “fucked at the Shrine” of Remembrance protest in Melbourne in September 2021, “went into labour” at the occupation of the National Library’s lawns in February 2022, and “gave birth” to the movement at the Exhibition Park in Canberra (EPIC) camping grounds.

Another waxed nostalgic about the EPIC camp-out, describing it as “Australia’s Woodstock” given the amount of love in the air – but not weed, he hastened to add.

Then he screamed at the constables watching from a careful distance, claiming the AFP had used “direct-energy weapons” to disperse what he says were 100,000 people at the camp. Police, who do not have access to directed-energy weapons, estimate it was no more than a few thousand people.

The anti-vax message prominent in their early rhetoric – during the conception, labour and birth periods, as the cookers would have it – was negligible in their speeches last weekend. Anti-vax is so yesterday, apparently. Indigenous rights are in, according to the charismatic speaker who emphasised the amount of “freedom movement” liaison allegedly going on with Indigenous Australians. No actual Indigenous Australian was on hand to verify this.

One of the cookers lapped The Lodge in his car a few days before the rally, leaping out and yelling into his loudhailer, “Come on out, Albo. Come out. We’re going to keep coming back, you know!”

The fact the prime minister was on the other side of the world had not apparently permeated Camp Cooker, wherever that may currently be. Although that shouldn’t slow down a movement founded on the premise that you can convince anyone of anything.

Still, if the disaffected can be made to believe nonsense, surely it should not be so hard to persuade mainstream Australians of truths about doing the right thing for oneself and one’s neighbours on Covid-19, with all the health and economic benefits that entails. That’s what we elect governments to do. 

Paul Bongiorno will return next week.

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