July 30, 2021

A rallying crime

By Martin McKenzie-Murray
Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Jenny Morrison laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier during the Anzac Day commemorative service on April 25, 2020. Image © Alex Ellinghausen / AAP Image/ Sydney Morning Herald Pool

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Jenny Morrison lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier during the Anzac Day commemorative service on April 25, 2020. Image © Alex Ellinghausen / AAP Image/ Sydney Morning Herald Pool

For a country that loves invoking the virtues of wartime sacrifice, why have our leaders failed to appeal to the greater good during the pandemic?

“This time last year – like so many other times in our history – we faced a defining moment as a nation. A moment of uncertainty and danger when the future seemed so uncertain, masked by fog. We couldn’t gather, indeed. But we held candles in driveways and on balconies and we played the Last Post on radios and iPhones … And together we called on our past to light up the dawn.

“And in doing so we rediscovered a deep truth about who we are – our strength is found in each other. When we are threatened, when our peace and our safety and our security are imperilled, in these moments, our differences fade away. On this Anzac dawn we remind ourselves of the sacrifices, the courage, the selflessness which helped make our country what it is today.”

 – Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Anzac Day remarks, April 25, 2021.

Listening to Morrison attempt poetry is like watching a flamingo striptease. It’s awkward and unconvincing; he lacks substance, the language is imprecise and the sentiment childish. “Like so many other times in our history” is supremely lazy, a floating clause in an ocean of pabulum.

But never mind this. Morrison’s Anzac speeches principally grate for their hypocrisy. “I spoke to [veteran] Willy a few days ago,” Morrison said last year. “He told me if you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. His service had enabled him ‘to live for something bigger than himself. Not me, but we,’ he said. It’s good advice, Willy.” 

This from the man whose previous election strategy emphasised division, rewarded selfishness and extravagantly deployed pork. That strategy was myopic, cynical… and astonishingly successful.     

But this column isn’t only intended as a simple lament about hypocrisy. It’s also intended to note this one particular strangeness: for a country that loves invoking war, and how it tickles flattering myths about our solidarity, selflessness and courage, we have failed to do so in this crisis.

For the purposes of federal leadership, the pandemic warrants comparison with war. It is a colossal crisis, a dark and historic moment that requires a solemnly unified commitment from all Australians. Principally, this means complying with lockdown orders and getting vaccinated immediately with whatever’s available.

It’s simple: our pitifully low vaccination rates, combined with increasingly transmissible variants, guarantees an indefinitely extended future of lockdowns, interstate estrangement and the prohibition of international travel. And as Melburnians know, the psychic cost isn’t just found in the miseries of lockdown – it can also be found in expecting one. The guillotine hangs above us all. A zero-case day no longer means that much. Less than a week passed between a zero-infection day in Victoria and the declaration of the state’s most recent lockdown.

This is a moment in which the individual has an obvious and practical power to improve the public life of their country. In this moment, the individual’s influence is not abstract and requires no sentimental exaggeration. The values the prime minister invokes in Anzac speeches should be repeatedly invoked now.

The cost of vaccination is extremely low. It is not without risk – though that risk is astonishingly low – but risk is precisely what those Anzac values are about, right? Assuming some risk for family, community, country. It’s called selflessness. It’s called being part of something larger than yourself.    

So, why not appeal to it? We should be on a war footing. We should always have been on a war footing. Instead, we got she’ll-be-right complacency and denials that we were in a race. About vaccines, we got destructively garbled, hedged and contradictory messages. All of this contributed to hesitancy.

For contrast, here’s John Curtin addressing the country a few weeks after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour:

The year 1942 will impose supreme tests. These range from resistance to invasion to deprivation of more and more amenities … Australians must realise that to place the nation on a war footing every citizen must place himself, his private and business affairs, his entire mode of living, on a war footing. The civilian way of life cannot be any less rigorous, can contribute no less than that which the fighting men have to follow. I demand that Australians everywhere realise that Australia is now inside the firing lines.

Regarding vaccines, similar words would be appropriate today – even though what’s being asked of Australians is much less. (All of that Curtin speech deserves to be read again now, by the way, for its almost alien intelligence and candour.)

Our botched vaccine rollout has suffered from complex failures of supply, demand and delivery. Yes, it’s more complicated than mere selfishness – but selfishness has played its part. And so, from someone who’s absolutely fucking had enough:

  • If you love wearing your grandfather’s medals while genuflecting at dawn services, and you’re refusing to be jabbed until a “better” vaccine comes around, your hypocrisy deserves ridicule. And your country asks you to roll up your sleeve.
  • If you’re of the generation that has accrued perverse privileges (three negatively geared investment properties and franking credits, say), perversities that have encrusted our housing market, fuelled generational inequity and enfeebled reform, and you’re now boosting the odds of rolling lockdowns and cultural destruction by refusing to be vaccinated – you deserve contempt. And your country asks you to roll up your sleeve.
  • If you’re a “leader” who gives Anzac speeches about our collective virtue, but is politically frightened about plainly and unapologetically demanding our sacrifice in a time of pestilence, then your country asks you to grow a spine.
  • And finally, if you’re a young Aussie who’ll never own a home, works precariously, has inherited a ruinously degraded climate, but has enthusiastically volunteered for their AstraZeneca jab – your country owes you a beer. And so much more.   

If you’re in the right mood, the prime minister’s attempt to remind us of our imagined virtues while tactically deferring to our selfishness is grimly hilarious. If you’re in a different mood, you might see this as the moment our luck finally succumbed to our morbid political mediocrity.

As I write, the current Sydney outbreak has yielded 2506 infections and 13 deaths. Meanwhile, there have been 6.1 million AstraZeneca injections resulting in five deaths from thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome (TTS). These are profoundly different scales. (Each year, between five and 10 people will be killed by lightning in Australia.) Now consider this: of the 54 people currently in ICU in NSW hospitals, none were fully vaccinated (and 10 are younger than 30; one third are younger than 50).

On July 24, the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) changed its advice. It said: “All individuals aged 18 years and above in greater Sydney, including adults under 60 years of age, should strongly consider getting vaccinated with any available vaccine including COVID-19 Vaccine AstraZeneca.”

It frustrated me that ATAGI’s sense of urgency was only discovered weeks into a massive outbreak in our country’s largest city, and almost six months after the availability of AstraZeneca, and still only pertained to those “in greater Sydney”. You might have thought that the value of vaccination was in preventing outbreaks, and that the high likelihood of a Delta outburst should have commended ATAGI’s advice months earlier for all Australians.

To be fair to ATAGI, the advisory body is in a brutal position, squeezed from all angles, and it is not its job to govern, legislate, predict, inspire or persuade us. That’s Morrison’s job. ATAGI advises, he leads. The medical advice that governments receive is necessarily narrow. The prime minister needs to synthesise this advice within a much larger context.

What we need to hear, but it is not for ATAGI to say, is: This is an extraordinary moment. Our collective health, freedom and identity is threatened. Go and get whatever vaccine you can. The collective benefit is vastly greater than the risks. If we maintain these perilously low levels of vaccination, there will be far more deaths caused by the virus than vaccines – as well as incalculable suffering from sustained lockdowns. Our country will be held hostage. Whole industries and communities will be warped, injured and possibly destroyed. Our country will be permanently damaged, and in ways we might not even understand yet. 

That’s for our prime minister to say. But our leader has pretended that ATAGI’s narrow advice is somehow binding, instead of being one ingredient of many to be absorbed into a larger picture that he should be directing. Morrison’s deference to “experts” increasingly looks like avoidance, not wisdom.

So I return to my original question: why, in a country that loves invoking war, have we not similarly invoked it now to mobilise our better angels in the national vaccination campaign?

The obvious answer is that the government’s supply failures have made it reluctant to aggressively promote something that’s not readily available. But while that’s true of Pfizer, it’s not true of AstraZeneca – doses of which are now being thrown out because of a lack of demand.

“When we are threatened … our differences fade away,” Morrison said in April. But our differences have been intensified, not resolved, by COVID, and I don’t believe this prime minister could convincingly answer the question of what he thinks binds us all together beyond geography and the misfortune of his leadership.

But then, could the rest of us?

Martin McKenzie-Murray

Martin McKenzie-Murray is the author of The Speechwriter and A Murder Without Motive: The Killing of Rebecca Ryle.

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