The view from Billinudgel

Language is a virus
With information on COVID-19 changing constantly, the government needs to fine-tune its delivery

Source: Twitter

Scott Morrison insists that his message is clear: the government is fully on top of the coronavirus crisis, there is no reason for doubt or uncertainty.

Well, up to a point, prime minister. Viewed individually, Morrison’s edicts are indeed firm and unequivocal. If they are taken at face value, there is no room for confusion.

But the problem is that, taken together, they are not only confusing but often self-contradictory. As so often with Morrison, there is no overall strategy – simply a series of reactive measures that, he hopes, will do the job unless another one is needed. And then another one, and another one…

The basic dilemma that has still not been resolved is whether we are to treat this as a disaster on a truly monumental scale (a crisis like pandemics of the past, rivalling world wars and the Great Depression in their long-term destruction) or as a temporary setback (a severe one, no doubt, but an aberration that can be managed with a shitload of taxpayer money, and a dash of discipline and patriotism until we bounce back and Australia resumes its triumphal progress in the stable hands of the Coalition).

In the first scenario, we have closed our borders, the Reserve Bank has taken unprecedented steps to save the remnants of a devastated economy, and a quasi state of emergency is in place. There is even talk of the free-enterprise government considering nationalising sections of industry and rationing essential goods.

But perhaps we’re in the second scenario. Gatherings have been limited but not shut down, and although I have been condemned to home isolation, I am able – indeed encouraged – to watch televised sport where athletes indulge in as much close personal contact as possible.

There is confusion at all levels. In spite of Morrison’s worthy initiative in bringing the state and territory leaders into a national cabinet, he has mean-mindedly excluded the federal Opposition. Labor leader Anthony Albanese has pointedly not been offered a guernsey. Although the idea is apparently to coordinate a nationwide approach, Tasmania has effectively seceded from the mainland. Mixed messages galore.

And there is little point in telling everyone else to shut up and do what we are told, when those telling us admit that things are changing too fast for even them to keep up. The chief medical officer, Brendan Murphy, said last week that the schools would, must, stay open… but if circumstances changed, so would the policy.

Fair enough, but this is hardly reassuring for those who are already conflicted about what to do with their children. The Catholics are in open warfare, and some others in the private sector are voting with their feet. The arguments are complex and there is sense on both sides.

Morrison is adhering to the official, current, advice. He says he’s happy to send his own children to school, and for what it’s worth I feel the same about my grandchildren. But I do not regard Morrison’s – or my own – preference as making the position, or the message, unequivocally clear.

It would be nice to think that the resumption of parliament will sort it all out. Perhaps such wishful thinking is about all we have left.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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