June 17, 2021

Federal politics

The return of the lucky country

By Nick Dyrenfurth
The pandemic has exposed the truth of Donald Horne’s phrase, and the morbid state of our national leadership

The Oxford English Dictionary has been most industrious since the coronavirus outbreak began. New words, phrases and neologisms swiftly entered its hallowed lexicon during 2020. “Lockdown”, “circuit-breaker”, “keyworkers”, “social distancing”, “self-isolate” and “elbow bump” were but some of its new additions. It must surely be readying “COVID normal” for inclusion.

Nothing about COVID-19, of course, resembles normality, despite repeated exhortations from politicians and medical experts for Australians to adapt to “COVID normal”. At least for Victorians, COVID normal has acquired a menacing, even purgatorial meaning.

Australia has, granted, escaped the worst of the pandemic compared to countries such as the UK and US. Deaths are low in relative terms, as are infection rates. Luck played a part – we are an island continent after all. A degree of political bipartisanship undoubtedly helped, notably in respect of federal economic stimulus and support packages for newly jobless Australians and businesses. State government–led border closures and lockdowns, by contrast, received grudging support from the Commonwealth and in Victoria were the subject of brazen partisan attacks.

Yet it is hard to escape the impression that our luck is running out quickly as winter sets in. Australians arguably grew complacent, whether in the case of getting vaccinated when eligible or even checking in at venues to assist contract-tracing teams. And our hermit-kingdom complacency has been encouraged by an indolent federal government. It has learnt nothing and forgotten nothing of 2020. Communication lines are confused, especially vaccine advice. A case of “near enough is good enough”.

Take hotel quarantine, the absurd notion that humans can guard themselves from a virus in accommodation built for tourists, and patently not fit for COVID purpose. In mid 2020, one could reasonably excuse our paucity of purpose-built national quarantine facilities, including adequate ventilation, located outside of the CBDs of major cities. These will come in handy for future pandemics that will most surely follow this one. They would represent a wise investment, further stimulate the economy and create jobs.

There is no justification in mid 2021, however, especially given the recent big-spending Commonwealth budget, for why the government has not built dedicated quarantine stations for returning Australians (besides recently signing a memorandum of understanding for a single site in Victoria), and for why it hasn’t vaccinated at least 50 per cent of the population, especially our elderly, aged-care workers and those living with a disability. At the time of writing, Australia boasts one of the lowest vaccination rates of all G20 nations. Scott Morrison clearly doesn’t hold a syringe, mate, but surely he could have placed Australia somewhere near the front of the queue, given the promises he made last year.

Furthermore, we remain bereft of a nimble national testing and contact-tracing infrastructure system. As a result, Victorians have laboured through a fourth lockdown, with little material help afforded by the Commonwealth having axed the JobKeeper scheme.

Then there is the matter of private aged care. Two aged-care workers and two residents in Melbourne have recently tested positive for COVID-19. The vaccination rate among aged-care staff is unacceptably low. Incredibly, casualised private aged-care staff, some unvaccinated, were again permitted to work across multiple facilities, despite past experience.

On top of these failures, the recent budget fundamentally lacked ambition. The Coalition’s eighth attempt had little to say about long-term solutions to long-running problems such as insecure jobs, record low wages growth, sliding productivity and the economy, which has scope to be diversified through advanced manufacturing.

It compares very poorly with US President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion “American Rescue Plan”, passed in the early days of his administration, his turbocharging of the vaccination rollout, and his ambitious new agenda to spend $4 trillion on infrastructure, childcare, climate change and welfare reform. It is a nation-building agenda for nation-building times.

Australians are not so fortunate. Recent promising economic growth numbers and our longer-term recovery is at risk by virtue of the Morrison government’s avoidable failures on vaccinations and quarantine.

Remarkably, however, opinion polls have the federal government well placed for re-election, even as the public grows more critical of its handling of the pandemic. Not even John Howard enjoyed level-pegging status prior to his trio of re-election victories.

“Australia is a lucky country run mainly by second rate people who share its luck … although its ordinary people are adaptable, most of its leaders (in all fields) so lack curiosity about the events that surround them that they are often taken by surprise.” So wrote Donald Horne in his tragically misunderstood 1964 book The Lucky Country.

It was Gough Whitlam who, as former NSW Labor senator Stephen Loosley wryly notes, dragged Australia into the 1960s during his short three-year period of office in the 1970s. The Hawke and Keating Labor governments of the 1980s and 90s appeared to bury Horne’s thesis, and Howard to a lesser extent. The past eight years of a Coalition federal government, however, has seen the return of the lucky country in the true meaning of Horne’s phrase. The pandemic has merely exposed the morbid state of our national leadership.

The Coalition can no longer express surprise at unfolding events or blame others. Unless Morrison’s government smartens up its act, we are damned to bad luck.

Nick Dyrenfurth

Nick Dyrenfurth is the executive director of the John Curtin Research Centre. He is the author or editor of 12 books spanning history, politics and children’s fiction, including Getting the BluesThe Write StuffA Little History of the Australian Labor PartyMateship: A Very Australian HistoryA New History of the AWU and All That’s Left


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