June 2020


The new tyranny of distance

By George Megalogenis
Bondi Beach, May 2020

Bondi Beach during COVID-19 lockdown, May 2020. © Ryan Pierse / Getty Images

Facing a historic isolation of a different kind, what next for our migrant nation?

Pandemics bend time. In the same bewildering moment, they accelerate the economic cycle and snap-freeze the society. 

For Australia, COVID-19 closes two complementary chapters. It terminates a record run of growth at 28 and a half years. And it ends, for now, the demand-driven migration program that has propped up our standard of living since the global financial crisis.

The combination of recession and closed borders has the potential to open new faultlines in a nation already divided between the cities and regions, between young and old, and between the cosmopolitan south and the parochial north.

In recessions past, the burden of retrenchment fell on blue-collar males. Manufacturing accounted for one in three of all the jobs lost in the Hawke–Keating recession of the early 1990s. The initial phase of today’s recession has been borne by the arts, higher education and hospitality sectors. Of the one million jobs that disappeared in the first month of the lockdown, one third were in accommodation and food services. Just over half the workers laid off across the economy are women. In the last recession, only 15 per cent of the lost jobs belonged to women. This is new ground for Australia. Our politics is attuned to male aspiration and grievance: when the economy is growing, he deserves a tax cut; in recession, he demands retribution. How will politics hear the women left behind once health restrictions are eased?

The backlash from the last recession shifted the nation’s politics to the right. The pandemic may shift it back to the left, especially if the Coalition continues to believe in big-government intervention in the economy. But it remains to be seen if our competent policy response to the coronavirus restores the political appetite for reform. For instance, Queensland may still want to exercise its veto on climate-change policies.

The coronavirus is re-creating a version of the sheltered nation we were at Federation, when migration was limited, and power was shared between the Commonwealth government and the states. That Australia defined itself by who it didn’t want to be. Indigenous Australians were not counted in the census, Pacific Islanders who had been blackbirded to work in the cane fields of Queensland were deported, and migration was restricted to whites only.

National isolation in 1901 was an active policy choice, however misguided. The people its legislators represented had already crossed a symbolic threshold of identity, where more than half the population was born in Australia and had parents and grandparents who were also born here. By the time we opened the door again after World War Two, 90 per cent of the population was born in Australia, and of the 10 per cent who were born overseas half came from England.

Isolation in 2020 has been forced upon us at a most intriguing point in our postwar migration journey. More than half the population today is either born overseas or has at least one migrant parent. This threshold was crossed in 2018, when the population passed 25 million. One in five Australians today was born in Asia or has at least one migrant parent from Asia.

Diversity is concentrated in Sydney and Melbourne, where more than half of all Australia’s migrants live, including 64 per cent of the Indians and 75 per cent of the Chinese. The closure of borders will deny the big cities their main driver of growth. But it may not reverse the recent trend for economic power to be concentrated in Melbourne and Sydney; on the contrary, it may strengthen it. The coronavirus is likely to trigger an even greater exodus of young people from the regions to the cities in search of work, while more retirees continue to move in the other direction, from the cities to the regions.

Melbourne and Sydney have been drawn closer together by the virus. As the two cities most exposed to transmission from overseas, they had a mutual interest in tougher restrictions. This has been one of the surprising reasons why Australia’s response to the virus has been among the world’s best: collaboration between rival states, and between the states and the Commonwealth.

Pandemics reverse hierarchies. The states have constitutional authority for much of the response; they run health, education and police. The Commonwealth can’t impose its will in the usual way, through intimidation or cash incentive. 

The prime minister had two options: to work with the Labor and Liberal premiers, or attempt to run the country on his own. In effect, it was a choice between the examples of Bob Hawke and Donald Trump.

Scott Morrison chose consensus over confrontation, although there were the inevitable lapses of ego and impatience. In the United States, where the states have similar powers, the president was hard-wired for combat with Democrat governors. It is telling that Morrison’s demeanour throughout this pandemic has been the antithesis of Trump’s.

In March, our infection curve was tracking along the same destructive path as that of the US and the United Kingdom. A month later, it was below that of South Korea, one of the first countries credited with “bending the curve”.

Pandemics shatter the usual time lines that apply in a crisis, where months pass between diagnosis and intervention, and between recovery and its confirmation. With COVID-19, the information lag is just 14 days, which is the incubation period for the virus. But it is in this silent phase of transmission where nations can fail. By the time an outbreak is confirmed it may be too late to prevent the case load from overwhelming a health system.

The speed at which the virus spreads within communities, and across state and national borders, also gives the world a rolling snapshot of what policy success and failure looks like. Imagine how the GFC might have played out if every country knew by Christmas 2008 that Australia’s stimulus model – go early, go hard, go households – was the best approach? Will we be able to say the same about our response to the coronavirus? 

There was clearly an element of luck involved too. Australia was one of the last countries to go into lockdown because the virus was late getting here. And the early response from governments was patchy. The Commonwealth left it late to close the borders, and only did so after our allies had shut theirs.

Morrison and the premiers made rookie errors in the early stages of the crisis, but they learnt on the job. They accepted the advice of experts, changed course when required and, most importantly, they worked together. 

That first meeting of the Commonwealth, state and territory leaders on Friday, March 13 was a shambles from the moment the prime minister forced a handshake on a reluctant NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian. Victorian premier Daniel Andrews entered the room having washed his hands of responsibility for the F1 grand prix back in Melbourne. The McLaren racing team had already pulled out of the race after one of their team tested positive for the virus. Andrews accepted the advice of Victoria’s chief health officer, Brett Sutton, that it was too dangerous to hold the race with spectators. But he left it to organisers to make the final decision. In the confusion, fans were already queuing at the gate for Friday’s practice session when the event was finally called off.

Any hope that calm would be restored by the national cabinet was shattered by the prime minister’s performance after the meeting. At the joint press conference with the premiers and chief ministers, Morrison announced the shutdown of public gatherings of more than 500 people. But there were more loopholes than at a property investment seminar. It wasn’t an outright ban, and there was no sense of urgency. All events scheduled on the weekend could proceed as planned. The new rules took effect on Monday.

That meant Morrison was free to watch his “beloved Sharks” play the Rabbitohs that weekend. “It might be the last game I get to go to for a long time. And that’s fine,” he explained. “My point is there is absolute reason for calm.”

He wanted people to know that it was still safe to step outside and enjoy life, even though he understood that tougher measures were coming within days. But it didn’t inspire confidence. The coronavirus, like the Black Summer of bushfires, appeared to have caught Morrison on the wrong side of the obvious policy, and of political responses, which should have been tuned to caution and clarity.

Later that evening, when the headlines should have exhausted themselves, there was one final shock to process. Peter Dutton, the Minister for Home Affairs, announced that he had tested positive after returning from an official visit to the US earlier in the week. At some point during that day, the prime minister decided he would not go to the footy after all. His office issued a short, snarky statement blaming others for the about-face: “After further consideration and [because of] the potential for the prime minister’s attendance to be misrepresented, the prime minister has chosen not to attend the match this weekend.”

That weekend, almost 90 per cent of tables at Australian restaurants were full, according to one industry measure. In the rest of the world, almost half the tables were empty. Our leaders, and indeed the community, underestimated the threat at the time. We now know Australia was only a matter of days away from joining the US and UK as a case study in systems meltdown. Infections surged from fewer than 200 cases on March 13 to more than 2000 by March 25.

Two thirds of the infections came from overseas, mostly via Australians returning home from the US or Europe. Yet Australia’s chief medical officer, Professor Brendan Murphy, assured the community after the first national cabinet meeting that our borders were secure. “Australia has always remained ahead of the curve in this coronavirus outbreak,” he told the media. “We certainly introduced very aggressive measures early on in the exported cases from China and have been very effectively responding to the second wave of imported cases.”

The China ban imposed at the end of January was harsh, but it was vindicated by the absence of an outbreak in February. Iran was added to the list at the end of February, followed by South Korea and then Italy in early March.

But there was a curious double standard. Those Australians evacuated from China in February were placed in quarantine for 14 days. But their fellow Australians who came back from Iran, South Korea and Italy were not escorted to Christmas Island, or to a makeshift camp in the Northern Territory. They were only required to “self-isolate” in their own homes for 14 days after arrival.

There was a grim game of catch-up after that first cabinet meeting. On March 20, the border was closed to all foreigners and Tasmania shut itself off from the mainland. Other states soon followed, and by March 25 Australians were banned from leaving the country, and every state except NSW and Victoria had closed their local borders. A 14-day hotel quarantine for all Australians, regardless of the country they flew in from, was finally introduced on March 29, two months after the China ban.

The question of why it took so long to identify travel from the US as a great risk is unlikely to yield a straight answer from any Australian politician or official. That would imply a criticism of the American response, and Morrison has no interest in provoking an argument with Trump. 

But one would hope that privately the lessons are already drilled into every government department. An unconscious cultural bias undermined our initial response. We fell for the trap of seeing this as an Asian virus and missed the spread through the US in January and February. The dots were not that hard to connect. As national cabinet considered the future of outdoor events, and the prime minister made plans to go to the footy, actor Tom Hanks and his wife, Rita Wilson, were completing their first full day in quarantine on the Gold Coast after they had been diagnosed with the coronavirus. 

And then there was the Ruby Princess, the boat no one thought to stop, or at least to test for coronavirus before its 2700 passengers were allowed to disembark in Sydney on March 19. Professor Murphy offered a possible explanation for that infamous lapse, in evidence to the Senate select committee on COVID-19. 

“It had only been to New Zealand and back, and New Zealand was not seen as a high-risk country,” he said in response to a question from committee member Senator Kristina Keneally. “I think everyone was quite surprised at the fact that there turned out to have been a significant COVID outbreak on that ship. On first principles it wouldn’t normally have been seen to be a particularly high-risk vessel.”

Keneally: “We certainly did know, though, that cruise ships presented a particularly significant risk. We’d had the Diamond Princess a month earlier.”

Murphy: “Exactly.”

But our governments had the humility to learn from their mistakes. By late March, they had secured the border, and introduced the social distancing measures needed to suppress the virus. As Australia’s death toll from the coronavirus approached 100 in early May, we could argue that we had weathered the first phase of the storm.

There is an echo of the GFC in these comparisons. Once again, the pragmatic Australian model of governance trumped the hubris of our allies. At the time of writing, the official American death toll passed 90,000, and had been growing by 10,000 per week, while the UK figure had topped 35,000.

But sitting between the two extremes of policy competence in Australia and systems failure in the US and UK is the cautionary tale of Singapore, where a second wave of infections in April pushed the infection curve back up, forcing governments to lock the country down for a second time.

Mass migration will return with a vaccine, and prime ministers will revert to treating premiers and chief ministers as punching bags. But while a vaccine may take years to develop, the states and territories won’t quickly forget the taste of exercising power on a national stage.

George Megalogenis

George Megalogenis is a journalist and author of books including The Longest Decade, The Australian Moment and The Football Solution.

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