September 2020



By Sean Kelly

© Scottie Cameron

In the face of the pandemic, Scott Morrison has failed to adjust his thinking, and wants to return to the way things used to be

In the earliest days of the pandemic, a story took hold in some quarters. This story held that the world would now change forever – had, perhaps, already changed. The crisis we were living through had brought into the light assumptions that had for decades driven the workings of our society, assumptions that had become so embedded in our everyday practices we had forgotten they were assumptions. When had we decided that bankers should be paid more than teachers or nurses? That some people should have a billion dollars and own acres, while others are crowded in tiny flats? That we could tolerate the strain on our hospitals and aged-care homes while handing billions to companies and rich people in tax cuts? That if we looked after the economy then everything else – fairness, happiness, community and quality of life – would take care of itself? Perhaps, now, we could revisit this tired thinking that had done damage to so many. 

One of the elements of this story of a changing world involved the sharp shift of governments everywhere into an embrace of “socialism”. In Australia, around the end of March, Scott Morrison made a series of announcements, spending unprecedented billions to support families and prop up businesses. Childcare became free. We had, very suddenly, a planned economy. A conservative government had turned its back on what were taken to be conservative principles. Instead of pursuing small government, the government had grown larger, in order to restrain the market it usually said should be unrestrained. The change had begun. 

The prime minister was not keen on this story. Behind closed doors he hosed it down, partly because his MPs hated it. Phillip Coorey, at the Australian Financial Review, reported that Morrison had told colleagues, “Do not attach ideology to what is an emergency response.” They could have got the same message by listening to what he said publicly. The measures would be “temporary”. They would end in six months – a phenomenon later dubbed by media the “September cliff”. After that, he said, businesses and workers would “bounce back together on the other side”.

Three days after announcing the largest single program, JobKeeper, a wage subsidy to help businesses hang on to workers, even if the business wasn’t operating, he used the phrase that would stick. On childcare, on industrial relations, on the various payments going to Australians, he said: “There is a snapback there – a snapback to the previous existing arrangements on the other side of this.” He repeated it in an interview that day with Channel 7: “We do need to snap back to the normal arrangements on the other side of this.” It was a prescription for others, too. “We want the businesses to be able to snap back and just get on with the job, when we get on the other side.” 

In July, the government confirmed its six-month vision was untenable, extending many of its support schemes for several months more. The host of A Current Affair, Tracy Grimshaw, asked Morrison when it was that he realised the snapback wasn’t going to happen. He said, “Oh, those comments were made quite a long time ago. And a lot has happened since then. And frankly, I think I only ever used the phrase about once. And I think it’s been amplified well beyond how it represented my view.” 

“Snapback” and the “September cliff” were not media hype. Morrison’s rhetoric might have changed, but his firm belief was there for anyone to see, in what the government had announced. The government had arranged that banks would defer mortgage payments until September. A ban on evicting renters was put in place until September. Wage subsidies for businesses employing apprentices were due to end in September. A loan scheme for businesses was set to close applications in September. Subsidies for airlines were originally due to end in June, but were extended, so that they would end in September. JobKeeper was set to end in September, and the unemployment payment, JobSeeker, raised when the virus hit, would fall again in September.

Second image from Sean Kelly essay, September 2020

This was consistent with the prime minister’s blithe attitude from the beginning of the virus. In March, he was asked about the prospect of recession. “I don’t find speculation on those things terribly helpful,” he said. He said the coronavirus was serious but was “moving more towards a very bad flu than a deadly virus”. Announcing that people would soon not be able to go to the football, he announced he would himself go to the football one last time. He did not want society to go into lockdown, told us we shouldn’t even use the word, and then, when lockdown became inevitable, urged states to open back up faster. He has been consistently slow to admit to himself or to the nation that things are as bad as they seem. 

On July 23, the treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, released an economic statement: there would be no surplus. Labor produced an online ad, containing a clip from a broadcast from early 2019, with the ABC’s Leigh Sales saying to Frydenberg, “Like any projection, your ability to deliver that $7 billion surplus is reliant on factors that are outside your control – it might not happen.” Frydenberg said, “No, it will happen.” In the ad, those three words, “it will happen”, are repeated over and over, in a nightmarish echo. The ad bears the tagline, “You can’t trust the Liberals on the economy”.

The ad was misjudged. Nobody will blame the government for losing its surplus. Similarly, criticising the government for abandoning its earlier “snapback” approach would be absurd and mean-spirited. We are in the eye of a global pandemic, and there is no shame for a government in changing course. 

What is interesting is the detailed way in which one experience foreshadows the other. Frydenberg’s answer to Sales’s question about unforeseen events is remarkable for the force of its denial, its stubborn assertion of will. Asked specifically about events beyond his control, the treasurer refused to countenance the possibility that they could interfere with his plans. And this, too, was Morrison’s approach to “snapback”: instead of the surplus, it was now the country’s economic resurgence that could not conceivably be derailed. The alternative could not even be imagined. The government had announced that things would “bounce back”, and so they would.

Those of Morrison’s colleagues discomfited by his apparent lurch to socialism might have been reassured by the unequal levels of help offered to different people. Some industries were largely excluded from getting JobKeeper. Those workers who lost jobs not propped up by government would join the unemployed on JobSeeker, which most of us know as the dole. When the prime minister was asked about the disparity, he dismissed the idea with the righteous anger that has become a feature of his public style, saying he was “not going to demonise JobSeeker”, that “JobSeeker is not a second-best option”. But JobKeeper was worth $1500 a fortnight; JobSeeker was $1115. 

Public universities were excluded from JobKeeper. Many, many artists were excluded. Many migrants, those on temporary visas, now stuck in Australia because of logistics and money, were not eligible for help at all. Casuals who had not been with their employer for 12 months were not eligible, which had a large effect on young people and women. The list read like a rollcall of groups an unimaginative critic of the government might have predicted would be excluded: academics, artists, recent migrants, young people, women. 

Frydenberg, asked why artists and actors had been left out, said, “We had to draw the line somewhere.” Asked about the exclusion of skilled foreign workers, he said, “We had to draw the line somewhere.” Asked why, if he was willing to spend $130 billion on JobKeeper, he couldn’t have spent more to cover casuals and foreign workers, again he said, “We had to draw the line somewhere.” 

On May 22, Treasury announced that due to faster than expected economic recovery, the cost of the program was expected to halve. Immediately, Frydenberg was asked, why not now extend the payment to the groups that had missed out? If a line had been drawn, but not reached, surely we could make use of the extra room? Frydenberg responded with another arbitrary answer. Where he had previously boasted of the six million Australians receiving JobKeeper, he now said that five million Australians would receive either JobKeeper or the dole.

The government’s next line of defence was to talk about debt. Frydenberg reasoned that all of this was “borrowed money” and spending less of it meant “a lower debt in the future”, which was better “for our children and our grandchildren”. This was a variation of the prime minister’s earlier justification for “snapback”. There was, Morrison said, “an intensity of expenditure during this period. And then we have to get back to what it was like before. And then we have to deal with the burden that will be carried out of this period of time.” 

This idea, that debt is bad, makes instinctive sense to us; we understand it immediately, thinking of our own finances. But if the justification of “lower debt” can be offered for capping spending at $130 billion, and then, not long after, be offered again for capping spending at half that, then it can be used to justify any decision at all. It’s “we had to draw a line somewhere” in different words.

This becomes still clearer when we note that economists have been urging Australia to take on more debt, because we can afford it. Reserve Bank of Australia governor Philip Lowe recently explained that other countries want to lend to Australia and will do so at very low interest rates, and that Australia’s debt is, by global standards, very low. Practically urging the government to spend more money, he said: “For a country that has got used to low budget deficits and low levels of public debt, this is quite a change. But it is a change that is entirely manageable and affordable, and it’s the right thing to do in the national interest.”

It is true that the government has spent an enormous amount of money. But the important questions are whether it has spent enough, and what might be enough.

A fair and simple test would be to measure the government against the goal it has set for itself. Repeatedly, Morrison and Frydenberg have said that their focus is jobs. And while debt concerns them, Frydenberg, since quite early in the pandemic, has also said that debt will be repaid not by cutting spending, not by raising taxes, but from economic growth. So: they want the economy to grow and for jobs to be created. 

If the plan is to encourage the economy to grow, then why not do everything you can to keep it growing? The economy was always going to shrink in the midst of a global pandemic, at least for a while. But the government can do more. It could increase its spending. It could pay people to do government jobs, which would put more money in people’s pockets, which would enter the economy as they bought things and paid for services. It could funnel money to the areas of the economy where it is most likely to do good. 

In fact, a return to full employment within two years is possible, according to a report from the Grattan Institute think tank. But the institute predicted additional spending of between $70 billion and $90 billion from the federal government would be needed. 

By now, with the virus still spreading, it is clear even more spending is needed. The government has announced the support payments will last a few months longer. But there are two important facts to note. The first is that while the payments will now continue past September, they will be significantly reduced. The second is that the exclusions will be kept in place. Artists, academics, short-term casuals, gig workers, temporary migrants will still miss out. 

At this point, it is likely that most of us have only the barest sense of how bad this recession is going to get. A remarkable fact is that, as a result of the government payments to date, Australians at times during this crisis have had higher incomes, on average, than we did before this crisis. But as more businesses shut down, more jobs are lost, more debts are called in and JobKeeper and JobSeeker are reduced – all sucking money out of the economy – more of us will personally experience the pain of this recession. The government is being widely urged to spend more, including by the Reserve Bank. Instead, partly as a result of the cuts and exclusions, and the deterioration in Victoria, the economy next year is expected to be smaller than it was in 2019. Up to 400,000 more people may lose their jobs by Christmas. 

The government’s debt answer is nonsense. The line did not have to be drawn where it was drawn and, with the economy still deteriorating, the government has made the decision to claw back spending at the cost of jobs and growth – the very goals it had set for itself. The obvious question, to which no reasonable answer has yet been provided, is why?

Early on in this crisis, the prime minister offered a justification for keeping the economy open despite the risk to lives. An economic crisis could be just as deadly as a pandemic, he said. The assertion began to find its way into commentary. Why bother to check its accuracy? It aligned so clearly with the way we think the world works. 

But there is plenty of evidence to suggest it’s not true. Several studies have indicated that recessions in the past have led to a reduction in deaths. Suicides have risen, but deaths from other causes – workplace accidents, stress, pollution – often fall. 

This is clearly not an argument that recessions are good. It is a reminder that what seems like common sense often only seems that way because we have become accustomed to believing in a certain version of the world. In our own time, the idea that the economy is the most important part of our society, and the most important focus for a government’s attention, has imposed a steady grip on our lives and our politics. When a pandemic comes along, it then seems natural that a government’s task is to get our economy back to what it was before. 

The government’s initial economic response was founded on the virus being brought to heel. For a while, it looked like this optimism was well founded. But when infections in Victoria began to rise dramatically, the premier, Daniel Andrews – whose government’s mistakes had seemed to set the virus loose – explained that the largest factor now driving transmission was that too many people were continuing to work while infectious. A major problem seemed to lie with jobs that were not secure – driving for Uber, delivering food, working casual jobs. If those workers didn’t come to work, they didn’t get paid and risked losing other shifts. They might lose their job and they might not find another. 

So if the record economic growth of recent decades has left a significant group of workers without security – paid leave, sick leave, enough money to live decently – then what do we mean when we put the strength of “the economy” at the centre of our society? 

The sudden spread of the virus in Victoria might have been an opportunity to engage in wider questioning of the role that insecure work has come to play in our country. Australians rely more on insecure workers than almost any other nation. One in three Australian workers has no access to paid sick leave. But Frydenberg, the day after Andrews raised the issue, dismissed it: “That is not what is driving people’s disobedience in relation to some of the restrictions.” Asked about economic reform, he said, “Well, I can tell you the first cab off the rank will be labour-market flexibility and a continuation of the industrial relations reforms that accompanied the JobKeeper introduction.” While the “flexibility” of our workforce was arguably helping spread the virus, and the parlous conditions faced by millions of Australians – many of them working two jobs – were on display, the government’s response was that flexibility should be increased. 

These attitudes to work have contributed in other ways to the spread of the virus in Victoria. The aged-care workforce, another casualised and poorly paid group, has been an issue. It’s been an issue for years, merely highlighted, in horrific terms, by the virus. And the problems are not limited to the Morrison government. The failures of tracking and tracing those exposed to the virus in Victoria seem likely to have been caused, at least in part, by cuts to the health workforce. The philosophy of saving money by paying less in wages, and by hiring fewer qualified workers or more unqualified workers, is partly responsible for the deaths we are now seeing. Unsurprisingly, the largest problems in aged care have occurred in homes run by businesses, for profit.

There is an irony here. As economist Richard Denniss recently observed, business has for years used calls for “certainty” as a way of blocking change. Any policy change that might cost them money – pricing carbon, say, or taxing mining – is opposed on the grounds that they can’t be expected to plan for the future when the government can swoop in and make changes at any point. The irony is that certainty for these corporate mammoths creates uncertainty for the rest of us. Unsafe work practices, insecure jobs, unstable personal finances, a rapidly heating planet and, now, a rapidly spreading virus – everything that allows businesses to keep on doing what they’ve been doing for years – these are the consequences of believing that the concerns of business and “the economy”, as it is currently constructed, outstrip all else; of continuing to treat what is, increasingly obviously, utter madness as unquestionable common sense. 

When they invoke debt, Morrison and his ministers argue that we should not place a burden on our children and grandchildren. It is interesting, then, to note the predicament of young people in the face of this recession. Young people were a large proportion of those who lost their jobs. In July, the Productivity Commission released a new report on what happened to young people after the last global recession. Just as now, they lost their jobs in overwhelming numbers. For years afterwards, too, they were less likely to have jobs. The jobs they eventually got were worse, and so were their wages. When the economy recovered, their careers did not. In other words, it is the young – including those who will enter the workforce in coming years, still children now – who desperately need jobs to be created. Instead, the government is framing its choice to keep spending down as a favour to the very people it is likely to hurt.

Young people will suffer in other ways. When the virus hit, the government allowed people to take money out of their retirement savings – in superannuation – to spend now. The government has received a lot of praise for JobKeeper. But as former prime minister Paul Keating pointed out, so far, more money has been taken out of super than has been spent on JobKeeper, and much of it was taken out by the young and low-paid. The government has, in effect, asked those least able to afford it to stump up $30 billion worth of stimulus, at the expense of their security in retirement. 

If the government were really concerned about the burden it was imposing on the young, it would worry, too, about the massive costs that are going to hit this country over the next century because of climate change and our national failure to prepare for it. 

There is no shortage of advice to the government on how it might use the pandemic crisis as a spur to invest in fighting climate change. The Climate Council submitted a detailed plan to create 76,000 jobs over three years across areas such as renewable energy and public transport. A new project backed by one of the billionaire founders of Atlassian, Mike Cannon-Brookes, outlines a million jobs that might be created in the next five years. Instead, the government has on several occasions flagged heavy investment in natural gas, which will never be a major employer, and, while not as bad as coal, plays a major role in warming the planet. 

What other opportunities might the government have seized upon to remake our society? It had already put in place free childcare. It could have decided to retain it as an ongoing federal program, allowing, in particular, more women to join the workforce. Over time, as fewer women missed years of work, this might have helped to close the gap between what men and women are paid. More Australians would have been in work, and the talent of our workforce would have risen. Instead, the government got rid of free childcare in July.

Several economists have called for the building of social housing – low-rent accommodation provided by governments to people on low incomes, who are often escaping homelessness or violence. A review of one such program during the global financial crisis found it had more than justified the spending: for each dollar the government spent, economic turnover jumped by $1.30. Instead, the only large-scale job-creation program the government has announced at the time of writing is HomeBuilder, under which people building a new home or spending at least $150,000 on a renovation receive up to $25,000. Rather than creating permanent public assets that might be used by those who need them most, the government chose to enrich people who were already wealthy enough to spend large sums increasing the value of their home. And here’s the kicker: it didn’t even work. In August, a Treasury official told a Senate committee that just 247 formal applications – applications! – had been received so far. No payments had yet been made. 

These are opportunities the government has failed to take. Well, fine – there are a million things a government must do, it can’t possibly pursue them all. But another way to read this list is as an endorsement of the way things are. The government is fine with the climate continuing to heat, and Australia helping to make it worse. It’s fine with the pay gap between men and women, and the years out of the workforce that many women have to take. It’s fine with young people earning less over the course of their careers. It’s fine with the lack of social housing for people who desperately need it, and it’s fine with other houses becoming even less affordable, as rich people renovate their homes. It is fine with the millions of Australians without sick leave, who live from week to week on the unpredictable shifts their bosses choose to give them. 

Scott Morrison’s firmly stated belief that the economy would “snap back” was an act of hope. But it was also a failure of imagination, an inability to imagine the world might do anything other than return to what it was already. And it is this same failure of imagination that is observable in the policies the government has announced or hinted at announcing soon. They are, almost without exception, rehashes or expansions of policies the government had been pursuing before the crisis hit. This is the true meaning of “snapback”, and the strongest sense in which it is still the government’s approach: pretend the virus hasn’t happened. Go back to whatever you were doing before it arrived. Don’t attempt for a moment to imagine a new way that things might be done, even if the evidence that a shift is unavoidable – and possibly helpful – is staring you in the face.

In July, Josh Frydenberg held up Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan as heroes who had modelled how the recovery should unfold. It caused a stir, but just a minor one. This was because the references were old, and felt a little quaint, the type of thing a reaching Young Liberal might say. But it was also because what Thatcher and Reagan did – push responsibility back onto individuals, and put a rapacious, heartless market at the heart of our society – is no longer revolutionary, or markedly right-wing. It is just the way things are. 

The names offer convenient cover for those who like to pretend the conservative side of politics retains some coherent philosophy. And it is this idea, that conservatives still stand for free markets and small government, that allowed Morrison, by spending enormous amounts of money at the beginning of this crisis, to suddenly appear, to some, as though he was putting ideology aside. 

But this is a mistaken understanding of conservative ideology in the 21st century. The foundation of the government’s response to the virus was entirely in keeping with its practices of recent years. When right-wing commentators and left-wing critics pointed to the conflict between the government’s supposed conservative principles and its apparent money-splashing they were out of date. There is no longer any major conservative party in the world that believes in free markets or small government. The International Monetary Fund, for example, estimates Australia provides US$29 billion each year to the fossil-fuel industry. Paying individuals huge amounts of government money is not alien either: we call the payments “franking credits”, “capital gains tax concessions”, “negative gearing” and “private-health-insurance rebates”, and in the past decade the Liberal Party has fought like mad to keep them. 

A fact to keep in mind about JobKeeper is that it is not paid directly to workers; it is paid to businesses. And because a payment is made for every worker in those businesses, not just the ones who would otherwise have lost their jobs, it is, to a very large extent, free money. This fact became more obvious recently as some businesses that collected the payment, such as Nick Scali and Adairs, declared higher profits, and gave some of that money back to shareholders in the form of dividends. And this is the story of much of the government’s response: those who are already accustomed to receiving help from this government – the gas industry, homeowners, shareholders, business owners – are those who have done best out of the government’s response to the pandemic. 

Similarly, to state that certain groups had to be excluded from JobKeeper because “a line had to be drawn somewhere” is to put the causation around the wrong way. 

There remains one puzzling element. These are not just decisions to choose some people over others, but also to prioritise that favouritism over economic recovery. For a government to actively choose not to help the economy in the most effective way possible in the midst of the greatest economic crash in decades seems both economically and politically perverse, at odds with its own interests.

Analysis of politics often proceeds from the assumption that we are dealing with a bunch of hyper-rational actors – people making decisions for detailed political motives. People trying very hard to get elected. But politicians are really not that different from the rest of us, and anybody who has ever argued about politics with a friend knows that at some point you come up against an immovable object: the fundamental way they see the world. At that point, most of us shut our eyes and block our ears. Why should we expect government ministers to be different?

Very few of us are any good at imagining how other people experience the world. Some of us are worse at it than others. Morrison has learnt, politically, from his mistakes during the bushfires, and set out to correct them. But what he can’t mechanically fix is the lack of empathy that, in the most famous example, made him pick up that poor woman’s hand and shake it. 

There are those who believe the new approach that drives our conservative politicians – to divide the world into those they favour and those they don’t – is about Machiavellian politics, a way of courting votes. Others believe it is about political punishment of those less likely to vote for the Coalition. Possibly both play their part. Mostly, I suspect, it is less cynical than that, though perhaps a cause for greater despair. Rather than speaking just of those the Liberals consider friends and enemies, it speaks to what they think of as Australia. The historian Benedict Anderson described nations as “imagined communities”. When Morrison thinks about Australia, he simply doesn’t think about people whose lives are very different from his. In the imagined community of Scott Morrison, women, foreigners, artists, academics and young people are barely there. 

When long lines materialised outside Centrelink offices in March, the nation was shocked. The government, itself shocked, doubled the JobSeeker payment. According to The Australia Institute, this instantly lifted 425,000 Australians out of poverty. Mandy Weber, living with her two teenage daughters, told the ABC that they were now eating three meals a day, rather than one. In Guardian Australia, Bane Williams wrote of realising that he could now afford to get a $15 haircut and buy fresh fruit.

When, in June, the prime minister began hinting that JobSeeker would have to be reduced, he said that as long as it remained as high as it was some people would not look for work. He cited “anecdotal feedback” that businesses were struggling to find workers. No examples were provided, no numbers, no evidence. But evidence in the opposite direction was easily available: according to the Australian Council of Social Service, there are currently 13 jobseekers for every job vacancy. 

Morrison, to his credit, has suggested that JobSeeker will not be cut to the dole’s pre-crisis level. But that shouldn’t stop us from paying attention to the following brutal facts. The payment will nonetheless be reduced in just a few weeks. The instant it is, every one of the people relying on it will lose $150 a week. A hundred thousand people will be plunged into poverty. 

At the start of the crisis, the prime minister observed that there will be Australians “who, through no fault of their own, will find themselves with less work, with less income”. Later, he used the phrase again: “those who have left the workforce through no fault of their own”. On no less than a dozen occasions, Frydenberg has used the same formulation: “through no fault of their own”. 

There is a neat implied division here, between two types of unemployed people, and, by extension, two types of Australians. The first type are those who have lost their jobs since COVID hit. An unexpected crisis, unprecedented in our lifetime, came upon them. They are in this situation through no fault of their own. 

The definition of the second flows from the first. Those who were already unemployed, or who have been unemployed before, are at fault. The first type deserve compassion and some support while we wait for them to get back on their feet. Because the latter don’t really want to work, their payments must be cut. They must be harried into work. Their life will be hard, but they have lost the right to our compassion because they do this to themselves. 

This is a taxonomy of people, but it is also a view of the world. It says there are times, yes, of national or international crisis, when events are out of anyone’s control. But at all other times, for most people – and certainly for the people the prime minister is used to imagining – events can be expected to bend to our will. If we work hard, if we are determined, we will get what we want. That famous catchphrase of the prime minister’s – “If you have a go, you get a go” – is not some good-faith promise of support for those who make an effort, but an expression of a particular understanding of the way the world works, because, for some people, it really does work that way. Take Morrison. His life has worked out. He became prime minister! And he did this, in his telling, by putting his head down and working hard. He got what he deserved. He had a go, and he got a go. The prime minister’s description of the unemployed points us to the brutal flipside of that cheerily optimistic statement: if you didn’t get a go, that’s on you. Subscribing to this view means you can judge people by how their lives turned out.

A crisis of spectacular dimensions, such as the one we are now living through, should offer an equally spectacular challenge to this narrative of just deserts, by reminding us that misfortune can come to anyone, at any time, for reasons beyond their control. But it is its spectacular dimensions that also prevent it from being read in this way. This crisis is unique, we think. There has not been anything like it before; there will never be again. It has nothing to teach us. 

But it does, of course. 

In an essay in Guardian Australia about the pandemic, Indigenous novelist Melissa Lucashenko wrote that her people had already lived through “the catastrophe of British invasion: pox, guns, all the rest. Poverty, capitalism, ongoing child removal. Policies of attempted genocide.” Indigenous people had learnt “how to survive generation after generation of externally imposed hard times”. 

This is the real division between Australians: not between those capable or incapable of directing the course of their lives, those at fault and those not at fault, but between those who already grasp that external structures, forces and events can determine the course of a life, and those who are holding out against that understanding as long as they can. 

At the Melbourne International Film Festival, this year streamed online, I watched a documentary about cyber surveillance, Coded Bias. One interviewee referred to something that speculative fiction writer and essayist William Gibson had said: “The future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed.” She had always thought this meant that rich people got the spoils first. Its current meaning, she now saw, was that poor people got hit with the worst of the future first. The writer and novelist Amitav Ghosh makes a similar point about climate change in his book The Great Derangement: “the temporal order of modernity” has been reversed; it is now those at the margins who are “the first to experience the future that awaits all of us”. 

And this has been our experience of the pandemic. Those in insecure work contracted the virus, and then it spread to the rest of us. Those at the fringes of Scott Morrison’s imagined community lost their jobs and were pushed into poverty. As this recession drags on, more of us will follow them. 

From the beginning of this crisis, the prime minister has seemed to find it difficult to accept that things might get as bad as others say they will. It was the case in March, when he resisted shutting things down. It is the case again now, with the government’s odd reserve in the face of economic disaster. His attitude to climate change is the same. If you truly believed that things will get as terrible as most experts say they will, you would act with urgency and force, and he has not. 

It is possible that Scott Morrison is uniquely ill-suited to this time. Unfortunately for us, his failures of imagination overlap. He can’t really believe that things will get much worse, because, for his imagined community of people in control of their own destiny, it never really has. And he has no need to imagine a future different from what came before, because, as far as he is concerned, the past was fine – at least for those he is used to thinking of as “Australia”. Hence “snapback”. 

In an earlier draft of this essay, I wrote: “How many times can we all say ‘the new normal’ before we actually accept that the old normal is gone?” Later, I realised that this, too, was reaching for something that no longer exists: a semblance of stability. When we say “the new normal” it implies that whatever state we have now reached will stay that way for some time. But the fact we have lived through two apocalyptic events in one year is not a coincidence; it is a guide to our future. Natural disasters will occur more often, with greater severity. Epidemics, too, have become more common. The world is not about to let up. 

If we simply snap back to what we had before, then we will, sooner or later, find ourselves here again. The experience of those more accustomed to hardships is not just a chronological tip-off to what is coming for all of us. The link is causal. The virus has spread faster because we rely on exploited workers. The recession will be worse than it needs to be partly because the government has chosen to help those who don’t need it, rather than those who do. Natural disasters will affect us all because, as a society, we remain focused on what is most likely to enrich those who are already rich. 

Perhaps, for a while, Scott Morrison’s approach will work for him. Plenty of people will do well out of this pandemic – mostly the same people who usually do well out of this government. Perhaps, with a bit of luck, it will even get him as far as the next election, or the election after that. Which, for Morrison, will be enough. The future is somebody else’s problem.

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is the author of The Game: A Portrait of Scott Morrison, a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.


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How to change a bad law

The campaign to repair the single parenting payment was a model of how research and advocacy can push government to face the cruel effects of a policy and change course

Installation view of the Kandinsky exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, showing three framed abstract paintings hanging on a wall

Kandinsky at AGNSW

The exhibition of the Russian painter’s work at the Art Gallery of NSW provides a fascinating view of 20th-century art’s leap from representation to abstraction

In This Issue

Detail of cover of ‘Surviving Autocracy’

Attack on language: ‘Surviving Autocracy’ and ‘Twilight of Democracy’

Masha Gessen and Anne Applebaum sound alarms on how ‘post-truth’ public debate leaves us mute in the face of autocracy

Image from ‘ZeroZeroZero’

‘Cinematic’ television: ‘ZeroZeroZero’

Forget comparisons to cinema, TV is developing its own compelling aesthetic

Image of Dolly Parton

Audio tapestry

A tangle of red tape is robbing us of music podcasts in Australia

Image of Mike Pompeo and Marise Payne

Choppy waters

Australia’s assumption that China will give up its Pacific rivalry with the US is dangerously misguided

More in The Monthly Essays

Members of the Kanakanvu tribe perform at a Saraya harvest festival, Donghua Village, Taiwan.

Who is Taiwanese?

Taiwan’s minority indigenous peoples are being used to refute mainland China’s claims on the island – but what does that mean for their recognition, land rights and identity?

Ash Barty with winners trophy, Wimbledon, 2021

Ash’s to Ash’s

From stepping away from tennis as a youth before returning to dominate Wimbledon and the Australian Open, to retiring as world No. 1 at the age of 25, Ash Barty has always owned her career path

Close-up photograph of Anne Summers, 2017

How to change a bad law

The campaign to repair the single parenting payment was a model of how research and advocacy can push government to face the cruel effects of a policy and change course

Photo of Animal Justice Party MP Georgie Purcell outside Parlament House with rescued greyhound Graham

Dog day afternoon

Animal welfare concerns have long plagued the greyhound racing industry, but in Victoria a campaign from covert investigators now has a parliamentarian leading the fight

Online latest

Installation view of the Kandinsky exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, showing three framed abstract paintings hanging on a wall

Kandinsky at AGNSW

The exhibition of the Russian painter’s work at the Art Gallery of NSW provides a fascinating view of 20th-century art’s leap from representation to abstraction

Image of Margret RoadKnight playing guitar and singing.

The unsung career of Margret RoadKnight

Little-known outside the Melbourne folk scene for decades, singer Margret RoadKnight’s 60 years of music-making is celebrated in a new compilation

A woman rides her bike past the Australian flag, the Indigenous flag and the flag of the Torres Strait Islands, Canberra, October 13, 2023. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

Beyond the Voice referendum

Looking towards the next 65,000 years

View of the High Court of Australia. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

Guarding the power of the court in our democracy

The hidden forces agitating at highest levels to undermine judicial independence