November 2021


The needle and the damage done

By Richard Denniss
Image of ‘Pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey’ game

© Chase Middleton

The federal government’s handling of the pandemic has been the worst public policy screw-up in Australian history

Scott Morrison’s New Year’s message to Australians couldn’t have been clearer. The front page of The Sydney Morning Herald cried, “Vaccine can wait, says PM”. Lest there be any doubt about his priorities at that time, the story opened with the calming words, “Prime Minister Scott Morrison has warned it would be dangerous to rush a coronavirus vaccination rollout even if it could lead to restrictions and border closures easing sooner.”

No, you didn’t read that wrong. In January this year, the second year of the pandemic, the prime minister was urging us to hasten slowly when it came to vaccination. Two months later, he first uttered the infamous phrase that the vaccine rollout “is not a race”, a line he repeated three times that month.

But by July, he hadn’t just changed his mind, he wanted us to change our memories as well. “When we made those remarks,” he claimed, “we were talking about the regulation of the vaccines. I’m not sure if people are aware of that.” But he wasn’t. Both the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines had been approved by February, well before he took his “not a race” line for a few laps around the press gallery. Yet again, Morrison was simply making stuff up to cover his change of course. It was neither the first nor last time during the pandemic.

On January 7, he held a press conference at which he humbly informed Australians that, “We don’t want to make promises that we can’t keep … We will tell you timetables when we can have confidence in those timetables, and we will continue to update those timetables as more information is known and as improvements continue to be made. We know what we know, and will base our information and our timetables on that rather than speculating.” The timetable should have been clear: by then, Morrison and his ministers had already made half a dozen announcements about their vaccine acquisitions, boasting of tens of millions of doses.

Three weeks later, Health Minster Greg Hunt delivered the timetable the PM had promised: “Our goal is very clear, and our advice is very clear, that we aim to have the country vaccinated before the end of October.” That statement might seem “very clear”, and it was subsequently confirmed by the secretary of the Department of Health on March 10, and by Morrison on March 11, but when it quickly became obvious the vaccine rollout was well behind such a schedule the prime minister tried to have us believe that, you guessed it, it was us who had misunderstood him. Again. 

According to Morrison’s timetable, by early April four million jabs should have been in the arms of Australians, but, as the government’s own data shows, in reality it was less than one million. Just three months into the rollout, the government was an incredible 75 per cent below its own target. But on April 12, rather than express regret for his failures and commit to lift his game, Morrison told the nation: “One of the things about COVID is it writes its own rules … So rather than set targets that can get knocked about by every to and fro of international supply chains and other disruptions that can occur, we’re just getting on with it.”

This was simply not true. The government had set targets and Morrison himself had stated “we can have confidence in those timetables”. But as the paltry number of vaccinations showed, he clearly wasn’t “getting on with” anything except changing the goalposts. And of course, come September, the prime minister was again obsessed with his vaccination targets and rounded on any state leader who suggested that the circumstances of their state should take precedence over the targets that he had already shifted.

Together, the prime minister, his health minister and the secretary of the department of health have overseen the most expensive public policy mistakes in Australian history, but to hear Scott Morrison speak is to hear a man seeking praise for his performance. As Anthony Albanese has said often, Morrison failed in his two critical jobs: quarantine and vaccines. While the final tally cannot yet be known, the cost of these failures already runs to the tens of billions of dollars, with many lives lost and many more almost certain to follow.

From the moment, early on the morning of March 19, 2020, that the Ruby Princess unloaded hundreds of COVID-positive passengers onto the streets of Sydney, many of whom rushed straight to the airport, the Morrison government has been denying it had responsibility for biosecurity and quarantine. While the subsequent inquiry into the debacle found that both the New South Wales and federal governments had failed in their obligations, it was telling that Morrison’s first reaction was to shift both responsibility and blame onto the states.

Morrison seems to believe that the less he commits to, the less he can be held responsible for. This in part might explain his refusal to build dedicated quarantine facilities rather than rely on poorly ventilated hotels as Australia’s first line of defence. He has said repeatedly that the hotel quarantine system was “99.99 per cent effective”, and that nothing was perfect, but again, neither claim was correct. 

Between April 20 and June 21 there were 21 breaches of hotel quarantine, which means our system was only 99.5 per cent effective. No doubt Morrison would claim those numbers are quite similar, but think of it this way: if a system was 99.99 per cent effective then one in every 10,000 people entering the country would breach quarantine, but if it was 99.5 per cent it would be 50 in every 10,000 arrivals. That’s a big difference in an environment of exponential viral spread, with whole cities being shut down for a single breach of quarantine. And if commercial airlines were only 99.99 per cent safe, there would be 3900 air disasters each year, rather than the usual 100 to 150, and many more deaths as a result.

But the most important statistic is also the simplest to interpret: there were zero breakouts of COVID-19 from Howard Springs in the Northern Territory, repurposed by the federal government as the nation’s only COVID-quarantine facility. None. If only there had been more such facilities. Australians do expect some systems to be 100 per cent effective, and they are right to demand their representatives pursue such high standards.

Dedicated quarantine facilities near the nation’s major airports would have saved Australia from the most recent lockdowns in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra. Yet from the moment COVID first hit our shores, the prime minister refused to spend a few hundred million dollars, less than the cost of his government’s car-park rorts program, to build any. In contrast, Morrison recently announced his willingness to spend “what it takes” to purchase eight new nuclear-powered submarines.

When the prime minister announced the government’s vaccine rollout plan in January, he made clear it would not just be fast but targeted, getting earliest to people at the highest risk of catching the virus and of passing it on: “There will be five phases of priority populations as we work through over the course of this year to administer the vaccine, both the Pfizer vaccine and the AZ vaccine. Today, we are going to talk about the process of those first two phases that will provide the most necessary ring of containment and protection for the Australian population. Those populations in that first phase are quarantine and border workers, frontline health officials, as well as those working in aged care and disability care, and those in aged care and disability care residents.”

None of that happened. Instead, on that June day a privately contracted limousine driver who was transporting international flight crews tested positive to NSW’s first known case of the Delta variant of COVID-19. The driver was unvaccinated and not required to wear a mask.

Had the federal government taken responsibility for building dedicated quarantine centres, of course, there would be no need for private limo drivers to shuttle those with the greatest risk of bringing COVID into Australia back and forth between privately operated hotels. But if Morrison built such facilities and there was a breach, it would have been on his shoulders – so why would he take a risk when it could be pushed onto others? 

On vaccination, the Morrison government had 12 months to plan who would receive doses first. It had 12 months to communicate with the public about the benefits and the risks of vaccination, including with those from non-English-speaking backgrounds. It had time to get ahead of the inevitable tide of anti-vax misinformation. It had time to vaccinate those most at risk of spreading infection. It even had time to consult with business and unions to draft new laws, or clarify the operation of existing ones, to provide employers and employees with clear guidance on when compulsory vaccination might be permitted and required, and when it would not. But instead of doing the hard work of developing and implementing good policy, the prime minister took easy shots at state leaders.

One of the federal government’s biggest mistakes was also one of the easiest to avoid. In declining Pfizer’s offer in June 2020 to be at the head of the queue for its vaccine, the government made a huge bet on AstraZeneca. But having done so, Morrison lost the courage of his own convictions when, in April 2021, he held a panicked evening press conference to warn people about new advice from the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation on the side-effect risks of AstraZeneca. While he blamed ATAGI, yet again the fault lay with him rather than his scapegoat. Morrison has repeatedly claimed that ATAGI’s advice didn’t consider the risk of further outbreaks when it recommended that Pfizer be preferred for the young, but, as is so often the case, the written record contradicts the PM. In cautioning people against AstraZeneca, Morrison exacerbated vaccine hesitancy, and that allowed him to focus attention on the lack of demand for vaccines rather than his failure to secure sufficient supply.

By mid June, the vaccine rollout was an astonishing 13 million doses behind Morrison’s self-imposed schedule, with fewer than one million fully vaccinated people. As a result, key workers, from drivers shuttling air crews to those driving ambulances and trucks, through to aged and disability sector workers, as well as disabled people themselves, were all at significantly greater risk of dying. Likewise, the entire economy was more prone to requiring lockdowns, imposed by state governments, as a result. The costs, in lives and dollars, of Morrison’s “strollout” are simply staggering, and to date the prime minister seems to have avoided even being asked how responsible he feels for that state of affairs.

Of course, not everyone was missing out on vaccination. A source close to a Qantas staff member told me that, in May this year, the airline rolled out its own privately funded and privately organised Pfizer vaccination program for all its staff and everyone they lived with of adult age. In Sydney, Qantas commandeered a corner of the cavernous international terminal and turned it into a bustling vaccination hub that for months distributed the seemingly scarce Pfizer to staff and housemates alike. How did chief executive Alan Joyce secure what the prime minister struggled to find? Why weren’t higher risk groups in the community vaccinated before the families of Qantas office staff? And how did the fact that thousands of people jumped the queue not break in the national news? Perhaps we will never know. But imagine if limo drivers and interstate truck drivers had been vaccinated ahead of accountants and marketing executives at an airline that was barely flying.

Qantas wasn’t alone in getting ahead. It costs more than $50,000 per year to send a kid to board at St Joseph’s College on Sydney’s affluent North Shore, and parents who spend that kind of money expect their offspring to get more than a few head starts in life. They weren’t disappointed this year when the NSW health department agreed to provide 163 boarders from Joeys (as the old boys call it) with Pfizer, despite the fact that it was not available for most people aged under 40 at the time. 

Thanks to documents obtained under freedom of information laws, we know that an unnamed NSW health department official secured Pfizer doses for all of the school’s boarders locked down (with sports fields and a swimming pool to offer respite). After the scandal came to light, the helpful official explained to their boss: “Knowing the Joeys situation well, I approached [Sydney local health district chief executive] Teresa [Anderson] in early May on my own initiative to ask whether it would be possible to vaccinate the senior students at St Joseph’s College.”

Anything is possible, especially when you are wealthy and well connected. Joeys wasn’t alone in knowing who and how to ask. It was reported that at least one other exclusive boarding school managed to get its students vaccinated with Pfizer, and that The King’s School (where fees reach $65,000 per year and the grounds are more than twice the size of Sydney University’s main campus) was seeking the same head start for its students at the time the St Joseph’s scandal hit the headlines. 

Under pressure to explain how it was that some of the most privileged kids in the country were vaccinated ahead of genuinely vulnerable members of the community, and with the particular vaccine that was the hardest to come by, the NSW health department blamed the error on its enthusiasm to protect the Indigenous community. No kidding. Even though the paper trail makes clear that the plan was always to immunise all of the boarders, the fact that a small percentage of those boarders was Indigenous, and hence prioritised for vaccination, was used to explain the “error”. 

The state’s Indigenous communities did not similarly benefit from the proactive enthusiasm of the unnamed official who was so keen to help the Joeys boys. Not only are Indigenous vaccination rates lower in NSW than in the broader community – a pattern that is common across the country – but efforts by Indigenous communities to prepare themselves for the pandemic have at times been actively stymied by the bureaucracy that was so supportive to those least in need.

Wilcannia, north-western NSW, is one of the most disadvantaged communities in the state. It has low incomes, high levels of unemployment and a majority of Indigenous residents. But when community leaders asked government authorities for tents to help protect those living in notoriously overcrowded housing from spreading the virus to their loved ones, they were denied on the basis that overcrowding in Wilcannia was a problem “before the COVID-19 outbreak and will be here well after”.

Eighteen months into the pandemic, the head of the peak Indigenous health body in NSW told a parliamentary inquiry the government had yet to directly engage with its vulnerable communities: “We didn’t have a sit down with the health minister around this current outbreak, nor have we sat down with the chief health officer to work through the public health response, nor have we sat down with them about the reopening of NSW.”

Having failed spectacularly to meet his own timetables and targets, and having cautioned people about the small risks of rushing vaccination approvals, the prime minister is now pushing headlong towards a new target, despite some qualifications from state premiers and chief ministers in the national cabinet. The plan is to end lockdowns and “open up” the economy when the vaccination rate reaches 80 per cent of the eligible population (those aged 16 and over, which is around only 64 per cent of the total population). That will leave some 9.2 million Australians unvaccinated, 4.1 million of whom will be children.

Moving on from blaming the state premiers for lockdowns, Morrison is now blaming those who aren’t vaccinated for their “hesitancy”. While there are undoubtedly some “hesitant” people, and some who are anti-vax entirely, most of the eligible population yet to be vaccinated simply won’t have had the opportunity, time or support to get both of their jabs. In July this year, the NSW health minister, Brad Hazzard, said supplies of COVID-19 vaccines were so low, people had been “chasing” jabs like characters in The Hunger Games films. In September, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said his state had no choice but to “ration Pfizer”.

COVID is thought to be 10 times more deadly than the flu and is far more easily transmitted. Despite assertions to the contrary, it poses a far greater risk to your life than crossing the street. It can kill the young and the fit, but is far more likely to kill older people and those with underlying conditions such as respiratory diseases and diabetes, as well as those with conditions such as Down syndrome. While anyone, including the vaccinated, can spread COVID, some people are far more likely to spread it due to the nature of their work or their living conditions. Our health officials and governments know this, and it is why Morrison had a “five-stage plan” for the vaccine rollout. But because the plan failed, the most vulnerable groups, and many of those most likely to spread it, are less likely to be vaccinated than the general population, not more. As Australia opens up, the chances of the virus being spread by key workers and being caught by the most vulnerable are far higher than would have been the case had Morrison delivered on his promise to prioritise key groups for vaccination.

Morrison says his determination to commence opening up at 70 per cent of the eligible population vaccinated, and to end lockdown restrictions entirely at 80 per cent, was based on the “medical advice” provided to the government and the national cabinet by the Doherty Institute. But no matter how closely you read the Doherty modelling you won’t find the part where it advises the government to do anything, and it definitely doesn’t describe lifting restrictions on movement and mixing as “safe”.

What the Doherty modelling does provide are forecasts of the likely number of cases, hospitalisations and deaths from COVID-19 under a range of different scenarios. It does not claim to have considered all likely scenarios, and does not claim to be able to predict how the virus will spread through high-risk communities. The modelling makes no forecasts about the different death toll that is likely in different communities or for those with different underlying conditions.

To be clear, the advice provided to the national cabinet that has been used to justify the decision to lift restrictions at 80 per cent vaccination contains no breakdown of likely deaths by gender, ethnicity, income or pre-existing health status. The only demographic breakdown it chose, or was asked to provide, is for age. Put simply, the modelling of which Morrison is so proud is blind to gender, race and class. 

The Delta variant of COVID-19 is so contagious that it spread through NSW, Victoria and the ACT despite harsh lockdowns and rapidly rising vaccination rates. The minute those restrictions are eased it will likely begin to spread again, especially through the communities of these 9.2 million unvaccinated Australians. The only consolation offered is that, if we are lucky, our hospitals will have the physical capacity to house all the sick and dying. While no one can predict who will die in the months ahead, all of our national leaders know which groups are most vulnerable, and all of them know that, with the exception of the elderly, those groups are less likely to be vaccinated than the public at large. Morrison, having abandoned his early caution about vaccines, is now willing for the most vulnerable to be exposed to very significant risks.

Not all leaders have been so gung-ho. From the first day of Canberra’s Delta outbreak, Chief Minister Andrew Barr made the point that he didn’t think it was safe for Canberra to open up when the territory hit 80 per cent vaccination. Instead, he was urging Canberrans and the prime minister to strive for more ambitious targets, and, importantly, to ensure that vulnerable groups were vaccinated before the virus was freed to run rampant. 

The ACT is completely surrounded by NSW. They share countless border crossings, and a large number of people move back and forth between the ACT and NSW for work, healthcare and other services each day. From the minute the NSW government decided against locking down Sydney and placing a “ring of steel” around it to protect regional NSW, it was inevitable that Delta would find its way to Canberra. As is often the case with COVID, it’s the choices that other people make that most affect your prospects. Barr said the ACT’s position within NSW meant the territory’s actions in opening up were to some extent dictated by the more open lockdown policies of its encompassing neighbour. “We need to get more of our people vaccinated to protect ourselves from the decision of another government,” he said, “a decision that we don’t agree with and which goes against the health advice of that government … NSW Health were pushing to open up at 80 to 85 per cent adult vaccination. That sort of target seems to be based on much sounder advice and would be better for the economy overall, as the clear evidence is that the stronger the public health response, the stronger the economic performance is as well. But unfortunately, the NSW government feels no obligation to protect others – that is very clear. I don’t think any other state matters in their decision making.”

So much for us all being in this together. Vulnerable people in the ACT who were yet to be vaccinated were exposed to COVID before any nationally agreed targets were met, and, according to the ACT chief minister, the protection of the vulnerable in Canberra was not a concern of political leaders in Sydney.

If vaccines were life jackets and Scott Morrison the captain of a sinking ship, he would declare it was time to abandon ship before the vulnerable were all taken care of. 

People aged over 65 are far more likely to live in high-risk settings such as residential care homes, far more likely to die of COVID, and far more likely to vote Liberal. It made sense on many levels that older people were among the first to be vaccinated.

But while older people aren’t the only ones who were at greater risk of dying from COVID, they were the only vulnerable group who were successfully targeted with early vaccination. We know from previous outbreaks, not just of COVID, and not just in Australia, that diseases are more likely to spread in densely populated areas, among people who have no choice but to go out and work, and among those whose health is already impaired. We know who those people are, we know where they live, and had the prime minister delivered on his own promises, they would have been first in the vaccine queue, not last. 

On June 2 this year, Labor’s Bill Shorten, as shadow minister for the NDIS, asked the prime minister in parliament why, despite promising that all disability-care residents would be vaccinated by Easter, only 355 of the more than 22,000 living in disability accommodation had received both doses of vaccine. Morrison’s answer speaks volumes: “What is important we understand is that the health minister has advised on numerous occasions a first dose is a very important protection … and I don’t think it is helpful for the Labor Party to be talking down first-dose protections in the middle of a vaccine program. I don’t think it’s responsible … We on this side will continue to focus on the job of rolling out what is the largest vaccine program in Australia’s history. We have gone through a week which has seen more than 700,000 Australians being vaccinated around the country.”

Despite Morrison’s assertion, “what is important” is that only 2 per cent of the vulnerable people in disability accommodation had been fully vaccinated months after they were all supposed to have been. Rather than apologise for such a failure and promise urgent action to address it, the prime minister instead crowed about the fact that lots of less vulnerable people who weren’t prioritised in his plan had been vaccinated instead.

As Shorten points out, we know how many people are eligible for the NDIS, the disability support pension, or are employed via the Disability Employment Services Scheme; we know how to contact each of them, and if the government wanted to know what percentage of them were vaccinated, it would. Likewise, if the government wanted to have vaccinated them first, it could have. 

Similarly, the government could have vaccinated the cohort of the elderly on home-care packages, yet as late as August this year, with the NSW wave of infections rising rapidly, health department secretary Brendan Murphy and Lieutenant General John Frewen, commander of the COVID-19 Taskforce and hence in charge of the vaccine rollout, admitted to the Senate select committee on COVID that they hadn’t even formulated a plan to vaccinate these hundreds of thousands of highly vulnerable people or the highly mobile workforce that cares for them. Frewen told the committee that there was no specific plan and no “focused effort at the moment” to ensure they were vaccinated.

The same is true, as mentioned earlier, for Indigenous people. Again, if the government wanted to reach out to individuals who identified as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, through data such as that provided by the Census, or wanted to provide specific outreach services to such communities, it could have, and the fact it didn’t speaks volumes about its priorities. 

At some point, undeclared, it is clear that the Morrison government simply gave up on trying to vaccinate everyone in the 1a and 1b categories of its own priority groups program, which include frontline healthcare workers, aged-care workers and residents, and Indigenous people. In the rush to get to 80 per cent nationally, the plans to vaccinate the vulnerable first were left behind. But rather than take responsibility for that decision, the prime minister instead blames the victims of his shift in priority.

When asked by a journalist in September whether we should set specific targets for Indigenous vaccination rates and wait until they were met before the nation opened up, because the rates in some Indigenous communities were as low as 7 per cent, Scott Morrison took four minutes to answer.

It is genuinely hard to tune in to Morrison’s press conferences. Listening to him respond to a question is like watching a large octopus slip through a small hole. There’s so much colour and movement and when it’s finished you can’t be sure you know what just happened. And, of course, this rhetorical technique is no accident.

Some of his 359-word answer to the question of whether we needed separate targets for Indigenous vaccination included: “And so that is another matter which the Department of Health and the minister and I have been progressing. And Professor Murphy. And it’s something we need to progress together with all the states and territories. And it already has been in so many respects. So, yes, I agree with Pat [Turner, convenor of the coalition of Indigenous peak bodies] that we need to get those vaccination levels in our Indigenous communities as high as possible, as high as possible. But at the same time, that does not disable us from the whole community being able to move forward under the National Plan. And the National Plan appreciates that.”

So, that’s a no.

Greg Hunt went on to add: “One of the things that we were reviewing this week, the progress, was the information provided that 99 per cent of people living in remote Australia have had access to vaccines. And so, the real point which [Minister for Indigenous Australians] Ken Wyatt has made and many others, such as Pat Turner, is that we need to boost confidence.”

That’s a no from Hunt as well.

It’s hard to do better than providing 99 per cent “access to vaccines” – except, of course, the question related to whether it was prudent to open up when only 7 per cent of some communities were in fact vaccinated. Like his leader, the health minister completely ignored the substance of the question, while regaling the audience with statistical proof of his success in making vaccines available to Indigenous communities and subtly blaming the victims of his government’s failures by talking about the “lack of confidence” some Indigenous people had in the vaccine.

While full-time workers who take time off to get their vaccination get sick pay, in 21st-century Australia only two thirds of the workforce have access to such a luxury. For those under 25, only 44 per cent have full-time employment with sick pay and the four weeks’ leave their parents likely took for granted. The rise of casual and contract work, from convenience stores to universities, has had significant consequences for many of those who work in the occupations most likely to contract and transmit COVID. Both scheduling a jab at a time that won’t cost an entire shift’s worth of income and fearing the need to take time off if side effects kick in act as significant disincentives for many to get vaccinated. Labor’s proposal of a $300 payment to all who got vaccinated was attacked by Morrison and many in the media as an “insult” to Australians, when the real insult was ignoring the consequences of so many workers’ lack of access to sick pay. 

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, people from the lowest socioeconomic groups were four times more likely to die from COVID than those in the highest group. After controlling for the fact that older Australians are more likely to live in poverty and die from the virus, even on an age-adjusted basis the poorest people in Australia were 2.6 times more likely to die from COVID than the wealthiest. In short, being poor is an “underlying condition”, and if Australia wanted to minimise deaths from COVID we also would have prioritised the vaccination of the poor, but instead we did the opposite.

The real test of leaders is what they do, not what they say. If Indigenous people, people with disabilities and those living in vulnerable circumstances such as prisons and refugee detention centres had been prioritised, then their rates of vaccination would be higher than the national average, not lower. The fact that so many vulnerable people missed out while the staff of Qantas and the boarders at Joeys got jabbed with Pfizer wasn’t due to “the luck of the draw”. It was proof that the game was rigged. 

Having started the year telling Australians that he would rather a good vaccine rollout than a fast one, having scared people away from the only readily available vaccine with his panicked evening press conference about AstraZeneca, and having criticised NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian for not locking down her state hard enough, the prime minister now wants to define himself by his “determination” to get Australians vaccinated, as quickly as possible, and despite all those nasty state premiers who wanted lockdowns instead. 

He is right that Australians can’t stay locked down forever, and right that Australians are desperate to return to their jobs, see their extended families and maybe even have a holiday, if they are among the lucky people who saved money during the crisis, rather than the ones who lost their homes or raided their super to survive. But the lockdowns wouldn’t have been necessary if he had delivered the vaccine rollout he promised.

If the prime minister had hit the targets he himself set, Australia would have achieved 80 per cent adult vaccination in late August and likely vaccinated every adult who wanted to be vaccinated by now. And if all border workers, including limousine drivers, had been vaccinated as a priority, as he had promised, the recent months-long lockdowns in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra would most likely have been avoided altogether. 

Former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull recently described the Morrison government’s vaccination rollout as “the biggest failure in public administration that [he] can recall”. It’s hard to disagree. The refusal to build standalone quarantine stations, the refusal to secure more Pfizer when it was offered, the undermining of AstraZeneca, and the inability to roll out the vaccine either quickly or in a targeted manner have already cost Australia tens of billions of dollars, not to mention the physical and mental health costs, the lost opportunities and the time never to be regained.

Since federation, the tyranny of distance has dominated much of Australian life, but with COVID it gave us a priceless head start. That was squandered by poor planning, poor implementation and poor communication. 

We are still in a race with COVID-19, and millions of Australians, disproportionately our most vulnerable, face the very real threat of catching a disease that has already hospitalised around 10,000 people. And as Christmas approaches, the nation is confused about vaccine passports, employers are confused about their obligations to staff and customers, and the state premiers are in open revolt with the prime minister over everything from health funding to international travel. When the pandemic began, we were told that clear communication was key to our success. But Scott Morrison has instead decided that our confusion is key to his success. The only thing that has been clear about the prime minister’s communication is that he will say anything to avoid responsibility for his failures. His words might win him votes, but they have already cost Australia dearly. The death toll will only rise from here. No doubt we will be encouraged to blame the rising toll on the “underlying conditions” of the virus’s victims, but in reality, it is the underlying immorality and incompetence of the Morrison government that is the culprit.

Richard Denniss
Richard Denniss is the chief economist at The Australia Institute.

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Image of a man playing music using electronics and the kora (West African harp)

Three overlooked albums of spiritual jazz from 2023

Recent releases by kora player John Haycock, trumpeter Matthew Halsall and 14-piece jazz ensemble Ancient Infinity Orchestra feel like a refuge from reality