The Politics    Thursday, September 21, 2023

A pandemic without the politics?

By Jonathan Green

Anthony Albanese is seen speaking at a press conference, with Mark Butler in the background

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese speaks at the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute in Adelaide, September 21, 2023. Image © Roy Vandervegt / AAP Images

Australia needs to be better prepared for the next pandemic – if only our leaders could agree

Have we lost the capacity to change our minds? Is that at the core of it? Have we become so incurious, so wedded to our own internal suite of conviction and prejudice that we not only close our ears to any alternative, but rail angrily at a world in which such divergent views dare to exist? Here we go again: Anthony Albanese has announced an inquiry into what went right and what went wrong in our response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The first thing to note is that the implied past tense here is probably not appropriate. According to the figures compiled by the federal health department, the past week saw 5069 Covid cases reported across Australia, an average of 724 per day. The downward swing of the charts of infection and death is nonetheless reassuring – unless, of course, you happen to be one of the remaining data points. But the persistent long tail of Covid aside, it makes eminent common sense to look at the country’s response and learn from it.

According to San Francisco–based disease predictors Metabiota, there’s a 22–28 per cent chance of another pandemic of Covid magnitude in the next decade. Those figures rise to a 47–57 per cent chance over the next 25 years. So, quite clearly, unambiguously, beyond even the most meanly offered of doubts, this inquiry is a thing of some urgency and a thing we need to do. We need to be better prepared.

The point of looking back at our Covid experience is not to score political points (he said, with possibly otherworldly optimism), the point is to tune our response to the ongoing and inevitable hazards being created by the seemingly unstoppable patterns of human behaviour. As we ride roughshod over the natural world, so too will the viruses of that world come back to bite us.

All of that said, were any of us surprised to hear Peter Dutton attack the inquiry’s terms of reference, suggesting that the PM was running a “protection racket” for Labor premiers Daniel Andrews and Annastacia Palaszczuk? “I think Australians are smart enough to smell a rat here,” said Dutton. “And the prime minister has made a decision which is not in our national interest and goes against what he promised to the Australian public, and it’s obviously been rolled out this week as a giant distraction to the disasters around energy and the Voice that the prime minister is presiding over as well.”

And that said, were we in turn surprised to see the PM announce an inquiry that sought to cauterise the most virulent and angrily unreasoned culture-war responses to state-led policy around lockdowns, vaccinations, border closures and the like?

We don’t need a settling of scores, we need coherent policy outcomes that next time around might save lives. Isn’t that something we could simply agree on? Does every issue in the public sphere have to be laced with the scent of political blood? There must be some in this country reaching the “gutful” stage on hearing political exchanges of this type.

How different might our politics be if the emphasis in so many conversations was not simply on achieving a momentary on-paper triumph of will and conviction. What if the emphasis was to persuade each other to a point of accommodation and practical outcome? We seem to have lost that power to persuade or, worse, can no longer see any point in attempting to reach constructive agreement, and in so many cases this occurs on issues that can only be resolved through some broad assent to a common social purpose. 

The Voice campaign is another example. “No” is not a word to utter lightly in this conversation, and for many this “No” is a case being prosecuted from convenience rather than conviction. That’s being charitable. To argue “No” from conviction is to stoke the lesser angels of the national character – what’s the alternative interpretation? To argue “No” cynically, as an act of political opportunism is, well… that’s just sadly typical of our politics, a system geared to trade even the most urgent of human circumstances for advantage. Likewise, policy conversations around climate are lost to a Labor and Coalition chorus of narrow self-interest, while the tide of unarguable inevitability – like the certainty of new pandemics – sweeps us all up into a heap of common consequence.

We are so broken that seemingly the only process we have to take ourselves forward is first to tear at our throats – whereas they might be better suited to the more gentle arts of conversation and reason.

Jonathan Green

Jonathan Green is a writer and ABC broadcaster.

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