The Politics    Monday, December 13, 2021

Borders and budgets

By Rachel Withers

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison at a press conference today. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

Prime Minister Scott Morrison at a press conference today. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

The government talks up the nation’s economic and physical reopening, while never acknowledging its own role in the delay

After 141 days, Queensland has reopened its borders to its southern neighbours, with tens of thousands rushing to be reunited with loved ones. But they aren’t the only ones raring to get up there. Both major party leaders have been itching to get into the Sunshine State to start campaigning, and Labor leader Anthony Albanese was on one of the first flights out of Sydney this morning, having openly acknowledged that his party needs to reconnect with Queenslanders. Unfortunately for Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who “can’t wait to be back on the ground”, he was required in Canberra to welcome South Korean President Moon Jae-in – the first foreign leader to visit since the pandemic began. The Queensland border isn’t the only one coming down: speaking alongside President Moon, Morrison confirmed that Australia’s “pause” on reopening the international border would end as planned on Wednesday – a sign that the government is not too worried about the Omicron variant of COVID-19. The Western Australian border, however, will likely stay firmly shut until early next year. Premier Mark McGowan is today expected to announce the end date, though it won’t be before Christmas.

There’s little doubt the PM would’ve rather been in Queensland today, celebrating and taking credit for the state’s reopening – never mind that his “not a race” vaccine mentality very likely kept people apart for much longer than necessary. But Morrison still found plenty to talk about with Moon. Australia and South Korea have now upgraded their formal ties to a “comprehensive strategic partnership”, signing a historic billion-dollar defence contract. (A fumbling Morrison accidentally referred to the Vietnam War instead of the Korean one, and almost to North Korea’s Kim Jong-un instead of Moon, it seemed.) The visit, Moon insisted, was not about China, adding that South Korea will not be joining a diplomatic boycott of the Winter Olympics. (Moon also refused to be drawn on Peter Dutton’s recent comments about China.) Morrison, however, was quick to add his own two cents about the nations’ “like-minded” outlook and “similar aspiration” for the Indo-Pacific, whenever he was asked – or even whenever he was not asked, with some noticing how the PM jumped in ahead of Moon while questions were still being translated into Korean for him.

Morrison also managed to use the international visit to brag about domestic achievements, talking up the high vaccination rates that were allowing both nations to move towards a strong economic reopening. Treasurer Josh Frydenberg was also able to dedicate some time to boast about the economy (when he was not busy trying to talk down his Kooyong independent challenger, Monique Ryan, that is). Reports of a faster-than-expected recovery, with Deloitte modelling showing Thursday’s budget update will be $100 billion better than assumed, had Frydenberg crowing about a rebound. Multiple media outlets, meanwhile, have begun reporting that “more generous” 2022 tax cuts might be “on the cards” ahead of the election – or as the Nine front pages screamed: “Tax cuts on cards as budget rebounds”. Never mind that the Deloitte modelling shows that the budget is still under pressure (government spending on aged care, disability and mental health is still “in catch-up mode”, it says) or that Nine’s own economics editor, Ross Gittins, thinks the 2024 stage-three tax cut are economically irresponsible and should be scrapped.

And while Wednesday’s reopening of the international border has been welcomed by the business community, some experts are warning that Australia may still soon face labour shortages, amid a tight global jobs market. Try telling that to Trade and Tourism Minister Dan Tehan, who was this morning eager to discuss how the Queensland border reopening and the return of skilled migrants was going to fix the tourism industry, despite it still suffering under severe labour shortages.

Regardless, the federal government remains firmly focused on selling the economic recovery and the physical reopening – or as Morrison has become fond of saying, looking through the “windscreen” not the “rear-vision mirror”. A look in the rear-vision mirror would, of course, remind voters of just how much the Coalition delayed the possibility of reopening with its complacency about vaccine procurement and lazy errors that sent half the country into protracted and costly lockdowns. It’s a relief, write economists Steven Hamilton and Richard Holden, that the booster shot interval has now been lowered from six months to five, but the government needs to now drive booster uptake, and remember that this is a marathon not a sprint. Let’s hope the Coalition isn’t so focused on selling its recovery efforts that it neglects to pay attention to the ongoing hazards ahead.

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Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.

@rachelrwithers

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