The Politics    Friday, July 15, 2022

Same same but different

By Rachel Withers

Composite image of former prime minister Scott Morrison (left) and then Opposition leader Anthony Albanese on election day 2022, May 21, 2022. Images © Mick Tiskas / Lukas Coch / AAP Images

Former prime minister Scott Morrison (left) and then Opposition leader Anthony Albanese on election day, May 21, 2022. Images © Mick Tiskas / Lukas Coch / AAP Images

The new government has this week sounded remarkably like the old one

This week has been imbued with a strange sense of deja vu. First, the federal government made an unpopular health call, withdrawing and refusing to reinstate key COVID-19 support measures. Then, doctors and unions called it out, pointing out how short-sighted and stingy it was, before premiers joined in, along with backbenchers, independents, the Opposition – pretty much everyone other than the leaders who made the call. State governments also picked up the slack, putting the Commonwealth to shame. But the federal government dug in hard, despite the niggling feeling that it is going to have to cave eventually, though not before being dragged kicking and screaming. It’s all feeling very 2021. And it’s remarkable how often the new government has this week sounded like the old one – and not just because it is still trying to pin its unpopular decision to withdraw support on its predecessor. The inadequate defences Labor has used this week sound like they could have come straight from the Coalition playbook.

The support Labor has withdrawn this month is obviously not in the same league as the support the Coalition tried to take away last year. Withdrawing pandemic leave and free RATs for concession-card holders at this stage in the pandemic, while bad, is not the same as refusing to reinstate income support during a lockdown, at a time when most of the population wasn’t vaccinated. But it’s all the more disappointing to see Labor do it after two years of demanding better while in Opposition. And it’s curious how much the arc of this story resembles many of Scott Morrison’s pandemic-policy backflips – in no small part due to the rhetoric being used.

The similarities began creeping in late last week, when Health Minister Mark Butler suggested it was time for Australians to take responsibility for their own health – a distinctly Morrison-esque message. “The message is ‘take responsibility, make your own choice’,” Butler told the ABC on Friday, in the first indication that mask mandates weren’t returning. “We need to make sure that people feel they’re able to take control of their own circumstances.” Compare this with Morrison, in late 2021, when he refused to take a backward step amid a worrying new variant: “We all have our own responsibility in our communities and for our own health,” he said ,along with that infamous sunscreen comparison. It’s clear that Labor thinks this is where the zeitgeist is now at, with the community fed up with restrictions and COVID measures, as Michelle Grattan writes today. But so, too, did Morrison

Mandates are one thing, but support measures are another. (No one, after all, is sick of being helped.) And the way in which Labor has justified withdrawing payments also has a ring of 2021 to it. Australia is, we are repeatedly told, in a “new phase” of the pandemic – although exactly what it is about this current phase that makes it any less necessary to support vulnerable people is as unclear as when Morrison tried to insist upon the same logic. Ministerial claims that the money can’t last forever, that the tap has to be turned off at some point, as Butler tried again in a trainwreck interview this morning, also sound remarkably like the Coalition of last year, which was fond of telling us there was no more money to spare. (There is, of course, always money when governments want to find it.) The suggestion that now is the time to turn it off, as a new wave of the virus threatens to overwhelm us (a claim demolished by host Patricia Karvelas), is as unconvincing as when the Coalition tried it, as is the fudging over health advice.

But perhaps the most disquieting echoes of today came from Anthony Albanese himself, the new king of doubling down. Speaking to reporters before flying home from Fiji this morning, the PM tried to argue that pandemic leave wasn’t necessary due to the “good employers” who were providing sick leave – never mind that the workers we are talking about are the ones who don’t have such altruistic employers. “Good employers,” he said, “are recognising that people are continuing to work from home whilst they have COVID and are receiving, therefore, payments through that”. Never mind that most casual workers cannot simply work from home. It is baffling to hear a Labor PM insist that workers don’t need support because they have good employers and can simply work through the illness, a statement that sounds far more like it should have come from a Liberal.

Watching the Albanese government dig in and defend what were obviously mistaken calls has so many echoes of 2021. It seems rather likely that the prime minister is going to have to back down here, just as Morrison did time and time again. Let’s hope, at least, that he can be the Albanese of the campaign trail, the one who made a mistake (on a figure) and owned up to it, promising that “I’ll set about correcting that mistake”. We don’t need another Morrison, fighting tooth and nail against admitting fault, and then only begrudgingly bringing in highly conditional support. We need a PM who can admit when he was wrong, and simply backflip with grace.

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Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.

@rachelrwithers

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