The Politics    Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Mind over mandate

By Rachel Withers

Image of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese during a visit the Walter & Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne, July 20, 2022. Image © Diego Fedele / AAP Images

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese during a visit the Walter & Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne, July 20, 2022. Image © Diego Fedele / AAP Images

How long can governments “strongly recommend” the wearing of masks, while steadfastly refusing to mandate them?

I don’t say this lightly: what the fuck is going on with Australia’s current COVID-19 messaging? Jurisdictions across the country are continuing to ignore health advice, not to mention the AMA’s increasingly desperate urgings on mask mandates, even as they ramp up their recommendations to wear them. The Victorian government reportedly ignored further advice from its acting Chief Health Officer, including that it recommend remote work and study until September, while Premier Daniel Andrews said today that mandates would not be returning but strongly recommended mask-wearing. Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly yesterday made further urgings to the public, including for mask-wearing and remote working, but – in a phrase becoming painfully familiar – he stopped short of mandating anything. Pressed on RN Breakfast this morning, Kelly would only say that he had “recommended that we need to increase mask use”, adding that it was a “pretty strong recommendation”. Sunrise was even worse, with Kelly copping a grilling from host David Koch over whether he had been “overruled” by national cabinet. Today, the PM capped it all off by distancing himself from Kelly’s calls. “I didn’t hear his comments,” Anthony Albanese said, a baffling observation considering Kelly was talking about his own government’s advice.

Urging, calling, pressing, advising, recommending, strongly recommending – governments are at this stage doing everything short of mandating, even as they ramp up their calls for Australians to take this worrying wave of the virus seriously. The reluctance to mandate, and the debates over encouraging versus enforcing, all feels very familiar. And it’s hard to shake the feeling that governments are going to end up implementing many of these measures anyway, but only once they are sorely needed, and weeks later than we should have. (Does no one remember anything from the past two years?)

It is increasingly clear that governments think the political calculus has changed on masks, and that it’s not worth attracting the Murdoch media’s ire. (Never mind that the Herald Sun is going to give the Victorian government a kick no matter how light its touch is.) Unfortunately, in the interim, the health messaging has become deeply unclear. There’s no doubt, if you’re watching official press conferences (other than Albanese’s today), that governments want people to wear masks and work from home where possible – they’ve even started pointedly wearing face coverings to pressers again. But without mandates, the pleading and cajoling is falling flat. Ultimately, as AMA president Omar Khorshid keeps repeating, it will soon become evident that mandates are required to tackle the surging case numbers. The question is, how bad are governments willing to let things get before then?

In one sense, it’s shocking that this is happening under an Albanese government, under a Labor Party that spent two years holding the Coalition’s feet to the fire on the need to take strong early measures. But in another sense, it’s not all that surprising. I’m not alone in having long suspected that Australia may not have fared as well at the start of the pandemic under a federal Labor government, that the ALP may have struggled to do what was necessary, or been allowed to spend as was required, in the face of a hostile and obstructionist media. (Having the Coalition be forced to shut up and listen to the health advice, with a constructive Labor Opposition, may have been what saved us.) Watching the Labor government now cower to business and News Corp on mask mandates (albeit in a different phase of the pandemic), despite the fact they will have only a negligible impact on the economy, while making a huge difference to hospitals, would seem to confirm this theory – as does the Albanese government’s insistence that federal-funded pandemic leave must come to an end in September.

No one is asking for lockdowns or border closures to return, despite the false dichotomies being presented in the pages of the Murdoch media. Health experts are simply calling for minor measures to slow down the spread of this wild new variant of the virus, in the face of an ongoing global pandemic. As much as people may want COVID-19 to go away, it does demand a permanent change in public behaviour. It’s ridiculous that Albanese was asked to rule out things such as lockdowns and border closures on 3AW this morning, when the current conversation is about masks. But it’s equally ridiculous that our leaders now feel the need to rule out mask mandates, when there’s every chance that the reality of the situation will soon force them to backflip on this too.

Labor is only making this worse for itself with its conflicted messaging and its refusal to implement even the lightest of measures. And it is only ensuring that, with more people in hospital and more people needing pandemic leave, this current wave is going to cost it even more than necessary.

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Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.

@rachelrwithers

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