The Politics    Thursday, April 15, 2021

Normal disservice

By Nick Feik

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaking at a press conference in Perth today. Image via ABC News

Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaking at a press conference in Perth today. Image via ABC News

Any “normal” we might return to under Morrison’s leadership will see political problems relegated to the too-hard basket

Following the release of good employment figures, and the news that Qantas will soon have domestic flights back to 90 per cent of full capacity, the Morrison government is ramping up its campaign to convince Australians that the government is “getting on with the job” and the country will soon be back to a metaphorical normal. But what is normal in 2021? And what version of normal is the Morrison government hoping to return to?

The good news is that the official unemployment rate fell from 5.8 per cent to 5.6 per cent in March. While full-time jobs actually fell by 20,800, more than 90,000 part-time jobs were created (most going to women and young people). This was the sixth consecutive monthly lift in employment, and the monthly hours worked increased by 2.2 per cent and now match pre-COVID levels for the first time. These numbers don’t yet capture the effect of the end of JobKeeper, of course, and this is yet to come. (More than 1 million people were estimated to still be on JobKeeper, and Treasury has estimated that as many as 150,000 of them could have lost their job when the program ended.) 

The bad news is that the government’s idea of normal seems to be one that is completely unsustainable – and in which the problems that it had long been ignoring have become ever starker. It is little wonder that the government wants to “move on” from the toxic gender politics it has presided over. And clearly the entire population wants to move on from COVID-19. But such things require more than rhetoric and cheerleading.

The vaccine rollout, for one thing, is essential for any kind of return to normal. And it requires competent organisation, not just blame-shifting or reliance on the states. In The Australian today, Niki Savva explained Morrison’s problem succinctly. Morrison, she writes, is in a dangerous place. It’s not only that the vaccination rollout is going so badly. It’s that it has highlighted so many of the problems with his leadership. Referring to the rollout (but surely not only the rollout), she writes that he has a problem with the truth: “First Australia was in the front of the queue, then it slipped towards the back of the queue, now there is no queue, no timetable and no targets. All too hard.” 

The “normal” to which Morrison wants to return is one in which the too-hard basket is the principal means of dealing with political problems. It’s where vaccine targets reside today, but they join any number of national issues that have only become worse under this government, and for which Morrison exhibits very little concern, let alone remediating policies.

The Morrison version of “normal” is one in which climate change is a theoretical problem to kick down the road. Quite apart from the environmental threat posed, it is also becoming a major diplomatic problem. As Katharine Murphy reported today, the influential climate scientist Michael E. Mann says that John Kerry and US climate negotiators are not going to be “fooled by the smoke and mirrors the Morrison government appears to be employing to distract from their clear record of inaction on climate”. 

“Normal” for the Morrison government is a situation in which Indigenous Australians continue to be the most incarcerated people in the world, and their political entreaties (most prominently a voice to parliament) continue to be ignored. More than 470 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have died in prison since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody handed down its report (30 years ago today), yet few of its 339 recommendations have been implemented. No police or correctional officer in Australia has ever been held criminally responsible for the death of an Aboriginal person in custody.

It also seems to be “normal” that universities, scientific bodies, arts and cultural institutions, the ABC and SBS, public schools and social services are critically under-funded. And that wages are suppressed, jobs are insecure or part-time, big business and mining interests have free rein, and there is seemingly no way to prevent the routine rorting of most discretionary government grants programs, or the other forms of government corruption and mismanagement

Savva wrote that recent events involving Christine Holgate (not to mention Brittany Higgins, Andrew Laming, Christian Porter et al) have laid bare other of “the prime minister’s worst traits, as articulated by those who have dealt with him – his stubbornness, his bullying, his fibbing, his fudging”. These, we now recognise, are also an inevitable part of any “normal” that the nation might return to under Morrison’s leadership.

He shed tears this afternoon while reciting the names of soldiers whose lives were lost during Australia’s deployment in Afghanistan (which will end in September), but the limits of his empathy and compassion are becoming ever clearer.

“If we are honest about Australia’s treatment of Aboriginal people, we should call it for what it is – genocide.”

Lawyer Teela Reid, a Wiradjuri and Wailwan woman, criticises successive governments’ “wilful failure” to act on the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

“The defence minister has determined that the special purpose aircraft can no longer be made available for the committee’s travel.”

An email reportedly received by Senator Kristina Keneally just 22 minutes after Border Force had granted her permission to travel to Christmas Island, where she planned to visit the detained Tamil family from Biloela, which she characterised as Peter Dutton cancelling the trip.

The fight to end Indigenous deaths in custody
Thirty years ago Australia held a royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody, but most of its recommendations still haven’t been implemented and hundreds more Indigenous people have died in custody.


The age to which criminal responsibility is set to rise (up from 10), under a proposal gaining support among Australia’s attorneys-general, following a draft report last year that recommended it be raised to 14 years.

“[Michael E. ]Mann, who is a distinguished professor of atmospheric science at PennState University, said the Morrison government seemed to be pursuing an approach of talking a better game on climate action in response to ‘the pressure coming from renewed American leadership on climate, while continuing to promote policies – such as a gas-led recovery – that do absolutely nothing to address the climate crisis in any meaningful way’.”

Influential climate scientist Michael E. Mann says US climate negotiators are not going to be “fooled by the smoke and mirrors the Morrison government appears to be employing to distract from their clear record of inaction on climate”.

The list

“Leimbach’s documentary elides the fact that Gulpilil was in the United States to film a small scene in Philip Kaufman’s space-race biopic The Right Stuff – the masterful three-hour adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s nonfiction book, a pissing contest replayed as epic poetry – but it does make mention of another project Gulpilil was hoping to get off the ground. The actor was envisioning this film to be his directorial debut and, for contemporary audiences watching Walkabout to Hollywood, unaware of this historical detail, the fact lands as a significant revelation.”

“Two Aboriginal women speak to us from their graves. One died from horrific injuries in a police cell in Western Australia, and the other bled out on a beach in New South Wales after an alleged violent sexual assault. Their lives were cut short by violence compounded by what seems to be a contempt for Aboriginal women that can pass for normal and acceptable across all classes and cultures in Australia … These deaths are the tip of the iceberg. Many more Aboriginal women have died from assaults and criminal misconduct, and they have passed without any public attention or anything like justice.”

“Years ago, my great-grandfather, when he saw the change on Country in Lismore, as a traditional man, he wrote a thing he called the Bundjalung Three-Point Plan because he could see the writing on the wall, the shifts and changes where language and cultural practice were outlawed. His Three-Point Plan was: ‘Have pride in your race and colour. Always have pride in culture and language. And consider the new relationship with the new people. Because it is about tomorrow.’ So I always say that, when I work on Country, and even if it’s just a meeting, I try to keep that Three-Point Plan in my mind.”

Nick Feik

Nick Feik is a former editor of The Monthly.


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