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.