For the PM, attacking Victoria is an open-and-shut case
Prime Minister Scott Morrison persists with his risky strategy of championing NSW’s response to COVID-19 and berating Victoria’s. At a Canberra press conference today, to announce that Australia finally has an agreement for almost 85 million doses of two promising coronavirus vaccines, the PM harped on the theme that his home state was providing the “gold standard” of contact tracing, which was the difference between the economy staying open and remaining closed. “I think there is lot to learn from what’s happening in NSW, because they have, frankly, had the largest risks to deal with, and they have demonstrated the best capacity to deal with them and keep their state open.” He continued: “They are the direction I’m strongly urging the country to go in. Because Australia being shut is not success, Australia being open is success.” This is risky for Morrison on two grounds. First, it may entrench perceptions he is the PM for NSW and anger Victorians who will be doing the hard yards in lockdown a while longer. Second, it smacks of hubris when the battle in NSW is far from over and the possibility of a second wave remains very real. Burnet Institute epidemiologist Michael Toole has pointed to South Korea – where cases have recently surged after two months of very low infection rates (similar to those in NSW) – and argues that Sydney needs to do more to avoid a second lockdown, Melbourne-style. Morrison is not going to look smart if NSW falters.
The smarter approach for any politician outside Victoria would be to show some empathy for the state’s travails – “there but for the grace of God go I”, as Labor leader Anthony Albanese suggested on air today. His health spokesperson, Chris Bowen, at a press conference to welcome the vaccine deal, took the opportunity to question the judgement of the PM, who has taken a hopeful view of the pandemic throughout and has often been dragged into tough action. “Scott Morrison and Josh Frydenberg called on Annastacia Palaszczuk to open her borders to Victoria,” said Bowen. “She was right, and they were wrong. When they’ve called for schools to be opened and other restrictions to be eased more quickly, they haven’t been vindicated by the passage of time. When they supported Clive Palmer’s court case against Mark McGowan, they were wrong and Mark McGowan was right. They’ve got it wrong at multiple turns and I don’t think it’s helpful for federal Liberals … to be criticising governments of any persuasion at state level for making difficult decisions based on the best health advice available.”
Morrison constantly says that NSW’s contact tracing capability is better than Victoria’s, but he never quite puts his finger on why. It’s not just about how many contact tracers are on the job, Morrison said today, “it’s how it’s tasked and how it’s integrated with its information systems, and then how that sits as part of the broader emergency-management function of the government.” Health secretary Brendan Murphy put some flesh on the bones this afternoon, saying that NSW was the exemplar with “a proud history of many, many years of advanced investment in public health. They’ve had good systems. They’ve had embedded public health units in all their local health districts. They’ve had very good outbreak-response teams … It’s not just about tracing.” Murphy added that Victoria had invested hugely in this capability over the past few months and was in a much stronger position now than when the pandemic began.
Unhappy with Victoria’s cautious recovery roadmap, the prime minister seems to be hoping that he can bully the Andrews government into hurrying things along. Today, Morrison said the federal government would review the modelling that underpins the state strategy, adding, “I’m sure the Victorian government would welcome that interrogation of that. We will be providing constructive feedback on that plan. We will be sitting down with industry. We will be sitting down with business through our national coordinating mechanism, which is run out of the Department of Home Affairs, and we’ll listen carefully, and we’ll faithfully convey all of that feedback.” But with national cabinet fracturing around him, the PM will need to tread carefully.
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Paddy Manning is contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly and has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is the author of Inside the Greens and the unauthorised biography of Malcolm Turnbull, Born To Rule?
Prime Minister Scott Morrison persists with his risky strategy of championing NSW’s response to COVID-19 and berating Victoria’s. At a Canberra press conference today, to announce that Australia finally has an agreement for almost 85 million doses of two promising coronavirus vaccines, the PM harped on the theme that his home state was providing the “gold standard” of contact tracing, which was the difference between the economy staying open and remaining closed. “I think there is lot to learn from what’s happening in NSW, because they have, frankly, had the largest risks to deal with, and they have demonstrated the best capacity to deal with them and keep their state open.” He continued: “They are the direction I’m strongly urging the country to go in. Because...
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