It is beginning to feel as though the Morrison government is being let off the hook for its grievous blunders and policy mischief in response to the coronavirus pandemic. There’s been quite enough patting of the prime minister’s back by now, particularly given that the Victoria and NSW premiers had to force him into the March lockdown. Such missteps would never have been forgiven a Labor administration. Serious questions of transparency and process surround Morrison’s replacement of COAG with the national cabinet, which may yet prove a step backwards in terms of public accountability and the quality of decision-making. Simply kicking the bureaucrats and local government reps out of the room is not much to write home about. The centrepiece of the government’s pandemic response, JobKeeper, has been bungled to the order of $60 billion and, more to the point, the scheme has been used as a blunt political instrument to reward favoured sectors of the economy and punish others. In fact, many aspects of the response have been stuffed up: the COVIDSafe app is a fizzer (states are barely using it), the COVID-19 Coordination Commission is riddled with conflicts of interest, and the HomeBuilder package looks like a dud – after a week, says Labor, there are zero applications. And let’s not even mention the Ruby Princess debacle until the NSW inquiry gets to the bottom of it.
As the health consequences of the pandemic have proved less severe than was feared, and the more drastic predictions of the economic fallout are also wound back, it may even turn out that the recession we are now in might have been avoided if the government had acted sooner. “The March quarter did not have to be negative,” Labor leader Anthony Albanese told [$] caucus yesterday, suggesting that the 0.3 per cent drop in economic activity might have been avoided if the government had immediately rolled out the $17.6 billion stimulus package announced on March 11. “They rolled the stimulus measures out in April, not March.” In Question Time, Albanese began by asking the PM to confirm that “in the three weeks since parliament last sat the government admitted it overestimated coverage of its JobKeeper scheme by 3 million workers, resulting in a $60 billion blunder, the government announced $720 million will be repaid to victims of the prime minister’s illegal robodebt scheme and Australia entered its first recession in three decades”. Consumer confidence is back up today and if the economy does bounce back more quickly than was feared just weeks ago, it would have helped Australia ward off a technical recession to have an extra three months up our sleeve.
By contrast, Australia did avoid a technical recession under the Rudd government during the financial crisis of 2008–09, unlike almost every other developed economy. The Coalition has never recognised that achievement, and at the time it opposed the Rudd government’s second stimulus package, which undoubtedly made an enormous contribution to the national recovery. Worse, the Coalition unfairly maligned elements of the government’s stimulus response, as Rudd wrote in a feisty letter this week to newsletter The Fifth Estate. Not only the pink batts scheme, but also the $900 cash splash and the “school halls” programs all achieved their aims. Not to mention the nation-building NBN, whose fibre-to-the-premises model was undoubtedly superior to the Coalition’s mixed-technology rollout, which will have to be upgraded almost as soon as it is finished being built.
At the same time, the goodwill generated by the pandemic response so far has allowed the Morrison government to bury a series of pre-COVID, rolled-gold disasters. Robodebt is the most egregious, and Labor pinned it straight on the PM in Question Time, wielding Scott Morrison’s original press release announcing the program. Then there’s sports rorts, and the various other grant programs that have been heavily skewed to Coalition electorates. And lastly, what about the handling of climate change under the hapless energy and emissions reduction minister, Angus Taylor, and the government’s lamentable response to the Black Summer bushfires, which will be back in the frame soon. Not to mention the government’s ideological war on the ABC, which undoubtedly saved lives through both pandemic and natural disaster, but will nevertheless be cutting jobs and programming to save a paltry $84 million – even as the government splurges billions. There’s speculation that the Morrison government will cruise to victory in an early election next year, but it smells like hubris.