Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Today by Paddy Manning

Quarantine spleen
Victoria vs the feds has turned into an unedifying stoush

Is there anything more gutting than watching politicians bicker while people are dying? That’s what’s happening on the pandemic’s deadliest day yet – 21 deaths in Victoria, of which 16 were in aged-care facilities – with the federal Coalition and Labor state governments verging on open warfare. On the one hand are heart-rending stories of elderly COVID-19 patients being sedated [$] rather than being transferred to hospital, and workers in under-staffed aged-care facilities, with no access to PPE, who are suffering “unspeakable grief” as residents die from the virus. On the other hand is the stoush between the Commonwealth and Victorian governments, with Defence Minister Linda Reynolds releasing [$] a statement overnight scotching Premier Daniel Andrews’ denial that his government rejected offers of Defence Force personnel to assist with hotel quarantine. Victoria’s emergency management commissioner, Andrew Crisp, issued his own statement confirming that the ADF was involved in the initial planning of hotel quarantine, but that he had not sought ADF assistance and nor was it offered. At today’s press briefing, Andrews said it was “simply wrong” to suggest that Victoria had consistently said no to help from the ADF, without commenting on Reynolds’ statement. “I don’t know the federal defence minister,” Andrews said. “I don’t deal with her. I deal with the prime minister.”

Andrews is trying to say focused on fighting COVID-19 rather than fighting the federal government or any other political foe – he said as much countless times today. But the leader of the Victorian Opposition, Michael O’Brien, insisted that Reynolds’ statement meant that the premier should be brought back before the state parliament’s public accounts and estimates committee, and called on him to resign over “the single greatest public administration failure in Victoria’s history, if not the country’s history”. Andrews responded that “whatever the Opposition call for is not relevant to me. I have got a job to do. Their politics has got nothing to do with this global pandemic.”

At today’s parliamentary inquiry hearing, it was Jobs Minister Martin Pakula’s turn to be grilled over which member of the government was ultimately responsible for the decision to use private security guards in hotel quarantine. Pakula said his own department was responsible for hiring them, but it was the Department of Health and Human Services that was responsible for infection control and training. 

Notwithstanding the unfolding tragedy in aged care, the Andrews government had some encouraging news today, with the first fall in the total active cases recorded in two months and with Treasury forecasting that the stage-four restrictions in Melbourne would be lifted by mid September. If NSW can hold the line, the worst of the pandemic may be over in weeks… until the next outbreak, which could come from anywhere, at any time, as New Zealand’s return to lockdown demonstrates. 

Outbreaks will likely continue until there is a vaccine for COVID-19. On this front, it seems the Morrison government has been slow off the mark, with shadow health minister Chris Bowen this morning denouncing the government’s failure to sign advance purchase agreements with any of the vaccine developers around the world, allowing a host of other countries to get in first. “Other governments have been doing this. There are about 20 deals already in place around the world,” Bowen told RN Breakfast, “and we don’t have one of those … We are way behind the eight ball and [it] would be just unthinkable if a vaccine breaks through and we just can’t get access for it in Australia because of these failings.”

As we’ve seen often this year, “unthinkable” is a risky word to use. Things can quickly go from “likely” to “happening”. 

“The massive writedowns in the last quarter alone show beyond a doubt that oil and gas assets are being stranded right now. Whether Australia likes it or not, the world is transitioning to an economy based on net-zero emissions.”

Dan Gocher, of the Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility, on the country’s $300 billion, decade-long LNG boom and bust, which has suffered $12 billion in post-COVID writedowns.

“I am unaware that any substantive work has been undertaken on how privilege would operate for statements made virtually through this particular process, which I’m sure would need to be the subject of inquiry and advice to any member before they made any decision to use the facility.”

Attorney-General Christian Porter, in correspondence with Labor’s Tony Burke, throws a cat among the pigeons by suggesting virtual parliamentary sittings may not be covered by parliamentary privilege.

Anatomy of a state of disaster
Ten days ago, Melbourne entered the strictest shutdown the country has seen so far. Today, senior reporter Rick Morton on the extraordinary powers a state of disaster bestows on the government, and how we got here.

The drop in private-sector wages in the June quarter, which the Australian Bureau of Statistics describes as “the first negative wages result in the history of the wage price index”.

“In an emergency, we see a role for government to use its enhanced threat picture and unique capabilities to take direct action to protect a critical infrastructure entity or system in the national interest … In these situations, it may be appropriate for government to declare an emergency. Further, it may be also appropriate for an alerting system at the national level, similar to the current National Terrorism Threat Advisory, particularly for a cyber-related attack or incident.”

A Department of Home Affairs discussion paper proposes giving security agencies the power to counterattack through commercial networks for the first time.

The list

“Over the pages of the book, Ord presents a number of dystopian possibilities, including an unaligned AI system taking over the internet, hoovering up the world’s information to augment its own intelligence, and blackmailing world leaders to use weapons of mass destruction in order to satisfy its own reward goals. Clearly, AI needs to be aligned with ‘human values’, but how can this be guaranteed when its own evolution is so unpredictable? And is there any real consensus about what ‘human values’ are?”

“Much of the Murdoch media’s output is risible or stupid. Its nastiest element is an unapologetic, scapegoating racism that unsubtly privileges white readers and viewers based on their status as cultural descendants of the country’s European settlers. To its list of favourite topics (Islamic extremism, Melbourne’s Apex ‘gang’ and Middle Eastern crime waves) the Right was soon able to add Victoria’s second wave of COVID-19 by blaming Africans, Muslims, Indians and Islanders working in aged care and security firms. Never mind that these industries are characterised by extraordinarily insecure work arrangements, itself a consequence of neoliberal theory in practice.”

“There are two striking aspects of Australia’s response to coronavirus: the first is that it’s being increasingly led as a police issue, and the second is that this is happening while the rest of the world works to reform and curtail police powers. As other democracies talk about abolition, we’re sending armed officers into housing blocks and calling it public health.”

Paddy Manning

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?


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