Friday, March 13, 2020

Today by Paddy Manning

COAG struck the right balance on COVID-19 today

© David Gray / AAP Image

The COVID-19 crisis is escalating at a frightening pace, with medical advice to state and federal governments meeting in Sydney today stating that mass gatherings should be cancelled as of Monday. Continuing carnage on the share market points to severe economic fallout, and the pandemic likely has months to run. At the same time, there is a sense of disbelief marked by the laughable panic-buying of toilet paper, which Waleed Aly suggests will one day be worthy of a PhD, and doubts about how serious the health risks really are – corona-infected Tom Hywood penned a cheery op-ed yesterday informing us all he’s that he’s going to be okay and everyone should calm down a little. The trouble is that political and media crises are so often confected nowadays that it is sometimes difficult to change gear when a real crisis takes hold.

The reaction of political leaders can make a real difference – it’s tricky to strike a balance between panic and calm. It’s questionable whether Prime Minister Scott Morrison struck the right balance this afternoon when he was asked if, given the need to ban mass gatherings from Monday, it was still responsible to go to the Rabbitohs versus Sharks game tomorrow night. “The fact that I would still be going on Saturday speaks not just to my passion for my beloved Sharks,” he said, adding “it might be the last game I get to go to for a long time. That’s fine.”

Yet it would be no help to public health or confidence if the prime minister was to instead sound panicky. I can think of a few leaders striking the right balance: NSW premier Neville Wran stopped a run on St. George Bank by standing in front of the head office. Victorian premier Jeff Kennett told Melburnians to harden up when the tragic Longford explosion took out gas supplies. On the flipside, there can be false alarms, as when former ABC managing director David Hill lost his job at Sydney Water because he didn’t want to tell the whole city’s residents to boil their water due to fears of cryptosporidium. We’ll never know, but I’ll bet Hill's caution was right.

This is a genuine crisis, but it is likely to go for months. If the prime minister is relying purely on medical advice, at some point it may be advisable for him to step back from the daily press conferences and leave the communication of this public health crisis to the public health experts. Communications from politicians, no matter how astute, reported by journalists, no matter how accurate, are no substitute for properly considered medical advice from experts. A mass communication campaign is well overdue.

At a joint press conference after their COAG meeting in Parramatta today, NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian said that state and territory leaders were grateful “to hear directly from the governor of the Reserve Bank and the head of the Treasury and to get up-to-date information, which my colleagues were appraised of, and they gave us good directives on the type of initiatives we should look at”, regarding how to protect the economy. “We will take that advice to our state treasuries and treasurers and formulate our respective responses. All of us are committed to doing our bit. We all want to make sure we get it right.”

Headlines suggest that privately, health experts are worried. As an example, a doctor wrote to me yesterday expressing his concern: “Ideally there’d be a formal support system gearing up to help the vulnerable stay home and out of harm’s way, while keeping food etc. delivered to their doors. A lot of elderly are not internet savvy and don’t have relatives who can look out for them, but are on pensions so should be traceable by FACS. I’m sceptical that this is being considered, as the time to implement this strategy is last week.”

But today’s coming-together of the Commonwealth, states and territories and their best economic and health advisers is reassuring. When chief medical officer Brendan Murphy was asked this afternoon whether the ban on mass gatherings that has been announced was the same as had been advised behind closed doors, he answered directly: “The recommendation is exactly as decided by HPPC [Australia’s Health Protection Principal Committee] before I met the premiers and the prime minister.” Good to hear. Put him in charge.

“It’s not enough to say, ‘this is what they did’; you have to understand why they did it and [how] it was covered up … When the church swoops in and protects you immediately there’s a hint of something wrong, all it does is reinforce that glorious moment in ordination when you are made above ordinary men.”

ABC reporter Sarah Ferguson discusses her new documentary series on paedophilia within the Catholic Church. Called Revelation, it starts next week.

“One could argue that the Nationals played a key role in removing Opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull in 2009 on climate change policy, and again in 2018 as prime minister on the same policy.”

Nationals federal president Larry Anthony, in a speech to be given tonight at the party’s centenary celebrations in Melbourne.

Can Team Australia beat the coronavirus?
With the economic and social effects of the coronavirus outbreak accelerating, the government has finally released the details of a $17.6 billion stimulus package. Today, Paul Bongiorno on whether the government’s actions will be enough to stave off a recession.

The amount that airline Qantas has so far paid to 638 head office staff – up to eight years late – in the latest wage theft scandal.

“Penalties under the national electricity laws are generally set at a lower level than comparable regulatory regimes in Australia like the Australian Consumer Laws (ACL). To build a strong compliance culture in retail energy markets, energy market penalties should be increased in line with the ACL.”

The Consumer Action Law Centre recommends that the Australian Energy Regulator get tough on rogue operators in the electricity market, scoring them 3 out of 6 for enforcement.

The list

“Oh, the plot. If synopsis is the banal burden of all criticism, it might be done away with here entirely … Would it be of interest to you to mention that the titular Baron is not introduced until page 81 of the book, and that extended periods of time are given over to his clothing and the conditions of his travel before he takes his sweet near-Godotian time arriving back home? Should I mention the Nazi bikers, the pitiful orchestra, the hack Mayor? … It’s always a challenge to give the flavour of any book in a review, yes, but it’s truly impossible here.”

“The efforts of female pioneers have often been uncredited, erased, snubbed and even stolen while their colleagues’ achievements are cemented in history. Science has fared no better than other pursuits. Professor Jo Dunkley, OBE, hopes to change that.”

“‘They call me the terrorist whisperer,’ Islamic prison chaplain Ahmed Kilani explains … ‘But I always said some white supremacist guy is going to make our Muslim prisoners look like boy scouts.’ It came with the 17-minute pixelated stream of a massacre that began at Al Noor mosque in Christchurch. It would be the last time 50 Muslims heard their call to prayer.” 

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 Body Count: How Climate Change Is Killing Us, Inside the Greens and Born To Rule: The Unauthorised Biography of Malcolm Turnbull.


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