Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Today by Paddy Manning

On the Hunt
The COVID-19 response will make or break the health minister, and the government

Federal health minister Greg Hunt. © Dean Lewins / AAP Image

Until now, many Australians may have forgotten Victorian Liberal Greg Hunt, the federal health minister who flamed out as Peter Dutton’s deputy in the botched coup that removed Malcolm Turnbull and installed Scott Morrison as prime minister in 2018. Now their lives are in Hunt’s hands – not a comfortable place to be – and they are seeing him every other hour on television and must trust that he will tell the truth and put their vital interests above his political ones. It is a small thing to observe given the gravity of the COVID-19 pandemic, nevertheless this crisis will be the making or breaking of Hunt as a politician – just as it will be of the Morrison government as a whole.

It is now crystal clear that this pandemic presents the biggest challenge to our health system in living memory – perhaps in 102 years, as the ABC’s inestimable health expert Norman Swan suggested on the latest Coronacast podcast. And although Australians are confident in our public health system, the jury is still out on whether our governments, state and federal, have responded quickly and forcefully enough. A chart shared by the ABC’s Hamish McDonald via immunologist Dr Dan Suan of Westmead Hospital shows the number of Australian COVID-19 cases rising steeply – more like the US and UK and less like Hong Kong and Singapore. The curve is not flattening yet.

At a press conference this afternoon, Hunt explained why Australia was not going into lockdown like other countries, and reassured that “we are testing at one of the highest rates of any country in the world”. Hunt is known for gilding the lily – and we are not doing mass testing yet – so let’s hope that he gets the urgency here.

Hunt, who has written an honours thesis on carbon pricing, spent much of the past decade selling his soul to the sceptics in his party, including former leader and arch-denier Tony Abbott. As environment minister, he doctored up a fig-leaf policy on emissions reduction – paying polluters to cut emissions if they felt like it – that remains key to the Coalition’s path to “meeting and beating” its 2030 targets, along with leaning on those states and territories that have renewable energy targets. Fellow Victorian Josh Frydenberg took over the portfolio in 2016, in one of Turnbull’s better decisions, and Hunt became health minister. Ever since, Hunt has taken to regaling the parliament with the heartstring-tugging stories of people whose lives will be saved by the fact that he has listed another drug under the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme – a clever tactic to make him sound likeable and also a highly partisan dig at Labor, which under the Gillard administration suspended new listings as a savings measure as then treasurer Wayne Swan tried desperately to achieve one of those forecast budget surpluses.

Let’s assume the public has an open mind about Hunt. Things are moving fast. Even if Australia responds well, given the lax US response the flow-on consequences will likely be dire: there is serious speculation that we may be headed for the worst global downturn since the Great Depression. The federal government’s fiscal stimulus – including a second (but almost certainly not the last) package to be legislated by a bare-bones parliament next week – may need to rise over [$] $100 billion to cover the lost wages and income that are likely as events, companies and industries fall over. The stimulus so far – including the NSW government’s $2.3 billion plan – is likely to be a drop in the ocean.

As health minister, Hunt doesn’t have to worry about the economic impacts – leave that to the PM and the treasurer. Hunt’s job is to fight for proper resourcing of the health system and to keep the loss of life to a minimum. If he can do that, no matter what he’s done until now, he will be regarded as a hero.

“The pressures on David McBride are unbearable, but the stakes are high for all of us. The extreme powers we gave to prosecutors in Australia were meant to save us from terrorists. Now the government seems intent on using those powers to annihilate Australians who act with the most moral of reasons. Like McBride, like the men on last night’s ABC ‘Four Corners’ report, like Bernard Collaery and Witness K, there is a very dangerous pattern emerging here.”

Xenophon Davis partner Mark Davis, a Gold Walkley–winning journalist, announces the law firm will defend the Afghan Files whistleblower, former military lawyer David McBride.

“Production of Victoria’s estimated resources could generate more than $310 million annually for regional economies and create 6400 jobs over the lifespan of these projects.”

The Andrews government, which will lift a moratorium on development of onshore conventional gas reserves, throws some vague numbers into the announcement.

Public trust in government is at an all-time low, just as we’re turning to our political leaders to tackle the coronavirus outbreak. Today, Mike Seccombe on what the pandemic is telling us about our faith in institutions.


The number of points by which the manufacturing sector fell in the Australian Chamber–Westpac Survey of Industrial Trends. This is the largest drop since the financial crisis and occurred before the latest turmoil over COVID-19.

“There is growing recognition that the overall target for water recovery of 2,750 GL per year plus 450 GL per year of efficiency measures cannot be achieved by 2024 without significant cost to the Australian taxpayer, and significant Basin community disruption. Rather than a relentless pursuit of targets, the Panel considers that matching the pace of recovery with the capacity of the delivery systems would lead to a better outcome for all.”

From the draft report of the Independent Murray–Darling Basin Social and Economic Assessment Panel, chaired by NSW farmer and consultant Robbie Sefton, and released by federal water minister Keith Pitt yesterday.

The list

“In cities and towns across Australia, state and local governments, and private companies, have been installing – and quietly trialling – new CCTV cameras enabled with FR technology … In other words, our drivers’ licences, our passports and anything else featuring our photos are being drafted into a giant new national ID system that has the potential to identify us in real time. And we’ve never voted for it.”

“I’ve thought of Haji Daoud Nabi at every Muslim social event I’ve attended since the Christchurch attack last year. He was the first to die, gunned down after greeting his killer at the doorway of the mosque with the words, ‘Hello, brother, welcome.’ There is always an elderly man somewhere in the background who reminds me of him – the resemblance sometimes so strong that I’ve wondered if I am seeing the ghost of this Afghan grandfather I know only from media reports.”

“Nick Feik, the editor of The Monthly, asked me to write an essay for his esteemed rag. Now I’m a bit pissed off at The Monthly, so initially I didn’t really want to do it. I’m a bit pissed off because Richard Flanagan did a piece on Mona (my museum, and the only reason anyone asks me to write anything) and me for The New Yorker. It ended up in The Monthly as well, and I didn’t want it to, for at least two reasons: I felt that I had already committed to another writer for a Monthly piece, and I didn’t like Richard’s piece at all.” 

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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