Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Today by Paddy Manning

Going viral
The threatened coronavirus pandemic is taking a serious economic and social toll

Australia appears to be thus far relatively safe from the coronavirus COVID-19, with Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy reassuring a press conference today that there was no community transmission here, and federal Health Minister Greg Hunt saying that only 15 of 3000 people tested in the general population so far have come back positive. But with markets tumbling as COVID-19 threatens to become a global pandemic, and the World Health Organization warning that the world is “simply not ready”, the potential for major economic and social disruption in Australia is becoming increasingly clear. Among the most obvious short-term economic consequences would be the federal budget surplus evaporating and a slump into per capita recession, and these would come with political ramifications. The tourism and education sectors are in crisis. The Tokyo Olympics may be cancelled. Though Australia is said to be well-prepared should a pandemic be declared, alarm over the COVID-19 outbreak is certainly building.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg this morning declined to put a figure on the likely economic impact of COVID-19 in the March quarter, telling the ABC’s RN Breakfast that he did not have a number from his department – although he must have something, because yesterday he said it was going to have a greater impact than the bushfires. Prime Minister Scott Morrison, flagging a retreat on the budget surplus yesterday at a joint press conference with Frydenberg, said [$] that the economic fallout would not be limited to the education and tourism sectors. “It’s affecting the building industry, it’s affecting the manufacturing industry,” he said. “It’s affecting our export industry, when planes aren’t coming in, planes aren’t going out, and the bellies of those planes aren’t taking Australian produce into those markets.” At the latest tally, the Australian share markets have lost $120 billion in the past three days. This morning, the economics editor of The Australian, Adam Creighton, wrote [$] that, given the economy was already fragile, a slide into per capita recession was “almost certain”.

Perhaps concerned that the coronavirus is going to give the government a get-out-of-jail-free card, in Question Time today Labor sought to zero in on the pre-existing economic weakness, with shadow treasurer Jim Chalmers asking, “Why doesn’t the treasurer ever acknowledge that the domestic economy was already floundering before the coronavirus, with wheat consumption, business investment going backwards and a big fall in construction?”

The treasurer dealt with that easily, answering that “last year, no one was talking about coronavirus”. He went on: “The reality is before the coronavirus, as the Reserve Bank governor had said, the economy had reached a gentle turning point. Australians can be confident about their economic future. Why? Because the current account surplus is occurring for the first time in more than 40 years, because we have the lowest welfare dependency in more than 30 years, because we have delivered the biggest tax cuts and more than 20 years. And because the budget is back in balance for the first time in 11 years, why is it [that] the member for Rankin and the Labor Party, they are always talking down the Australian economy?”

This is nonsense. The economy was stagnant and vulnerable to any potential overseas or domestic shock, which the drought and bushfires and the coronavirus have now provided in quick succession. From a government that has steadfastly refused to acknowledge the genuine global financial crisis that beset Labor in 2008 – much less credit its response – it is unseemly for the Coalition to hide its economic-management credentials (or lack thereof) behind COVID-19 now.

“We’ve got to stop this false debate … about whether getting to net-zero emissions by 2050 … is something that’s optional. Well, I suppose it is optional, but it’s an option you don’t want to miss, because if we do miss it we know what the consequences are. The fires of this last summer will seem like a very, very mild experience compared to what a 3 degrees Celsius [warmer] world will look like.”

Former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, speaking at a Sydney energy conference last night about the need to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions to net zero.

“In these dry times, it’s important to get the water where the environment most needs it. We are trialling an innovative approach to getting water into Narran Lakes to give important wetland habitat a chance to survive the drought.”

The Commonwealth environmental water holder, Jody Swirepik, explaining why it is necessary to spend another estimated $2 million to buy more water from Eastern Australia Agriculture – an agribusiness founded by Energy and Emissions Reduction Minister Angus Taylor – in order to prevent significant wetlands from drying. EAA has already received $80 million for the same purpose.

We need to talk about St Kevin’s
In today’s episode, we speak to former St Kevin’s College student Luke Macaronas about what stops elite private schools and other powerful institutions from addressing issues of abuse.

The accumulated cost of News Corp’s phone-hacking scandal, including victim compensation, legal fees, asset write-offs and other costs, according to its most recent earnings update.

“Political parties should publicly report on their cultural diversity and adopt targets for winnable seats, [and] political parties and Chinese-Australian communities must train and foster a group of skilled and experienced candidates.”

Per Capita think tank research fellow Osmond Chiu explores what needs to be done to fix the problem of Australia’s politics being too white compared with those of the UK, NZ and Canada, with Chinese–Australians particularly under-represented.

The list

“Morrison’s career is marked by plotting. As a tourism executive, he undermined his rivals. He would create vast, intricate schemes to get ahead. His own party does not know what faction he sits in. He has a knack for accidents and he made his leadership look like one.”

“The federal government is allocating billions of dollars in grants and making significant policy changes in a way that is likely unlawful, legal experts warn, using a mechanism that bypasses parliament and obscures decisions from public view.” 

“Steve Schultze looks exactly like the kind of cop you’d see jumping a fence with his gun drawn. A former homicide detective with Victoria Police … Schultze and his team host women and children who are escaping domestic abuse, many of whom are being tracked by their perpetrators … ‘A lot of people think, ‘Well, hey, it’s her choice. Why didn’t she leave?’ Schultze narrows his eyes. ‘Do you hate hearing that? I hate hearing that.’”

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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