Thursday, March 26, 2020

Today by Paddy Manning

Health vs economy?
Both lives and livelihoods must be saved

Image of Anthony Albanese


Standing outside the Camperdown house where he was born, Labor leader Anthony Albanese called on the federal government to follow the lead of the UK, New Zealand and Tasmania, by implementing a moratorium on rental property evictions to stop people falling into homelessness as the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic rapidly widen. Hopefully the national cabinet, which next meets tomorrow, will be making announcements shortly. Albanese also repeated Labor’s message that the top priority has to be saving lives: “We say again that you need to deal with the health emergency first, because by doing that, you will have less economic consequences of the health crisis.” For that position, Albanese came in for some odd criticism from The Australian’s editor-at-large Paul Kelly, who accused [$] him of playing a “double game” and breaking “decisively from policy bipartisanship on the fight against COVID-19”. Really? The truth is Labor’s position is commonsense and unarguable – the only alternative is the ghoulish American debate about how many old people should die to save the economy. 

In the broadest terms, the difference between Labor’s position and the government’s is much of a muchness. Scott Morrison says his priority is to “protect Australian lives and to protect their livelihoods”, while Albanese says his priority is health followed by the economy “in that order”. But Labor is becoming increasingly critical of the government’s response to the pandemic, both in terms of messaging (the PM’s exhausted waffle has been widely lampooned, although Albanese didn’t do a lot better today calling for “far clearer clarity”) and of policy substance. As health spokesman Chris Bowen said today: “Labor believes more needs to be done. Done harder and done earlier. We support stricter restrictions.”

Labor wants more done to protect the economy, too. Shadow industrial relations minister Tony Burke called for Australia to adopt UK-style wage subsidies, reinforcing earlier criticisms that the payments to business through the tax system, which won’t happen until the end of April and July, will be too little too late. “Scott Morrison must introduce a wage subsidy to keep Australians in jobs and out of unemployment lines,” Burke said. “The prime minister used to say ‘the best form of welfare is a job’. So why is he overseeing the biggest transfer of people from work to welfare in our lifetimes, when there are other options available?”    

After last night’s meeting, the national cabinet announced expanded coronavirus testing criteria, which is welcome, given the World Health Organization’s advice that the best response is to “test, test, test”. Let’s hope Australia soon has the finger-prick tests which are becoming available in the UK. But the national cabinet must do more. Yesterday the Australian Academy of Science called, as the Greens did earlier this week, for the federal government to openly publish the data and modelling supporting their decisions. “A model for Australia to follow is that adopted in the UK,” the AAS said, “where the scientific evidence supporting the UK government response to COVID-19 is published by the UK Government Office for Science, led by the Chief Science Adviser.” The alternative is a profusion of complex epidemiological modelling bewildering the public, with different models covered by the Nine papers and Crikey today. 

Those forward-looking models are extremely useful, however, and, at the risk of generalising, the takeout seems to be that a tougher lockdown now – complied with by 80 per cent of the population – could mean the pandemic would be brought under control by July. If the government is operating on the basis of different modelling – and there is some method to its painfully slow practice of the eking out of progressively tougher restrictions on a daily basis, while states and territories increasingly decide to go it alone in lockdown – then let’s see it. 

A specially convened academic advisory group advised the chief medical officer, Brendan Murphy, to “go now, go hard and go smart” with a sweeping lockdown, but their advice was rejected, as Nine reported earlier this week. Professor Brendan Crabb of Melbourne’s Burnet Institute made a similar call today, saying “every day matters now”.

It is not as though the government, by delaying the lockdown, is succeeding in preventing the economic fallout. Fresh research suggests 1 million Australians will lose their jobs by November, there are thousands of new layoffs today, and the housing market is bound to crash. The economy is tanking regardless. The PM should go for broke. 

“The guilty plea today will provide some relief to the many people whose lives were shattered by what happened on March 15. These guilty pleas and conviction bring accountability for what happened and also save the families who lost loved ones, those who were injured, and other witnesses, the ordeal of a trial.”

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern reacts to today’s guilty plea by the Australian perpetrator of the Christchurch massacres.

“As matters stand today this global pandemic does not, of itself, yet provide grounds for Mr Assange’s release. In my view there are substantial grounds to believe that if I released him today, he would not return to face his extradition hearing. There are no conditions that allay this concern and this application is therefore refused.”

District judge Vanessa Baraitser, in the Westminster Magistrates’ Court, rejects a bail application from WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who has health conditions making him vulnerable to COVID-19 and is detained in London’s Belmarsh prison pending a possible extradition to the US.

Coronavirus, part four: The Australian scientists who could beat it
A team of Australian scientists are working around the clock to find a vaccine against coronavirus, and they’re on the verge of a breakthrough. Today, Rick Morton on the race to find a vaccine.


The number of major coral-bleaching events suffered by the Great Barrier Reef within five years, as confirmed today by scientists conducting aerial surveys. The third event is due to heat stress caused by rising ocean temperatures.

“Following the receipt of feedback on the practical implementation of measures announced regarding barbers and hairdressers it was agreed by Premiers and Chief Ministers at National Cabinet last night that the instruction regarding 30 minutes per patron will be lifted (effective immediately), but that the 4sqm rule per person must be strictly observed within the premises and that personal contact during the patron’s visit should be minimised wherever possible.”

The prime minister, on behalf of the national cabinet, releases a coronavirus update that clarifies nothing.

The list

“At the age of 11, sometime in August of 1596, Hamnet Shakespeare died in the market town of Stratford-upon-Avon. He was the only son of William Shakespeare and Agnes Hathaway. How did he die? O’Farrell can’t have known when she wrote her latest novel, her eighth, how germane and discomforting her speculation would be at the moment of publication, but there’s no doubt Hamnet (Tinder Press) now has a morbid poignancy as well as a fascination it would not otherwise have had.” 

“Since the murder of Hannah Clarke and her children, calls to criminalise coercive control are becoming louder and more prominent. This week, the NSW attorney-general, Mark Speakman, announced he would be consulting on new laws, telling The Australian that the fact it was a precursor to homicide was ‘a reason to criminalise this sort of behaviour’. If he decides to draft new laws, he will have a strong template to work from: the ‘gold standard’ of coercive control laws in Scotland, which became effective in April 2019.”

“The relentless companionship could itself take a toll. ‘What does it mean,’ Allen mused, ‘to see the same people for three meals a day, and at the bar, and on a Sunday, and special occasions, and on your birthday, and when you’re having a hard time and don’t want to talk to anybody – but if you get your cornflakes and take them back to your room, everybody notices?’”

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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