Friday, March 27, 2020

Today by Paddy Manning

Isolation nation
The PM is looking like the odd man out

Image of Scott Morrison

Announcing stricter 14-day quarantine for Australians returning from overseas (enforced by the Army where necessary), and flagging plans to “hibernate” businesses under a third-tranche stimulus package, Prime Minister Scott Morrison this afternoon gave the country a pat on the back. “Great job you’ve done this week, Australia,” he said at a press conference after the latest meeting of the national cabinet, also acknowledging that social distancing was getting tougher day by day. “We can do it,” Morrison said, adding that the aim was to support affected workers and businesses through the pandemic. “We want Australia to rise again on the other side of this.”

Morrison’s language, after the virtual meeting of the G20 overnight, was again to discuss the twin health and economic crises, and the challenge of saving lives and livelihoods. Waving around a dummy “isolation card”, to be signed by those returning to the country from midnight Saturday, Morrison gave a much better performance than the awful press conference of Wednesday night. 

But Morrison completely skated over a key question at the end, put by Guardian Australia’s Paul Karp: Would he release the modelling of the pandemic that the government is relying on? As The Monthly Today has written here and here, both the Greens health spokesman Richard Di Natale and the Australian Academy of Science have called this week for the official modelling to be released, so that experts and non-experts alike can judge for themselves what the likely scenarios are, and what science is being relied upon to guide the strategy of the national cabinet and the chief medical officer.

The PM got defensive, preferring instead to engage on the question of whether these decisions came down to a matter of his own judgement of the science. Morrison said the decisions he was communicating were those of the national cabinet and did not simply reflect “some personal view of mine”. Then he had a shot at those pushing for tougher restrictions, saying that very often the criticism came from people who did not stand to lose their job. “I’m going to fight for every job I can,” the PM said, although there is a very real question as to whether he is doing that in the most effective way. 

As states and territories close their borders and edge towards a more complete lockdown, as was outlined in this excellent ABC piece today, there is some uncertainty as to whether the government is pursuing a strategy of halting the spread of COVID-19 until a vaccine is developed – as New Zealand is attempting to do – or flattening the curve to allow the health system to cope until herd immunity is achieved, which has been the approach of the federal government but not necessarily the states and not necessarily the advice of the medical profession.

That’s why the official modelling should be released. Transparency is desirable in itself, of course, but there is a pressing need for the official data to be made public – it would actually calm the horses. Today, for example, The Australian carried a report [$] suggesting intensive care units could be overwhelmed in 10 days. The chief medical officer, Brendan Murphy, dismissed that suggestion today, saying hospitals were in advanced preparations to “at least triple” capacity for intensive care. Why not show us the figures to back up what he’s saying?

Morrison is still not being up-front about the government’s broader strategy, and as Michelle Grattan wrote in The Conversation today, the PM and his health advisers are starting to look like the “odd men out”. Releasing the official modelling would put everyone on the same page. As Grattan writes: “On Thursday the federal government’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly suggested challenges to official advice made for public confusion and should be kept behind closed doors. Not if the challengers turn out to be right.”

The PM still seems to want things to be as normal as possible. His business hibernation strategy, to be announced with the Treasurer within days and flagged this morning, seems to be about getting things back exactly the way they were as soon as possible. Even as he is deploying the Defence Force, the PM does not want to describe the tough quarantine and social distancing measures as a lockdown. Day by day, he is being dragged to tougher action. But the sooner we get into it, the sooner we get it over and done with. 

“We can’t allow foreign state-owned enterprises and their business fronts to use COVID-19’s economic carnage as a gateway to swoop distressed businesses and assets.”

Victorian Liberal MP Tim Wilson, who chairs the House economics committee and is a member of the intelligence and security committee, calls for tougher foreign investment requirements.

“Advice of prospects from senior counsel is that if the class action proceeds to hearing, it is very likely that the applicants will succeed on unjust enrichment in respect of recipients who had debts raised, or partly raised, on the basis of averaged ATO income data. It is also very likely that the Applicants will obtain a declaration that the Commonwealth did not have a lawful basis to determine debts based wholly or partly on averaged ATO income data. This is likely to result in the Commonwealth being ordered to repay debts … and to pay interest and legal costs.”

A leaked cabinet submission from federal ministers Stuart Robert, Anne Ruston and Christian Porter admits the robodebt scheme was likely unlawful.

Coronavirus, part five: One month in
Scott Morrison’s first national address on coronavirus was one month ago. Today, Paul Bongiorno on the decisions Morrison’s government has made since then and how they stack up.

The deterioration in the underlying cash balance for the 2019–20 financial year to the end of February since the December mid-year economic forecast was prepared, according to official monthly figures released today, due to lower than expected tax revenues.

“Beijing has accused the author of ‘espionage’, but has provided no public evidence to back up its claim. Since his arrest, Yang has been in Chinese state custody. Yang’s wife, who had accompanied him on his 2019 trip, is barred from leaving China. Yang has reportedly been held in solitary confinement, has endured lengthy interrogations, and is believed to be in fragile health.”

PEN America releases a statement in support of the Australian author, academic and pro-democracy activist Yang Hengjun, who is detained in China where he will be charged with espionage offences.

The list

“Klein’s take on our leader’s response to catastrophe has a decidedly biblical bent. ‘I think it’s relevant that Morrison is the evangelical Protestant who has a world view that basically says that the world’s going to end, the chosen few will be taken to this gated golden city in the sky, and the sinners will perish,’ she says. ‘What I think they’re doing is creating that narrative, down here on Earth.’”

“In memory of Professor Ian Donaldson FBA FRSE FAHA, one of the world’s finest Ben Jonson scholars, an international authority in the field of early modern English literary studies, and a highly influential leader and advocate of the humanities in Australia.”

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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