The Politics    Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Above politics

By Paddy Manning

Image of Tony Burke

Tony Burke (front). © Joel Carrett / AAP Image

The JobKeeper package proves the Opposition is being constructive

Near-universal welcome for the federal government’s massive $130 billion JobKeeper package leaves Labor in a quandary. Support for direct wage subsidies was emerging as a major point of policy difference between the Opposition and the government – now the prime minister and treasurer have backflipped and stolen Labor’s position. Manager of Opposition business Tony Burke was graciously supportive in a press conference this afternoon, reassuring that Labor would work with the government over the detail of the package, and work to speedily reconvene parliament to pass enabling legislation. Burke claimed the package was a vindication for Labor, and got in a niggle: “If this had been done when we were first calling for it, there are hundreds of thousands of people who might not have had their lives turned upside down over the last two weeks.” This is no doubt true, but the fact will be lost in the wave of public relief if the government manages to get Australia through this pandemic with minimal loss of life – as is starting to seem possible for the first time – and with a recovery underway due to unprecedented Commonwealth spending.

There is a limit to how much credit is given to politicians who claim to be governing from opposition. When he was a shiny new Opposition leader, Mark Latham tried it in 2004, forcing John Howard to abolish the generous parliamentary superannuation scheme and to protect the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme from the US Free Trade Agreement. Latham crowed, but voters couldn’t have cared less. In a somewhat similar vein, Bill Shorten was hardly rewarded for forcing the Medivac laws onto the Morrison government. The general public cares about outcomes – much more than who said what first – and the best Labor can do now is to remain constructively engaged on both the big-picture response to the pandemic and the policy details. The Greens, also seeking to claim a measure of policy vindication, are in the same position.

So far, it does seem that the all-hands-on-deck spirit of constructive engagement is prevailing. Editor-at-Large Paul Kelly wrote [$] in The Weekend Australian that senior Labor sources had confirmed that while the Opposition “believed in being bipartisan and constructive on the fiscal package, it disagreed fundamentally with the strategy in place to fight COVID-19 … These differences will be critical at the next election.” Well, those differences keep evaporating – largely because Morrison keeps adopting Labor’s positions. The Australian’s Troy Bramston today attacked [$] the Opposition leader for dissing the national cabinet as “really just phone hook-ups of COAG”, and the headline read: “Albanese’s posturing sinks national unity”. Tosh. 

Labor is being constructive. Witness the close cooperation between ACTU secretary Sally McManus and Attorney-General Christian Porter, also reported [$] in this excellent piece in The Weekend Australian.

In today’s press conference, Tony Burke demurred on whether Albanese had breached the spirit of bipartisanship by saying the government should deal with health and the economy “in that order”. Burke explained: “The best thing you can do to have a strong economy is to have a healthy Australia. And that’s why if you get the health response right here, then the economic response becomes a much easier pathway. And I was with Anthony at that presser here in Sydney that day and that was the exact focus that we were making.” 

Any Labor attempt to make political mileage out of the government response to the coronavirus pandemic would backfire assuredly and swiftly. Burke acknowledged as much this afternoon. “If anyone right at this point is thinking about the next election then they’re missing the point,” he said. “The nation’s in a crisis right now. And our role, entirely, is to make sure that when the government puts forward something that’s good that we are there to make sure it can happen as quickly as possible. And where we can see gaps, like we did with the wage subsidy, we argue it, and when the government says no that won’t happen, we keep arguing it. We keep making the case so that, both for business and for workers, we can get outcomes like we got yesterday.”

Listen to The Politics Podcast, with Rachel Withers

“This is a time-critical decision. We have a narrow window of time in which to act, before flu season hits and while there is time to get the required vaccines into the country. People with the flu will be at significantly increased risk if they contract COVID-19 … Urgently ensuring that all Australians can get the flu vaccine for free will also reduce the number of people who develop upper respiratory tract symptoms from influenza.”

Greens health spokesperson and former leader Richard Di Natale writes to Health Minister Greg Hunt, urging this year’s flu vaccine be made freely available for all.

“Qantas has told the Morrison government it expects a $4.2 billion loan to ‘level the playing field’ if it bails out smaller rival Virgin Australia with a $1.4 billion coronavirus rescue package … according to a well-placed source with knowledge of discussions between the airline and government.”

Qantas responds to the possibility that the federal government may refuse to allow its major competitor to go to the wall.

Hoaxes, lies and coronavirus
As we try and contain the coronavirus outbreak, health authorities, governments and social media platforms are also battling the spread of misinformation about the virus. Today, Mike Seccombe on the question of who we trust in a crisis.

The number of megalitres per day to be sent down the Lower Darling River in the first replenishment flows since February 2019, which will reconnect the Darling to the Murray River next month.

“Australia and 15 other members of the World Trade Organization have agreed to establish an interim arrangement to bring appeals and solve trade disputes … [allowing] appeals on trade disputes to be heard at a time when the formal appeals process of the WTO dispute settlement system was unable to function … WTO members part of the interim arrangement include Australia, China and the European Union.”

Federal Trade Minister Simon Birmingham works around the intransigence of the US, which has blocked appointments to the WTO’s appellate body, rendering it functionless. The stopgap measure was welcomed by Labor.

The list

“Hanging round Wagga pubs on a Tuesday night and talking to locals, it seems the city likes having a deputy prime minister as its member, although most struggle to point to anything in particular they can thank him for. McCormack has his own list, including the new Wagga Wagga Base Hospital, ‘which we fought for, for decades’ ... None of this comes up at the Farrer Hotel, however, where the Wagga City Rugby Male Choir has a singalong most Tuesdays. One Labor voter among them speaks harshly of McCormack, but it is a Nationals voter who is more damning, albeit with faint praise: ‘We love him, but he’s not up to it.’”

“Sarah Aiken is a dancer and choreographer living in Melbourne. For Aiken, the beginning of 2020 was a busy period, during which she worked with her collaborative partner Rebecca Jensen to stage their participatory dance event Deep Soulful Sweats at venues including Gasworks Arts Park and the Immigration Museum. With those commissions finished she had intended to work ‘pretty solidly’ at Arts Centre Melbourne, where she was employed casually as a front-of-house staff member, while also earning some income teaching public classes for the dance company Chunky Move. In June, she was set to begin a three-month residency in Helsinki, funded by a grant from the Australia Council. All of Aiken’s work has now been ended by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“If everything goes right, it will mean mass production of a Covid-19 vaccine will already be under way by the time the drug is approved for release. ‘If we could start to stand up a production line now – and that’s assuming UQ is ready to go to a first-in-humans trial by, say, June – it would mean that they could actually produce the vaccine as soon as they have it cleared,’ Halton tells The Saturday Paper. On current projections, a three-month head start on production could save more than 100,000 lives.”

Paddy Manning

Paddy Manning 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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