The Politics    Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Tonal variants

By Rachel Withers

Triptych image from left: Attorney-General Michaelia Cash (image via Facebook), Prime Minister Scott Morrison (image via Facebook), and Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews (image via ABC News)

From left: Attorney-General Michaelia Cash (image via Facebook), Prime Minister Scott Morrison (image via Facebook), and Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews (image via ABC News)

Morrison softens, Cash threatens, Andrews relinquishes COVID-zero

Australia’s leaders have tempered their positions on the multifaceted “national plan” – an entirely different plan depending on where you’re standing – with some subtle and not-so-subtle shifts in tone. Prime Minister Scott Morrison, as many noted yesterday, is undertaking yet another switch, easing up on his criticism of those states more hesitant about opening borders and acknowledging their concerns. But the memo appears to have been missed by Attorney-General Michaelia Cash, who began the day with a veiled legal threat against the government of her home state, Western Australia, over its border closure, leaving a Senate colleague to clarify that the federal government wasn’t planning to sue. (Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, with last night’s thoughtless show-and-tell of constituent pain, appears to be marching to the beat of his own drum as well.) The WA government has clarified its position, as has Queensland, with both states confirming that they don’t mean to pursue COVID-zero forever – but they also won’t be flinging borders open any time soon. The most marked shift in tone, however, was that of Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews, who – after days of signalling – officially dropped the elimination goal, acknowledging that it was no longer a viable outcome. The new goal for Victoria will be to keep cases from growing too rapidly while it vaccinates, with restrictions to be slowly eased over the coming months. As much as many commentators suggest Andrews is falling in behind Gladys Berejiklian, his rhetoric is worlds apart from that of the NSW premier, who today remained firm in her commitment to major freedoms (“everything”) for the vaccinated once the target of 70 per cent is reached.

The prime minister yesterday softened his rhetoric against Queensland and Western Australia, acknowledging their “sensible concerns” and assuring them he could “understand the caution”. After a week of Croods references and crude messaging, the new stance was aimed at “lowering the political heat”, as the AFR euphemistically put it, though it might also be said that Morrison was responding to the polls, after his divisive approach proved unpopular. But you wouldn’t know it from the words of his attorney-general, who in “exclusive” comments to The Australian this morning (later repeated on ABC Radio Perth) warned state governments that they would be less likely to win a legal challenge against their border closures at the 80 per cent vaccination mark. Cash noted the arguments WA had used to defeat Clive Palmer’s earlier challenge would have less sway once people were vaccinated, and though she claimed the government was not considering legal action, she indicated that Palmer might.

Labor was quick to jump on the veiled threat, reminding the federal government of how unpopular Palmer’s challenge had been with the people of WA, while reminding voters that the Morrison government had wasted $1 million initially supporting it. On ABC News Breakfast, Superannuation Minister Jane Hume insisted Cash’s comments were being misinterpreted, and were not meant to suggest the government would be challenging the border. But Labor kept at it in Question Time, opening the session with a reference to Cash’s “threat” and another reminder that the government had wasted taxpayer money backing Palmer’s earlier efforts. “We did not pursue that matter and we are not pursuing those matters,” was all Morrison would say, prompting laughter from the Labor benches.

Attempts were also made by Labor to trip up the PM on his recent change of heart/strategy. Members of the Opposition queried Morrison’s statement from yesterday that the decision about what restrictions will remain in place at 80 per cent vaccinated will be a matter for the states, when it was the PM who had failed on so many fronts. “Was it the prime minister who failed to deliver enough vaccine supply?” asked Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese. (Morrison, as usual, accused him of negativity, with Albanese objecting to the insinuation that Labor was hoping for the worst, noting he had now lost seven of his constituents to the NSW outbreak.) “Was it to the states or was it the prime minister who failed to establish a system of safe national quarantine?” asked Werriwa MP Anne Stanley. “Was it the states or the prime minister who said the vaccination program was not a race?” asked Makin MP Tony Zappia. Leader of the House Peter Dutton was eventually forced to intervene, with both he and the PM alleging that Morrison’s statement was being wilfully misrepresented.

In Victoria, meanwhile, a defeated Andrews conceded that COVID case numbers (which today hit an alarming 120) would not be going back to zero, signalling that the new goal would be to keep them from accelerating too fast as the state undertakes a “race to 80”. While no major freedoms were announced for this week for Victorians (other than opening up playgrounds and childcare), Andrews promised that a slight lockdown easing would take place on September 23 (assuming 70 per cent of the eligible population had received a first dose of vaccine), including increased travel and exercise time limits. It’s a change of strategy that’s been expected for some days now, as it became apparent Victoria’s lockdown was not going to be able to eliminate the virus, during which time Andrews began echoing Berejiklian in championing vaccines as the way out.

Claims, however, that Andrews is now on board his NSW counterpart’s “learning to live with COVID” message are wildly overblown. The pair are hardly on a unity ticket in terms of what kinds of restrictions will be needed over the coming months – or even at what rate of vaccination the lockdowns will end, with one trumpeting 70 per cent as the other remains doggedly focused on 80. If you listen to the leaders of each state, it remains a bleak and scary time in Victoria with a “dim” light at the end of the tunnel, while in NSW the leader is talking up drinks, meals and travel to come – and wilfully ignoring the dangerous path to be traversed before such freedoms can be introduced.

Listen to The Politics Podcast, with Rachel Withers

“I think the best you can say about this bill is that it means well, feebly.”

Shadow minister for women Tanya Plibersek labels the government’s Respect at Work legislation a “missed opportunity”, as Labor attempts to amend the bill to implement all 55 of the sex discrimination commissioner’s recommendations.

“I wish I had a crystal ball.”

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian, who regularly talks up optimistic outcomes, repeatedly refuses to share worst-case-scenario modelling for the NSW outbreak, using a range of excuses such as “I can’t recall”, “it varies” and “it depends” to deflect from questioning.

Everybody Knows, episode one: The company
Follow journalist Ruby Jones as she investigates an open secret in the Australian music industry – stories of harassment, abuse and assault spanning decades. In this episode, Ruby asks why MeToo stories are still so hard to tell in Australia – and why there is so much fear about speaking out.

The economy’s stronger-than-expected growth in the June quarter, reducing the likelihood of a second recession – though this period was mostly before the current lockdowns hit.

“Anthony Albanese also used his speech commemorating the 70th anniversary [of the ANZUS Treaty] to announce that Labor will undertake a new Force Posture Review if they form government.”

Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese calls for a re-evaluation of Australia’s military readiness, with a focus on the Indo-Pacific and cyber security.

The list

“The paintings of Swedish artist Hilma af Klint – a cusp-of-the-modern visionary who created a ‘secret’ body of abstract-seeming art in the early 20th century, and who, more than half a century since her death, has come to secure near-universal acclaim – arrive freighted with the kind of backstory that risks obscuring the work itself. Many readers will be aware of this story’s broad outline: how af Klint ‘received’ her paintings from higher powers; how she came to suspect the world was not ready for them in her lifetime; how she stipulated that much of what she produced in a dizzyingly productive late-life outpouring should not be shown until at least two decades after her death. Her paintings would eventually become for the art world something like divine revelation.”

“Everyone knows that money talks, but most Australians have no idea who talks on behalf of their money. Superannuation is, for most of us, our biggest or second biggest investment. But while few of us would let strangers make all of the decisions about our house, our car or our bank accounts, the average Australian has no idea who the trustees of their superannuation fund are, no idea which companies their life savings are invested in, and no idea how their trustees are wielding the enormous power that comes with casting votes on their behalf at company meetings.”

“‘The former chief executive and chair of Sony Music Australia, Denis Handlin, has issued his first public comments since exiting the company in June, confirming incidents of sexual misconduct occurred at the music label. In a statement provided to Schwartz Media’s new investigative podcast series Everybody Knows, Handlin confirmed that the company had dealt with sexual misconduct in his time as chief executive. He said he had engaged lawyers and external advisers to conduct independent inquiries into the allegations and had also provided counselling to survivors.” 

Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.


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