Carrot vs pork
The government that loves buying Australians’ votes is deadset against paying them to get vaccinated
The Morrison government has come out hard against the Opposition’s proposal for a $300 payment for Australians who get vaccinated by December 1, arguing that cash incentives are reckless and unwarranted. Finance Minister Simon Birmingham took the first whack on News Breakfast, telling hosts that the idea was “insulting” to the millions of Australians already doing the right thing (though they would not miss out under Labor’s proposal), and claiming it was wasteful. (The policy would cost around $6 billion if all adults got the jab by then, compared to the $2 billion per week that lockdowns are costing, and compared to the $12.5 billion in JobKeeper payments given to companies that did not suffer any downturn last year.) Birmingham told RN Breakfast that the government was considering special liberties for vaccinated people, while limiting movement for the unvaccinated, seemingly preferring the stick over the carrot approach. Throughout today’s press conference and Question Time, Prime Minister Scott Morrison repeatedly referred to the idea as a “bubble without a thought”, arguing it was a “$6 billion cash splash” from Labor. But the more outrageous argument he used against the proposal was that it was a “vote of no confidence” in Australians, and he spoke at length about his faith in Australians to do the right thing. Australians, the PM added, couldn’t be “paid off” – an about-face from a government that has repeatedly attempted to pay off those living in marginal seats with car parks and sporting facilities, for example. It’s curious that the Morrison government is so opposed to what is a rather modest incentive to grease the wheels of the vaccine rollout, considering its recent fondness for incentivising votes in the “top 20 marginals” – though of course vaccine payments would go to all Australians, rather than just those it wants votes from. It’s not so much that the government prefers the stick over the carrot, it seems, but that it prefers the pork.
The government’s cheap arguments against the one-off payment continued in today’s masked-up Question Time, the first of the spring session, featuring Acting Leader of the House Christian Porter standing in for the isolating Peter Dutton. (No adequate explanation was offered for why the deputy leader of the house, David Gillespie, did not step in, despite being in attendance.) Labor, unsurprisingly, opened with its “you had two jobs” line, while Morrison tried out a new counterattack, shouting that Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese didn’t understand the job and was “undermining” the vaccination program, before labelling the $300 idea “ill-informed, ill-disciplined, not thinking of the consequences”. When the PM was then asked, somewhat pointlessly, if the government would adopt Labor’s proposal, Morrison argued that experts had labelled it a “bad idea” that could have the reverse effect, and he then accused Albanese of failing to speak to Lieutenant General John Frewen, head of the vaccine rollout taskforce, who had earlier backed up the government’s approach. (The allegation prompted much shouting and something “unparliamentary” from Albanese that had to be withdrawn, with the Opposition leader noting that Morrison “knew full well” there was a meeting scheduled for Thursday, and that it was the first time one had been offered.)
It’s not clear that the payments are a bad idea, however, with behavioural experts finding evidence that financial incentives – which are being tried in many other countries – can work. As shadow treasurer Jim Chalmers noted, Morrison’s phased reopening plan specifically mentions “encouraging uptake through incentives”. To which Morrison responded by accusing Labor of wanting to “recklessly spend Australian taxpayers’ money” and of playing politics (his usual go-to).
But when it was put to the government by Ballarat MP Catherine King that it had spent much more (and much more recklessly) on JobKeeper and pork-barrelling, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg ignored the rorting allegations, and claimed that this was Labor questioning the importance of JobKeeper – an amazing program that he insisted had saved Australia. (Never mind the fact that it was Labor that had fought for JobKeeper to be kept and reinstated.) Question Time then devolved into a game of semantics around whether the vaccine rollout was, in fact, “a race”, and why the prime minister had ever suggested it wasn’t, along with everything else he had changed his tune on, such as lockdowns.
The prime minister’s rejection of a cash incentive on the basis that such an idea is some combination of untargeted, undisciplined and ill informed (words he used over and over throughout Question Time) is deeply hypocritical, considering the way the government treats taxpayers’ money (see: JobKeeper profiteering, sports rorts and commuter car parks). But it may also be incredibly short-sighted. The government has dismissed the idea out of hand, with what independent Rex Patrick labelled an “unfortunate kneejerk” response. But what happens if Australia later fails to reach its all-important vaccination targets? Will the government then be forced to take on the idea that it attempted to laugh out of the room? It wouldn’t be the first time it has majorly backtracked, while insisting it is only “with hindsight” or due to “changed circumstances” that the things it previously rubbished – such as hard, early lockdowns, and payments for those undergoing them – are now necessary. Government ministers today suggested that this payment proposal was an “insult” to Australians, but the real insult is the government repeatedly changing its tune while never admitting it got things wrong in the first place.
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The Morrison government has come out hard against the Opposition’s proposal for a $300 payment for Australians who get vaccinated by December 1, arguing that cash incentives are reckless and unwarranted. Finance Minister Simon Birmingham took the first whack on News Breakfast, telling hosts that the idea was “insulting” to the millions of Australians already doing the right thing (though they would not miss out under Labor’s proposal), and claiming it was wasteful. (The policy would cost around $6 billion if all adults got the jab by then, compared to the $2 billion per week that lockdowns are costing, and compared to the...
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