Friday, June 4, 2021

Today by Rachel Withers

A week of backdowns
Morrison takes small steps, but no responsibility

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Image via ABC News

Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Image via ABC News

This week began with a game of optics over who had suffered a “humiliating backdown” in the case of Industry Minister Christian Porter and the ABC, after defamation proceedings were withdrawn from court. But at the end of the week, it’s the federal government that has performed a number of backdowns. After yesterday’s capitulation to reasonable demands for lockdown income assistance, Prime Minister Scott Morrison today walked back some of his previous positions on related topics. In a press conference, Morrison confirmed that the federal government has signed a memorandum of understanding with the Victorian government to build a dedicated quarantine facility – a proposal originally dismissed as “political smoke and mirrors” – with the Commonwealth to chip in $200 million. Morrison also announced that the vaccination rollout will undergo a “ramp up”, with yet another military leader to be roped in, despite weeks of insisting things were going just fine. Lieutenant General John Frewen has been appointed head of a new vaccination task force, with “direct operational control” for the national program, Morrison said, joining Commodore Eric Young, who was appointed to manage rollout logistics in April. None of these backdowns came with any admission of fault, or acceptance of the criticism Morrison has faced. When asked if the general’s involvement was a concession that things have gone wrong, Morrison rejected the assertion. “I wouldn’t describe it like that,” he said. “I simply wouldn’t accept that proposition that you put forward.” But actions speak louder than words.

Victoria’s lockdown has forced Morrison to finally move – marginally – on criticism that has been swirling around the federal government for weeks now. The shambolic vaccine rollout has been ringing alarm bells at a fluctuating volume ever since the government missed its first major target in March, while Labor and experts have been blaming hotel quarantine outbreaks on the lack of federal facilities for even longer. The “vaccine and quarantine” failings combo has had the Opposition sounding like a broken record since the budget was handed down, with warnings that the government’s complacency was a recipe for disaster. That disaster has now come, though it still took a week for a temporary COVID disaster payment to follow. Why does it take the prime minister so long to act, and what is it that makes him finally do so?

The current outbreak – which now, worryingly, involves another unrelated and unlinked infectious strain – has clearly made some difference to the PM’s thinking, though the risk of a lockdown should have already been obvious to him. And it still took him a week of lockdown before he started acting. What’s changed, in that time, is the politics. Over the past seven days, even the most Coalition-favouring commentators have been forced to admit that the risks could have been mitigated if the Commonwealth just did what had been asked of it on vaccines and quarantine. Though Morrison told his party room this week that Labor’s attempts to blame the federal government for the lockdown are not working, they do appear to be. The re-entry of COVID-19 into the aged-care system, meanwhile, shone a spotlight on the federal government’s incompetence, and on the very real costs of it. The failure to vaccinate all residents and staff (yet alone to even know how many workers had been vaccinated) would have been criminally negligent even without the current cases in the sector, but that concerning fact gave Labor an opening to attack the government, making it look unfit to manage the most crucial elements of the pandemic.

It’s a delicate balancing act Morrison has been attempting to pull off in the latter half of this week: how do you start to act on criticism, now that it’s reached a fever pitch, without admitting that you got it wrong in the first place? How do you start to address Labor’s laundry list of faults, when just yesterday you said you didn’t take responsibility for any of it? Morrison has made sure that none of his latest actions are exactly what critics have called for. He’s offered lockdown “disaster payments”, very much on his terms, rather than the JobKeeper-type program Victoria suggested. He’s agreed to a dedicated quarantine facility in Victoria, though it will be the state government that is responsible for it, and he insists it will be in addition to – not a replacement for – hotel quarantine, which epidemiologists have long been saying is not fit for purpose. He has brought in another army man to manage logistics, when experts wanted a public health campaign, and for the government to stop stoking complacency.

Now that Morrison has started to capitulate slightly, neutralising some of the criticism, Labor’s messaging has switched to focusing on the fact that he had to be “dragged kicking and screaming” to his current position. Morrison still refuses to concede that he’s changed his position at all. And it just might work. As Morrison’s former attorney-general so desperately demonstrated at the start of the week, it’s all about the optics.

“This warrior has carried such a heavy load for all of us. The least we must now do is ensure that her courage leads to real change and meaningful action.”

Former Labor MP Kate Ellis is among those showing support for former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins, after it was revealed Higgins has been hospitalised to safeguard her mental health.

“They acted within the laws as they were established at the time.”

Finance Minister Simon Birmingham says profitable companies that pocketed JobKeeper acted legally, while avoiding mention of the double standard of using “retrospective compliance activity” to check casual workers’ eligibility for the lockdown payment.

Scott Morrison dodges responsibility
For the past week, the federal government has been locked in a tussle with Victoria over who is responsible for financially supporting those suffering the economic consequences of another lockdown. Today, Paul Bongiorno on the fresh political challenges facing the federal government.

The amount media companies will pay in fines, after publishing details of Cardinal George Pell’s child sex abuse convictions in breach of court orders. The Age faced the largest fine, at $450,000.

“A secret marketing strategy to convince Australians to support a controversial overhaul of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) says the federal government must be ‘seen’ to have listened to concerns of disability groups, who will be targeted with an extensive campaign.”

A leaked NDIA communications strategy reveals Coalition plans to reannounce legislation in late August, with what Labor labels a “expensive multi-media spin campaign” to claim it has responded to consultation.

The list

“In this historic moment, defined by pestilence and grave uncertainty, our prime minister is determined to have our newspapers and evening bulletins resemble Bunnings catalogues and the newsletter of the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Here’s hi-vis Scotty pretending to drive a truck, a tractor, an accordion bus! Here he is hammering a nail into a cloud! And if all this hasn’t convinced you of his competence and cheerful diligence, watch him now give a thumbs-up in a jumbo’s cockpit!”

“2019 will see another Australian bicentenary, the 200th anniversary of the first book of poetry published in this country. You could be forgiven for knowing neither the book nor its author; you could probably also be forgiven for not finding the event all that worthy of memorialisation, let alone celebration. Aside from a few specialists in colonial literature and a handful of historically inclined local poets, who in contemporary Australia could possibly be interested in the (exceedingly) minor poetaster Barron Field – yes, his real name – and his First Fruits of Australian Poetry? Would Field’s work be of more interest if it were crucial evidence in the establishment of terra nullius in this country?”

“Somewhere between 10 and 20 per cent of presentations to general practice involve unexplained medical symptoms. Uncertainty is something I’ve had to learn to sit with as a GP. And many times, I’ve had to invite my patients to sit there with me. This is not an easy thing to do, for either of us. I suspect our discomfort arises, in large part, from a lack of practice.”

Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Monthly Today.



The Monthly Today

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