The Politics    Friday, September 10, 2021

Keeping up appearances

By Rachel Withers

Composite image showing (from left): NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian (image via Facebook), Prime Minister Scott Morrison (image via Facebook), Health Minister Greg Hunt (Image © Luis Ascui / AAP Image)

From left: NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian (image via Facebook), Prime Minister Scott Morrison (image via Facebook), Health Minister Greg Hunt (Image © Luis Ascui / AAP Image)

The Coalition fails to grasp how bad an impression its secrecy is leaving

A number of incidents during this scandal-plagued week have been described – euphemistically – as “not a good look” for the Coalition. First there was Scott Morrison’s secret Father’s Day trip to Sydney, which ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr described as “not a particularly good look” when pressed on the issue (a sentiment echoed by The Canberra Times). Then there were the FOI-released Pfizer emails, which Australian columnist Peter Van Onselen told RN Breakfast were “not a good look, at the absolute least”. Next came revelations the Morrison government had pressured the UK into dropping key climate goals from its trade negotiations, something The Canberra Times again thought was “not a good look”, especially ahead of the Glasgow climate summit. The decision to quietly appoint former WA Liberal Women’s Council president (and questioner of affirmative consent laws) Lorraine Finlay as the Australian Human Rights Commissioner, on the eve of the women’s safety summit, raised eyebrows, with Australian of the Year Grace Tame describing it as a “grave mistake”, and Morrison’s decision to take the opening keynote speech at the summit certainly didn’t go down well. Then there is the little matter of the JobKeeper overpayments and the objection to transparency measures, which Nine columnist (and former Liberal adviser) Niki Savva says is inexcusable and comes across much worse than the government seems to realise. Today, the NSW Coalition made a move with one of the most appalling looks yet, or what it perhaps hopes will soon be the absence of looks: Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s announcement that she would be stopping her daily COVID-19 press conferences from Monday, even though cases are expected to peak in the coming weeks and concerns are swirling about the impact on the healthcare system. Berejiklian has justified the decision by emphasising the need to start living with COVID. But the move has been slammed as shamefully early, with journalists and punters alike describing it as going into “hiding” at a critical time. Doesn’t the Coalition understand the optics of anything?

Berejiklian’s announcement – that she and the health minister will no longer front up to the media every day, instead only appearing “intermittently”, with NSW Health to publish daily videos – has been met with exasperation and disbelief in light of the fact the state is staring down the most challenging period of the pandemic yet (and that’s according to the reopening cheerleaders at the Australian Financial Review). The decision has been widely interpreted as an attempt to dodge scrutiny (former Insiders host Barrie Cassidy suggested this would become a future case study for the shirking of government accountability), while journalists and commentators are horrified at the implications for transparency and democracy. The first question at today’s press conference accused Berejiklian of “going into hiding”, to which the premier retorted that answering questions every day was preventing her from doing her job properly – as if answering questions at a critical point in the outbreak wasn’t part of her job. (The priorities of the state’s reopening, notes Australia Institute economist Alison Pennington, are themselves not such a crash-hot look.) Berejiklian insisted, reasonably, that the daily press conferences can’t go on indefinitely. But the idea that now is the time to stop them, just as the state is about to embark on the nation’s first foray into “living with COVID”, is simply laughable.

The NSW premier has never been particularly forthcoming with information in her daily press conferences: she is prone to serving up word salad and proficient at turning direct questions into a chance to opine on any topic of her choosing. She has refused to share “worst-case scenario” modelling, claiming she can’t recall it or that it’s subject to change (and therefore unable to be shared). This latest announcement, however, presents a new low in NSW state government accountability with its implication that journalists will no longer be given a regular opportunity to ask her or health officials direct questions at all. Berejiklian may be hoping that in avoiding these public appearances she can avoid being associated with the more negative elements of a reopening strategy that experts have labelled “extremely risky”: the hospital system is about to experience unprecedented pressure, and many people are expected to die. But the implications for her will be even worse if she hides away during the crisis. Just ask Scott Morrison.

The federal government has faced a number of crises of its own this week, many of which were made far worse than they needed to be by the secrecy that surrounded them. Morrison’s VIP flight to Sydney was made much worse by the stupefying decision to post to social media a (very questionable) photo implying he was separated from his family, while the debate over the unfair distribution of Pfizer between states could have been cleared up very quickly if the government was more forthcoming with its data. The health minister insists there is more to the story of the 2020 Pfizer email chain than “Labor’s” documents are letting on, insisting there is other correspondence that wasn’t released – so why not just release it himself? Some were surprised to see the PM front the media yesterday in light of Hunt’s scandal, especially after his long absences in June and July. For now, it seems, Morrison appears to have learnt that it’s better to show up – and at least pretend to answer some questions – than to stay hidden away. He also appears to have learnt a major lesson from his weekend sojourn to Sydney: a spokesperson for his office has just announced that he has again returned to Sydney, where he will work “under NSW’s stay-at-home conditions”, before returning to Canberra next week using the ACT exemption. Perhaps Berejiklian could also learn something from Morrison’s big lesson of the week: the cover-up often looks worse than the crime.

Listen to The Politics Podcast, with Rachel Withers

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The list

“Consider: We’ve mandated the shuttering of society and 200+ days of home imprisonment for millions, but we haven’t mandated vaccines for hospital workers. This painfully confounds me, doubly so because it’s as if this is the first time we’ve had to think about it. But there’s precedent. Only last year, the Victorian government mandated flu jabs for frontline healthcare workers. In 2016, it introduced the ‘no jab, no play’ law for kids in childcare and kindy.”

“On the morning of September 11, 2001, Omar, now back in Saudi Arabia, watched on television as smoke billowed from the side of the World Trade Center. And then the second plane collided. ‘After hearing an audiotape of my father’s own words taking credit for the attacks, I faced the reality that he was behind the events,’ says Omar. ‘I was finally my own man. I had to live with that.’”

We Know the Devil is a game about shame. Set in the Midwest woodlands in the dregs of summer, the visual novel conjures up a summer Scout camp charged with a dark, otherworldly energy. With its characterful, two-dimensional collage of photographs and sketched character portraits and soundtrack of tinny, distorted synth that waxes and wanes, the game creates an intimate, low-fi sense of dread.” 

Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.


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