The Politics    Thursday, August 12, 2021

The woman who failed Australia

By Rachel Withers

Image of AFR magazine cover featuring NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian, with text reading “The woman who saved Australia” (and “saved” crossed out)
NSW’s decision to abandon the national plan has implications for all of us

The nation’s capital will enter a seven-day lockdown from 5pm, after recording its first case of community transmission in 14 months, which authorities suspect is linked to the NSW outbreak. (They have ruled out a connection with federal parliament, though it’s not clear what this will mean for the parliamentary sitting calendar.) Canberra isn’t the only one. Over the past few days, regional lockdowns have been announced in various parts of NSW as further leaks spring from greater Sydney. Eight more communities were locked down last night, with concerns for the predominantly unvaccinated Indigenous communities in western NSW, while the COVID-positive man who travelled to the vaccine-hesitant Byron Bay area has raised serious fears for Australia’s recovery. Victorians, who yesterday had their lockdown extended, have learnt that two women from Sydney managed to fly to Melbourne without proper permits, and both have since tested positive (in quarantine, thankfully). NSW recorded 345 cases, along with two deaths, including one fully vaccinated man, and data journalist Juliette O’Brien believes cases might be about to “explode” in the state if nothing changes. People in western Sydney are at breaking point. New Zealand officials, who this morning announced a reopening plan, have labelled NSW “a disaster”, and won’t commit to running the trans-Tasman bubble on a state-by-state basis again. It’s a strange day indeed, then, for the Australian Financial Review to be reigniting its embarrassing “woman who saved Australia” rhetoric, with an editorial declaring that NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian is leading Australia out of the “gilded cage” and bravely guiding the nation away from its fixation with COVID-zero. The editorial references the AFR magazine’s April cover, while painting Berejiklian’s undeniable stuff-up as a good thing, because it’s forcing us all to confront the next stage of the pandemic – never mind that it’s well before we are vaccinated, with much suffering and death to ensue. The AFR needs to read the room. Berejiklian may have once been the leader who boldly kept Australia open, but she’s now the leader brazenly undoing much of its hard work. 

There has been a great deal of debate regarding the NSW government’s decision to abandon COVID-zero and the Doherty Institute targets, with state authorities making promises each day about the small freedoms that will be allowed at various vaccination rates. The state government’s strategy – putting its head down and vaccinating its way out, while remaining unwilling to consider additional measures such as a “circuit breaker” – is in many ways a logical, utilitarian one, at least for the people of Sydney. But Berejiklian’s unilateral decision to abandon the national plan (to chart a “radically different” course, as another AFR op-ed puts it today) has clear implications for the rest of the nation, as the last few days have proven. There is good reason for other state leaders to demand Berejiklian consult them before going it alone, and not just because of concerns for the people of Sydney, in particular western Sydney. The Berejiklian government has unilaterally decided to end COVID-zero early for us all, but it is Australians far from her jurisdiction who are likely to suffer the consequences over the next few months, with rolling lockdowns and additional cases. Is this what the AFR was referring to in its sycophantic new editorial about its favourite premier leading the way?

Of course, the sacred COVID-zero does have to be abandoned eventually if we are to open up under the Doherty Institute plan, and, as the AFR correctly argues, this is something the whole nation needs to wrap its head around. But we’re nowhere near that point yet. Berejiklian’s choice to push through this outbreak will mean we will likely go into the next phase of reopening in a far weaker position that we could have, and potentially we will never get back to having sustainable levels of the virus – something that might have been an important part of managing it in Phases C and D (though those phases are not yet modelled). The imperative may be especially strong now that we are seeing fully vaccinated people dying from COVID. It’s not clear yet what Australia will require in the next phases. But in her insistence that getting to 6 million vaccine doses will “give us more options” come the end of August, Berejiklian is giving the nation fewer options for the future. For the AFR to act like this incompetence-led change of plan is an act of great leadership – while throwing pot shots at “laggards” like Western Australia – is risible.

Why did the business-driven newspaper choose today to run yet another editorial about Berejiklian’s stellar leadership? The editors couldn’t have known that her Sydney-focused strategy was about to send the nation’s capital into lockdown, of course, but they had plenty of other examples to look at, with the Sydney outbreak having caused lockdowns in several regional areas of NSW over the past 48 hours. Perhaps the AFR feels it must stand by Berejiklian, having been one of the most outspoken cheerleaders for her staying-open-at-all-costs mentality (second only to the prime minister, who now distances himself from that approach). Or perhaps it appreciates her willingness to prioritise business and real estate over health, even now. But the attempt to spin the damage she has done to the national standing as leading the way out is an insult to every Australian now set to spend an unknown number of weeks – unnecessarily – indoors.

“The matter is now in the hands of the immigration minister and he … is able at any point in time to grant a visa, including a visa that would allow the family to return to and live in Biloela.”

Biloela family lawyer Carina Ford says Immigration Minister Alex Hawke can still lift a bar on Tharnicaa Murugappan making a visa request, after the High Court rejected an application to hear an appeal.

“When you’ve got a thin margin, don’t start giving reasons for a byelection.”

Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce admits that the government’s majority is an important consideration in its light touch with backbencher George Christensen, noting that “prodding the bear” will only make the situation worse for the government.

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The amount by which Australia should cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, according to a senior US climate official. This is higher than the 45 per cent target that Labor took to the last election and has since abandoned.

“Pressure is mounting on the Morrison government to provide a federal insurance guarantee to the live performance sector, with the Greens preparing to introduce a private member’s bill in the Senate.”

There are renewed calls for a government-backed insurance scheme to protect Australia’s devastated live entertainment sector, amid rolling lockdowns across the country. The Greens’ bill is unlikely to succeed, even with support from Labor in the Senate.

The list

“Seligman takes care to ground the action in exacting particulars of culture and class. As its title suggests, this is an ethnological study of a particular milieu, and every element feels finely judged and thoroughly lived-in. The clothes, the food, the decor. The constant, weary bickering between Danielle’s parents. The passive-aggressive subtext underlining every exchange. The film’s one unresolved ambiguity is perhaps its best joke: neither Danielle nor the viewer ever quite manage to work out exactly who it is that’s died.”

“The recent emergence of China as an economic and military superpower rivalling the United States is one of the most significant and challenging developments of the present era. Former prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull discuss some of the most critical questions posed for Australia and the world by China’s rapid rise, with La Trobe Asia executive director Dr Bec Strating as host.”

“When Dr Alison Crowther looks at how archaeology has transformed over the past century, she sees a discipline of the past gearing up to tackle the problems of the future. ‘We’re no longer treasure hunters,’ the University of Queensland archaeologist says, ‘looking for lost cities and gold masks and Tutankhamun’s riches.’ Instead, archaeology’s long-term view of human history can provide a degree of historical perspective and help us understand how we arrived at the present. It may even equip us with the knowledge to move further into the Anthropocene, the era in which humans have become shaping forces of nature, dominating the Earth’s systems on unprecedented scales.” 

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Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.


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