The Politics    Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Role reversal

By Rachel Withers

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Image via Facebook

Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Image via Facebook

What ever happened to Scott “live with the virus” Morrison?

Virgin Airlines chief executive Jayne Hrdlicka could have chosen her words a little more carefully when she told a business lunch yesterday that Australia’s borders should reopen sooner than the middle of next year, even though “some people may die” (though it is technically what many health experts are saying, amid pre-emptive efforts to convince Australians to let go of their extreme aversion to having any COVID-19 in the community). Hrdlicka’s comments have today been condemned by figures across the political spectrum, from Greens senator and disability advocate Jordon Steele-John (“How many disabled people is it acceptable to have die?” he asked on ABC News Breakfast) to NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian (“No death is acceptable,” she said, when pressed on the comments), right through to Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who labelled the words “insensitive”. “I find it very difficult to have any truck of what was said there,” he said, also mentioning the “terrible tragedy” that was the 910 Australian lives lost to date. “I won’t take risks with Aussies’ lives” the PM added, defending his cautious reopening and praising the border closure that “so far has avoided the loss of 30,000 lives”. Morrison’s rebuke of Hrdlicka is a little hard to swallow. Isn’t this the prime minister who spent much of last year asking us to learn to “live with the virus”? 

The Coalition has changed its tune on many things now that it’s politically convenient. The federal government, which used to decry the state governments for their cautious approaches on borders and lockdowns, has become extremely risk-averse, unwilling to even commit to a vaccination rate at which international borders might reopen. Morrison speaks sanctimoniously about the importance of putting lives over the economy – as if he didn’t used to attack those Labor premiers who did just that. This, after all, is the prime minister who told us to go to the footy, as desperate premiers pushed for lockdowns. It’s the prime minister who spent much of the tail end of Victoria’s lockdown trying to bully the state into fast-tracking its reopening. “It’s time,” the PM said in October, growing increasingly aggressive towards the state government (for insisting on elimination) as the lockdown went on. 

This is the prime minister who, almost the whole way through this crisis, has talked of “living alongside the virus”. In July 2020, he praised New South Wales, arguing that “the best protection against the virus is to live with the virus, to live alongside the virus and to open up your economy”. “We’ve gotta live with the virus,” he told Triple M in August 2020. “The idea that you just shut everything down and put all the borders up, that is no way to live with this.” Australians, he told Sky News in September 2020, must “live alongside the virus”, and not let it “dictate how we should live”. In March this year, he declared that “the risk has changed”, urging states to accept a new “risk framework” that prioritised the economy. “It’s not just about health because the health risk is diminished,” he told an AFR business summit.

Morrison wanted Australians to learn to “live with the virus” at a time when doing so definitely would have meant some loss of life, when public health experts said it was too early, or akin to “giving up”. But now that experts (and extremely blunt airline CEOs) are saying it’s time to start thinking about living alongside it, once we’re all vaccinated, Morrison wants to keep Australians afraid, talking about the threat of the pandemic “raging” and “morphing” around the world. So what’s changed? There’s no doubt it has something to do with the upcoming federal election, with recent state elections all having rewarded governments that took hardline stances on keeping the virus out of their communities. It’s clear that Australians are very nervous about reopening, with yet another poll today backing a cautious approach to the closed international border

Scott Morrison can read the public mood, and is more than willing to lean into it – even if it means leaving Australians afraid of reopening for years to come.

Listen to The Politics Podcast, with Rachel Withers

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Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.


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