Thursday, May 20, 2021

Today by Rachel Withers

The minister for hesitancy
The health minister stirs the pot on vaccine hesitancy

Image of Health Minister Greg Hunt

Health Minister Greg Hunt

How to explain the health minister’s bafflingly unhelpful statement – encouraging vaccine hesitancy – at a press conference this morning? As concerned experts around the country urge older Australians not to delay getting vaccinated, as they call on the government to do something about such complacency, and warn that Australians are “sitting ducks”, Health Minister Greg Hunt gave permission to those choosing to wait for a vaccine other than AstraZeneca – which makes up the bulk of our supply, and is the only one we produce locally – to continue their wait. “We want to encourage everyone over 50 to be vaccinated as early as possible,” he said. “But we’ve been very clear that as supply increases later on in the year, there will be enough mRNA vaccines for every Australian.” In doing so, Hunt legitimised their uncertainty, and signalled to others they might want to wait too. He went directly against what experts are calling for, amid a concerted campaign by the Australian medical community to increase the sense of urgency. And he pushed young Australians further down the queue, holding up the rollout further and potentially letting perfectly good doses go to waste. There are two explanations for what he did: extreme incompetence or extreme malfeasance. After all, pushing back the reopening until next year, keeping Australia in pandemic mode and making it seem like it was slow boomers that stymied the rollout (rather than a slow government) all suits his government’s electoral chances.

Over the past weeks, the government’s COVID-19 strategy has shifted from one that was motivated – at least in part – by outcomes, by health and the economy (though often in the wrong order), to one that is entirely motivated by politics. We are now less than a year out from an election, with May 21, 2022 the latest it can be held, though it will surely be held much sooner. But with the cash-splashing budget having failed to deliver a boost in the polls, the Coalition has had to find a new way to secure its victory. It knows that incumbent governments have been favoured by pandemic conditions, and that polls show voters believe it is the party best placed to manage the pandemic. It also knows that governments that have taken hardline elimination approaches have been richly rewarded. And it wants a piece of the action, even if we’re now at a point where it’s time to start looking beyond our current reality.

The government that in 2020 wanted us to learn to “live with the virus” has become increasingly intent on keeping us stuck in, well, 2020. It enacted a controversial flight ban on India, arguing that it did so to keep Australians safe, even though it made many Australians – three of whom have now died – much less safe, all while refusing to consider substantially increasing quarantine options. It has pushed back against calls for a clearer border reopening timeline, knowing the majority of Australians feel safe in their bubble, rather than helping with the messaging that they’re going to have to give up that feeling eventually. It has talked up “safety”, and lamented last year’s tragic loss of life, slamming those who talk about opening back up as “insensitive”, as if it didn’t demand a reopening timeline from the Victorian government when people were still dying every day. It failed to address vaccine hesitancy, happy to keep rates (and expectations) low, to shift the blame for its own massive failures on supply, and to push the reopening question far off into the post-election future. And now it’s actively contributing to vaccine hesitancy, for reasons that look, increasingly, nakedly political.

For the second time in a week, the government that used “following the health advice” as an excuse for a draconian policy finds itself on the opposite side of the debate to the public health experts. As health minister, Hunt is doing serious damage to the health of the Australian community (though that shouldn’t be surprising: as environment minister, he did active damage to the environment), talking up health and safety while causing unhealthy and unsafe outcomes. If there is an outbreak over winter, while older Australians wait for the mRNA vaccines that aren’t arriving until the end of the year, any unnecessary lockdowns or deaths that result will be the fault of the federal government that encouraged complacency, that gave Australians no reason to rush and then gave them permission to wait, all to suit its election timeline.

“[The government] can’t have it both ways: on one hand trumpet an economic recovery and on the other hand act to keep wage increases at low levels.”

ACTU secretary Sally McManus pushes back against the Morrison government’s submission to the Fair Work Commission expert panel, which urged a “cautious approach” in considering an increase to the minimum wage “given the economic uncertainty”.

“I’ve got another slogan for you: ‘Come to Australia, home of lower taxes.’”


The prime minister who used to manage Tourism Australia puts forward a new slogan for the country. Perhaps he shouldn’t quit (or get sacked from) his day job.

Facing prison for cultural fishing
Many Aboriginal people whose ancestors have fished along the coast for tens of thousands of years have been locked out of the lucrative abalone trade. They’re described as “poachers” and face jail time for selling what they catch. Today, Paul Cleary on the trial of Yuin elder Keith Nye.

The new unemployment rate, down from 5.7 per cent. A dip in the participation rate masks the fact that there are actually 30,600 fewer jobs, in the first month of figures following JobKeeper’s end.

“One Nation appears to have torpedoed the government’s plans to ditch responsible lending laws after the party’s leader Pauline Hanson said it would leave Australians vulnerable to predatory banks.”

Hanson reveals her opposition to the government’s rollback of lending obligations, affecting how banks assess customers for mortgages and loans. Independent crossbench senators Jacqui Lambie and Rex Patrick have also signalled their opposition to the plan.

The list

“Tucci and Firth are two of the more beloved contemporary actors, and their considerable chemistry accounts for a great deal of this film’s success. As he’s aged, Firth has exchanged the angelic beauty of his youth for something tougher and more saturnine. (Tom Ford’s A Single Man, I think, marked the turning point: his entry into rueful middle age.) Bearded, his lips pressed shut, a defence against various conversations he’d prefer not to have, much of Firth’s performance is done with his eyes, via looks that appear either anguished or irritated or warily alert.”

“Even to those with personal or anecdotal experience of it – which, statistically, is pretty much everyone – the sheer scale of the mental illness problem can be as bewildering as the variety of suffering it causes. One in five Australians aged 16 to 85 experiences some form of mental illness every year. In 2017, the last year for which figures are available, more than 3000 Australians took their own lives. In the past decade the number of people presenting to Victorian hospitals with a mental health crisis has increased by 60 per cent … police now attend a mental health incident every 12 minutes.”

“Obsessed with the Romantics since she was a teenager, Faithfull had held on to the album idea for decades but only began to record last year. Her work was interrupted when she contracted COVID-19 in April 2020, growing so sick that obituaries were pre-emptively written and her hospital notes instructed ‘palliative care only’. But, as with the many other times the artist has edged towards death, she lived.”

Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Monthly Today.



The Monthly Today

27 reasons to wonder

Another “win” for Porter in the case that he desperately didn’t want made public

Image of Scott Morrison in a Santa hat

The ghost of Christmas past

Morrison’s attempts at good tidings are little comfort to those who might be in lockdown until the end of the year

Pay as you go

With Morrison, help is gradual and insufficient

Composite image of Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews and NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian. Images via ABC News

A tale of two lockdowns

As some states lift restrictions, the NSW premier is keen to reject comparisons with Victoria

From the front page

27 reasons to wonder

Another “win” for Porter in the case that he desperately didn’t want made public

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Jenny Morrison laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier during the Anzac Day commemorative service on April 25, 2020. Image © Alex Ellinghausen / AAP Image/ Sydney Morning Herald Pool

A rallying crime

For a country that loves invoking the virtues of wartime sacrifice, why have our leaders failed to appeal to the greater good during the pandemic?

Photo of installation view of the exhibition Camille Henrot: Is Today Tomorrow at NGV International. Photo © Tom Ross

Simultaneous persuasions: ‘Camille Henrot: Is Today Tomorrow’

Radical difference and radical proximity are hallmarks of the French-born artist’s NGV exhibition

Cover image of The Airways

Body and soul: ‘The Airways’

Fusing elements of crime fiction and ghost stories, Jennifer Mills’ latest novel is an interrogation of gender, power and consent