Friday, August 20, 2021

Today by Rachel Withers

Premier division
Leaders argue over which of them is “deviating from the national plan”

Image of ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr. Image via ABC News

ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr. Image via ABC News

It’s another national cabinet Friday, which means another round of public comments from leaders about what they intend to discuss, as we wait for the prime minister to come forward and tell us very little about what really went down. In the lead-up to today’s tense meeting, leaders from both state and federal levels have been keen to make known their views on NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s calls for Australia to start “living with the virus”. As Berejiklian and a growing contingent of media supporters attempt to portray other premiers as fearful and unreasonable for still driving at zero COVID cases (while the country is not even half vaccinated), Labor premiers have hit back, suggesting it is Berejiklian who is being unreasonable, and reminding the public that the Doherty Institute’s reopening targets are predicated on low case numbers in the community. ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr, a new-ish player to the game of premier tit-for-tat, has taken the biggest swing at the idea, accusing Berejiklian of putting unvaccinated young people at risk and making decisions for the entire east coast, while WA premier Mark McGowan (an old hand at the game) has accused NSW of “deviating from the national plan”. After weeks of leaking against and criticising the NSW government, suggesting lockdowns, not vaccination, is the way out of this crisis, the federal government appears to have chosen a side, and it should come as no surprise that it’s that of the NSW Liberal state government. Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has been out and about, echoing the “live with COVID” message, saying that it’s a “fallacy” to pretend it can be permanently eliminated. (Barr attempts to make clear that premiers and chief ministers are not arguing that it can be.) Scott Morrison, meanwhile, used a pre-meeting press conference to warn premiers against breaking the “deal” they made with the Australian people to open up when we are 70–80 per cent vaccinated, regardless of case numbers. But who exactly is deviating from the plan here?

The federal government has chosen its position, and it appears to have been driven by its hip pocket, amid fears that the Commonwealth will have to keep forking out for restrictions if they go on beyond the end of this year. Frydenberg, clearly having learnt nothing about the political cost of trying to starve a state in lockdown, has begun warning that the Commonwealth tap will be turned off once those vaccination reopening quotas are met, with the treasurer lining up a range of media interviews to spruik the end of the age of intervention (again). “The state premiers should have no expectation that our Commonwealth assistance will continue in the scale that it has been to date,” he told Today. “We can’t live in lockdown forever.”

Morrison, who until very recently was hedging his bets on the NSW lockdown, insisting the state needed to focus on driving case numbers down before opening up, instead turned his ire at the Labor-led states, implying they were betraying the people of Australia by retaining their right to lockdown (despite the “plan” the premiers agreed to certainly allowing for it). “The national plan is a deal that says when we achieve those marks of 70 per cent and 80 per cent there will be changes,” he said. “The premiers and chief ministers have signed up to that plan and, they haven’t signed up with me, they’ve signed up with the Australian people.”

With the short-lived consensus around the Doherty Institute reopening plan having disintegrated, both sides are keen to portray the other as deviating from what was obviously not a particularly well agreed upon plan to begin with. Is it the NSW premier that has abandoned course, in losing control of an outbreak and forfeiting Australia’s hard-to-regain low case numbers? Or is it the Labor premiers, who are now refusing to guarantee freedom of interstate movement, even at the agreed-upon vaccination threshold? (The Liberal premier of Tasmania is also implicated, if the state’s peak tourism body gets its way.) Was there ever any real agreement from state and federal leaders that cases would be kept manageably low, something experts who helped develop the modelling say it is built around? Or was the “national deal”, as Morrison now insists, that states would unlock borders at 80 per cent, regardless of the case numbers? It seems unlikely, knowing the cautious, health-conscious state premiers, that such an agreement was struck (and we’re not likely to know until we finally start seeing some minutes out of national cabinet). But the prime minister, as usual, is going to make sure as much blame as possible for the fact that we clearly won’t be living restriction-free come Christmas falls onto other people’s shoulders.

“Australia has stepped up before in response to significant humanitarian crises, and I urge your government to be generous.”

Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference president Mark Coleridge has written to the PM, urging him to provide at least 20,000 humanitarian places for Afghans.

“The critics should look at the scoreboard because since 2005 we’ve reduced our emissions by 20 per cent.”

Energy Minister Angus Taylor hits back at growing international pressure for Australia to increase its emissions-reduction targets, urging people to look backwards instead of forwards.

Scott Morrison is late to the rescue
This week the federal government was caught out without a clear plan on two of the biggest crises facing the world right now: the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Today, Paul Bongiorno.


The number of Australian citizens and Afghan visa holders airlifted from Kabul to the UAE last night, bringing Australia’s total number of evacuees to 162.

“NSW will make coronavirus vaccinations mandatory for all health workers, with a proposal to require first doses by September 30.”

NSW will require compulsory vaccination for healthcare workers, after reaching an agreement with the state’s peak medical groups. The state has recorded coronavirus transmission in a hospital every day for the past two weeks.

The list

“St. Vincent is a guarded artist, known for difficult interviews. She disavows diaristic interpretation or politicisation of her work, often frustrating critics who struggle to find a hook to their interview. She goes against the culture’s demands of current artists, where their art must react to or comment on sociopolitical issues, and provide a digestible through-line for press … Instead of rushing to perform authenticity, The Nowhere Inn’s only insight into St. Vincent is that she’s talented, funny and self-aware, thus becoming the best kind of PR for an artist who hates PR.”

“Am I the only critic immune to the charms of Lorde? … Like any number of current pop starlets, Lorde sings as if she can’t quite be bothered to commit to an emotion – any emotion – which gives her vocal tone an odd blend of self-satisfaction and vacancy. Her music is a perfectly inoffensive and forgettable mixture of sparse, programmed rhythm tracks and vaguely melancholic synthesisers. She sounds like Dido (remember Dido?), but in air quotes, as if she knows that you know that she knows that straightforward pop music is something she’s a cut above.”

“After my second application was rejected, I decided to gesture towards the emotional, attaching a brutally clinical note describing my anxiety, insomnia and depression. J wasn’t lying, but he did such a good job it made me wonder how untethered I have become. For what it’s worth, after this addition, my application was approved.” 

Enter to win

Enter the draw for a chance to win access to an exclusive Zoom talk with Richard Bell featuring selected key works from his exhibition Richard Bell: You Can Go Now at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia. Richard will be live and in conversation with Clothilde Bullen, MCA Senior Curator, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Collections and Exhibitions, as they talk about this unique and challenging exhibition.

In this major survey, Richard Bell uses humour, satire and wordplay to address issues of representation, place, identity politics and the perceptions of Aboriginal art within a postcolonial history and framework.

The exhibition draws together nearly 40 artworks created across a range of mediums, including painting, installation and video, from major public and private collections, as well as key early works from Bell’s own collection.

Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Monthly Today.



The Monthly Today

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