The Politics    Monday, August 23, 2021

All part of the plan

By Rachel Withers

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison in Question Time today. Image via ABC News

Prime Minister Scott Morrison in Question Time today. Image via ABC News

Will we ever see the Doherty Institute advice so central to Morrison’s reopening strategy?

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has continued to harden his position of living with COVID-19 irrespective of case numbers, after on Friday throwing his weight behind the NSW government’s reopening plans. Over the weekend, Morrison began insisting that new, secret Doherty Institute advice said it doesn’t matter at what level of cases the nation reopens, despite the modelling being premised on them being low. At the urging of his own MPs, Morrison has been campaigning against states reserving the right to use border restrictions and lockdowns at the 70 or 80 per cent adult vaccination rates, arguing Australia has to “move forward” and out of the “cave” (a change from the “doona” of 2020). “It is always darkest before the dawn,” he said in today’s pained attempts at motivational speaking – with the entire transcript dutifully published by The Australian. “But the dawn is not far away. And we are working towards that dawn and we are hastening towards the dawn.” Despite Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s earlier threats, Morrison refused to say whether federal financial support for those living under lockdown would cease at the 70–80 per cent mark, but said it “puzzled” him why states would choose to continue with them, even though his revered reopening plan has always allowed for them where necessary. Australians “must adjust our mindset” to living with COVID-19, he said – something one might learn directly from the PM, who has changed his mind on living with it several times throughout the pandemic. But does he have an actual plan for doing so, or is the PM leaving it to the states again? Is he ready for the political consequences of unvaccinated kids falling ill by the thousands and an unknown number of Australians suffering long-term effects from COVID-19, or is this, like his earlier resistance to lockdowns, more short-termism? And will we ever see the changed advice that apparently proves this is all part of the plan?

Today’s sparse, socially distanced Question Time – which featured perspex screens, and only one MP per bench – opened with a series of sombre motions on the situation in Afghanistan, with Labor attempting to call out the government on its failure to evacuate Australian citizens and Afghans who had supported Australia during the war. (Debate on the topic was adjourned, with many an absent minister having failed to appear for Question Time virtually.) It wasn’t long before debate turned to issues closer to home, with a dixer giving the PM a chance to expound upon “the plan” and the need to move away from lockdowns. Labor leader Anthony Albanese was keen to note that Morrison has changed his position on lockdowns several times in recent months, asking how Australians could have confidence that this one was going to stick. Morrison acknowledged his changing response, claiming that the government has always “sought to adjust our responses to deal with the information that is in front of us”, before going on to accuse the Opposition of attempting to hinder the national plan.

Further requests from Albanese for the PM to release the updated Doherty Institute advice, on which his new position is based, saw more accusations that Labor was seeking to “undermine” the plan. Morrison claimed the modelling had already been released in full, before going on to say that this all-important new advice was given verbally, raising serious questions as to whether the Doherty Institute is being used for political purposes. Morrison then abruptly ended Question Time, despite having promised the Opposition it would go on past the usual time to make up for the opening motions, with Albanese rising to his feet to call out the government’s lack of transparency.

Morrison has returned forcefully to his original “live with COVID” stance, apparently eager to shake off any blame for the outbreak that put the national plan in jeopardy (and people do blame him). He has spent the past few days pushing hard against Labor premiers’ cries that this isn’t the plan they agreed to, insisting publicly and privately that he has special advice saying it’s fine to go ahead and start opening up anyway, and claiming that anyone who doesn’t go along with it is living in fear. And now we’re not allowed to even see this advice. It’s looking disturbingly possible that the prime minister is misrepresenting the Doherty Institute’s recommendations in order to achieve his preferred political outcomes, with no real idea about what it will mean for the nation – particularly for its children, its vulnerable adults and its already strained ICU capacity.

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Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.


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