The Politics    Friday, May 28, 2021

Playing politics?

By Rachel Withers

Image of Anthony Albanese

Via Twitter

It’s not wrong to call out what went wrong

There is a tendency among conservatives, whenever a disaster occurs that can be linked to their policies, to respond to those who demand they take some responsibility by accusing them of “playing politics”. It happens in Australia over bushfires and climate change, and in the United States over mass shootings and gun control, and over the past 24 hours we’ve seen it happen here over Victoria’s lockdown, with conservatives slamming Labor for using the avoidable outbreak to reiterate calls for national quarantine facilities and a more urgent vaccination program. 3AW’s Neil Mitchell, a man who regularly plays politics with COVID-19, has today called for Victorian Acting Premier James Merlino to “drop the politics”, after Merlino suggested “we would not be here today” if the Commonwealth had done its job. (Mitchell saw no irony in going on to suggest that we need to crack on with vaccines and purpose-built quarantine, no matter who was at fault.) The AFR’s Phil Coorey, after noting that the federal government bears responsibility, immediately turned and accused Labor of blaming Prime Minister Scott Morrison because it needed “a win and a distraction from its own internals”. Liberal MP Dave Sharma did the same, tweeting that Labor leader Anthony Albanese was “exploit[ing] bad news ... for political gain”, labelling it “deeply unedifying”. Morrison has been doing it for weeks, berating the Opposition – which has until this year acted in a reasonably bipartisan manner – for fighting the government (or questioning its slush funds), while he focuses on fighting the virus. It’s incredibly rich coming from these figures, especially when playing politics is exactly what they are doing.

It’s also hideously hypocritical, as conservative politicians and media once again launch an “Andrews government” pile-on (specifically targeting Premier Daniel Andrews, despite the fact that he is on leave). The Australian is running a major attack piece, arguing that Melbourne resembles a “poorly run police state” and labelling Victoria’s contact tracing and hotel quarantine a shambles, while on Sky News, Peta Credlin suggested there were “more than enough baseball bats for both Albo and Andrews to cop a whack”, saying that yesterday should have been the day the Victorian government “finally died of shame” (when will conservatives retire that awful phrase?). The Victorian Liberals are going hard after the state government, as is their wont, with shadow treasurer Louise Staley this afternoon accusing Labor of “turn[ing] its back on Victorian businesses” (never mind that the state government is preparing to announce a $200m support package for businesses, while the federal government refuses to step in). Federal minister Jane Hume has slammed Victoria’s “hopelessly inadequate” contact tracing system, while Liberal MP Gladys Liu must have “missed the memo” about making this a “Team Australia” moment, as Labor MP Tim Watts put it, as she attacked the state in parliament yesterday.

Let’s get one thing straight: all sides are “playing politics” here, whether Labor or Liberal (or Green), state or federal, which makes today’s attempts to slander Labor for doing so exceedingly disingenuous. Victorian lockdowns – more frequent and triggering than other state’s lockdowns – are also, for a range of reasons, more political, with Australia’s biggest Labor government facing criticism from not just its own Opposition, but also from the federal Liberal government and the national media. Everyone is angry that this lockdown has occurred, and everyone is keen to pin it on the other side. The problem is, not everyone is equally keen on working out what went wrong. What counts is how constructive the criticism is.

There’s no doubt all sides are acting politically during this painful, terrifying Victorian outbreak, which leaked from hotel quarantine in another state, and hit Victoria especially hard due to bad luck and an unfortunate super-spreader. But only one side appears to genuinely care about preventing it from happening again. While the Victorian government has in the past apologised for its mistakes and done everything it can to fix them (to the point of being described as the “gold standard” in contact tracing and hotel quarantine by experts), the federal government has dug in, refusing to take responsibility, to improve its vaccine communication or incentives, or to pick up the slack on dedicated quarantine facilities that experts say would limit the risk. Mitchell today criticised the Victorian government for things that it was already doing, such as adding contract tracing staff (though it’s been subtly criticised for that, too), or things that are actually federal responsibilities, such as building quarantine facilities; Credlin suggested baseball bats. The federal Opposition, meanwhile, has been accused of politicising a lockdown for suggesting, as it has for months, that we finally overhaul a system that has allowed outbreak after outbreak across the country.

Politics is what politicians do, but there are two very different types of politics going on right now. The federal Opposition is using politics to demand the government take responsibility, do its job, and limit the chance that what has happened to Victoria happens again, as more and more Australians realise the status quo isn’t working. The federal government is using politics to eschew responsibility, shift blame and pretend it is above politics entirely.

Listen to The Politics Podcast, with Rachel Withers

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The list

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Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.


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