The buck is out the window

Last week I could have my hair styled but I couldn’t get a kidney transplant. I could take my kids to school but not to church. I could invite nine mates to a funeral but only four to a wedding. I could attend a boot camp but I could not meet my friends in a park. I was told to vote in local elections if I lived in Queensland but not in New South Wales. 

Well, actually I couldn’t do any of the above even if I wanted to – I am in isolation. But I am not considered ill and I will not be tested. Indeed, I can order cocktails delivered to my door. 

And I am expected to work. All workers are essential — until they are not, until Scott Morrison bans or restricts some occupations and the previously essential workers are sent off to join the queues at Cantrelink where they will social distance – or not.  

It was beyond confusion, beyond parody. And when journalists tried to make sense of the chaos, a snarly Morrison slapped them down: any attempt of interrogation was not helpful, verging on unpatriotic, even unAustralian. Shut up and do what you’re told. 

Clearly this situation could not go on, but it did. In his so-called National Cabinet Morrison bullied the State Premiers to yet again postpone the inevitable.  

Well before the end of the week it was clear that the government was reluctantly moving to impose a near total lockdown of the kind already in place in many other countries. The premiers may have disagreed about the urgency, but all accepted it was going to happen. 

So did business: any resistance was minimal, the real debate was about who would be compensated and by how much.

And the premiers of the biggest states, Liberal Gladys Berejiklian in New South Wales and Daniel Andrews in Victoria have made it clear that they are preparing to move soon even if Morrison will not. The National Cabinet was supposed to produce national policy, but Morrison is now extolling the idea that state differences are actually a good thing. Talk about making a virtue out of necessity!

The schools were spending more effort on home learning than supervising their dwindling numbers in the classrooms: few believed that schools would reopen after the impending holidays. The overall mood was that something close to total lockdown was only a matter of time so we might as well get on with it. 

But Morrison was determined to string out the phony war for as long as possible, perhaps because he was all too aware that the cost of a lockout will be horrendous, in economic, social, and crucially political terms. 

Unemployment will soar, certainly to over ten percent with some estimates reaching 15 per cent – two million Australians out of work. This is not just recession – it is getting into serious depression territory and it will not be over in six months, as Morrison previously optimistically predicted. 

The cost to Treasury will be enormous in lost tax revenue and increased welfare payments, even without the third and subsequent stimulus packages that will be required. There will be no talk of surpluses in the foreseeable future. But there is no real choice, in spite of Morrison’s insistence that we must act to protect both health and the economy – lockdown is the only serious idea on the table if we are to save hundreds, perhaps thousands, of lives. 

And the pain will be immense and long-lasting. Very little of this will be Morrison’s fault: the worst he can validly be accused of is procrastination and dithering, and given that those have characterised his entire time as Prime Minister, the electorate can hardly claim to be shocked. 

But his will be the hand that signs the paper, that authorises the lockdown and the misery to follow. He is the officer on watch, and a lot of voters will not forgive him: they will remember their leader’s burden, the buck stops here. Morrison will be remembered as the Prime Minster who dumped them in the mire, just as the equally innocent Jimmy Scullin was in the Great Depression. 

ScoMo’s legacy will be far darker than that of Kevin Rudd, who blew the budget to manage the Global Financial Crisis, or Paul Keating, who oversaw the recession we had to have. In time, Morrison may be condoned – he may even win another election, like Keating did in 1993, with the aid of John Hewson’s GST. But he will not be forgotten, and it will not be the epitaph he craves.

So he is preparing to spread the blame. For no apparent reason he has  convened what he calls the National COVID-19 Co-ordinatiion Commission to solve problems. It was picked by him alone, mainly consisting of business cronies with a couple of supportive bureaucrats, none of whom have any known expertise in managing a pandemic. Ironically the only one who might have is the token lefty, Greg Combet, who was a minister during Rudd’s bail out in the GFC. But he will be hopelessly outnumbered by the corporate free-enterprise number crunchers. 

And the greatest irony of all is that the people elected to do the job – the members of the Federal Parliament – have been sidelined for the duration. Barbers are considered essential, but the MPs are considered redundant in a way they have never been, not during wars, depressions and previous pandemics.

Naturally there is resistance, and not just from the Labor Party and its allies. And no reasonable justification for the extraordinary move has been advanced – other parliaments continue to sit around the nation and indeed around he world. 

There should be outrage, a demand that our representatives are brought back to do their job. But a shell-shocked, confused and frightened populace seems to be copping it as part of the ongoing madness as they assured by the partisan commentariat that Morrison knows what he is doing — that unity is vital, we must all stick together and that we should be ready to accept sacrifices in the name of – well, what? 

Morrison tells us that our health, our immediate physical survival, is not the overwhelming priority; preserving the economy is at least equally important. So like some businesses, democracy must be placed in hibernation for the duration, and just perhaps preserving his political dominance might also have something to do with it. Whatever it takes. 

Mungo MacCallum

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