John Hewson

The federal government is exaggerating its Covid success, but for many people great uncertainty remains.

The federal government has made much of achieving “Covid normal” by Christmas  but what of the New Year?

The aim has been high level, to contain the virus within our shores, open the domestic borders and establish the basis of economic and social recovery from the most challenging times since the Great Depression.

It is certainly claiming to have achieved this – indeed, is now exaggerating this success.

While the government is beginning to wallow in some measures of its achievements, to many others it is an illusion – they feel that they have been left behind, with the prospect that 2021 will be an even more difficult and challenging year.

What does this festive season hold for the residents of bushfire-affected areas – still with firefighting water shortages, many still living in tents and caravans, with damaged properties and lost stock?

What does it hold for those thousands of Australian still stuck overseas? What does it hold for those who can’t get a job, or are not confident of keeping the one they have?

What does it hold for those unemployed, and particularly those likely to be unemployed for even years to come, when they have no idea of the likely level of support from JobSeeker?

What does it hold for those who have a job, but can’t see any significant increase in their wages in the next several years, while costs of living rocket on?

Although JobKeeper was supposed to preserve the relationship between employers and employees and secure jobs, why is government now introducing so-called IR reform that will allow employers to weaken the “better off overall test”, securing workers at lower pay?

What does it hold for the many small businesses that have only hung on because insolvency and bankruptcy rules have been relaxed?

Or for those households and businesses that have been able to defer mortgage, other debt and rent payments?

What about all those who were just “left to struggle”, ineligible for JobKeeper – more than a million casual, part-time workers, migrant and itinerant workers?

Don’t forget the billions committed by Morrison’s headline announcements yet to flow to those sectors in identified “need” – not to mention those key sectors such as universities (big employers and exporters) that have been deliberately neglected, and many affected by the fires.

Finally, what recovery strategy? Most initiatives are still designated as temporary and reversible.

There is no longer-term strategic thinking to achieve a sustainable recovery.

The government’s “vision” seems to be confined to just get back to where we were at the end of 2019, pre-Covid, rocking as few boats as possible to ensure re-election at an early election probably before the end of next year.

We have only been able to contain the virus by keeping our international border closed – by taking advantage of our isolation as an island – while the virus is raging in many parts of the world, especially in countries important to us such as the US and Europe.

Obviously, there is real concern about our capacity to maintain effective quarantine, as recent glitches indicate, especially when the Morrison government ducks its ultimate responsibility for heading the line of command.

Even with the deployment of an effective vaccine globally, quarantine will still be determinant.

The government puts great store by the recent significant improvements in business and consumer confidence, however they are still a long way from that translating into significant and sustainable consumer and business spending.

Sure, employment is picking up as JobKeeper is phasing down, but more part than full-time, with the crunch here yet to come.

It is certainly not clear that the transition from government support of jobs, to the private sector creating jobs, will be as smooth as assumed.

It is more important than ever that Morrison’s statements and claims are scrutinised.

Morrison, like Trump is becoming a master of misinformation and the exaggerated claim.

He allows little possibility for effective scrutiny at press conferences or in the parliament.

In true marketing style, he relies heavily on the regular BIG announcements, to move on the next day to another subject, at another location. The strategy is “catch me if you can”.

Perhaps our biggest danger now is complacency – too fast a relaxation of social distancing, rushing to enjoy the Christmas holidays virtually unconstrained.

But at what cost for 2021?

John Hewson is a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU, and a former Liberal opposition leader.

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