Scott Morrison is known as a great admirer of Teddy Roosevelt, the 26th president of the United States. But Morrison channelled the spirit of the other Roosevelt, Franklin Delano, when he strode back into the prime minister’s courtyard on Friday after his brief spell in quarantine, and declared there was a “new deal”.
Here was Australia’s plan for a plan – in this case, a pathway out of Covid-19. Four phases, with supplementary technocratic dot points. Four phases and technocratic dot points might sound like a gratuitous put-down, so let me be clear.
It is very important, given the increasing inter-jurisdictional fractiousness (and even without that) to have a plan that leaders in the federation can agree on and execute. Big tick – assuming it actually happens. (More of that in a bit.)
Persisting with the pluses, if we can ignore that teeth-clenching clunk of Morrison morphing from Teddy R to FDR for marketing purposes, and cast our eyes about for substance, some exists. As well as the phases and the dot points, there will be a body of work from the Doherty Institute. This work will form the evidence base to pilot Australia out of the pandemic and towards whatever constitutes Covid-normal.
You can feel my “but” coming, can’t you?
Here it is.
The central problem with Morrison’s “new deal” is it’s the old deal.
Friday’s “new deal”, boiled down to the very essence, is the quicker we all get vaccinated, the quicker we get out of this; less an insight than a statement of the bleeding obvious.
We already know what to do to push past the pandemic. That’s not rocket science.
What has been lacking is not the announcement, but the tools to execute it.
So when the prime minister says his plan is vaccinations, and the quicker the better, we encounter two practical problems straight up.
One. Australia doesn’t have enough available vaccines, because the government didn’t hedge against the risks of AstraZeneca being problematic, and we weren’t fast or aggressive enough when the US and the UK were racing to grab vaccine supply to counter the uncontrolled pandemic raging within their borders.
Perhaps history will show the blame for that can be sheeted home to Australia’s health advisers being too sluggish. But at the end of the day, elected governments are the people responsible for these critical decisions, and as the finance minister, Simon Birmingham, acknowledged with commendable frankness on Thursday, when it comes to Pfizer supplies, Australia is currently at the back of the queue.
Two. Governments have compounded the lack of supply problem by supercharging vaccine hesitancy at various points.
Even before Queensland absolutely dug in its heels this week about the risks of giving AstraZeneca jabs to people under the age of 40, the Morrison government was telling people getting vaccinated wasn’t a “race”.
Morrison and the ministry was too intent on indulging in pre-emptive self-congratulation, and on promulgating the notion of Australian exceptionalism. The government’s message was getting jabbed wasn’t a race because things were hunky-dory in Australia – the implication being, aren’t you lucky to have us and not Boris Johnson or Donald Trump? Be grateful.
Well, things were hunky-dory right up until they weren’t – an eventuality easily foreseen, given the virus was developing variants, it was winter in Australia, and only a tiny proportion of the population was fully vaccinated.
Vaccinating the population has always been a race, and it remains a race. Morrison was the clearest he’s been on that point on Friday when he said: “If you get vaccinated, you get to change how we live as a country. You get to change how you live in Australia.” Too right.
But standing in a courtyard unfurling a “new deal” on a Friday after a national cabinet meeting does not erase the memories of the vaccination program not being a race – because that was the official line literally five minutes ago.
Given the fractious week in the federation, Morrison will doubtless be glad to have emerged on Friday with national cabinet sign-off for his transit map to Covid-normal.
Morrison got his sign-off, but a critical potential flash point remains.
I mentioned the Doherty Institute work a minute ago. Basically these guys will come up with a number: the percentage of the population that needs to be vaccinated before Australia can get serious about returning to normal.
Finding that number sounds clinical – a task for academics with an abacus.
But this will be a threshold with massive political implications, which is why some of the premiers have already been front-running the number.
Gladys Berejiklian said this week about 80% of the population would need to be vaccinated before Covid-normal was a reality in Australia. Berejiklian’s number might sound right intuitively. But a percentage of the Australian population will dig in and refuse to be vaccinated, even when the opportunity finally presents. It’s going to be hard to achieve very high vaccination rates. Will Australia ever reach 80%? At this point, that is moot.
Also moot: whether the nine leaders of the federation, all with demonstrably different risk tolerances, will ultimately manage to agree on a national number.
It helps to think of this Doherty number not as some abstract percentage, but as a transit point between crisis and recovery.
Up until now, the political appetite for risk in Australia has been very low. But once we set a population vaccination threshold, Australia pivots from Covid being a crisis justifying massive public health interventions to something approximating seasonal flu. We move from governments working around the clock to protect lives and livelihoods to people once again fending for themselves. Quite the gear change.
Morrison insisted on Friday that this Doherty-engineered Covid-safe threshold would be a matter of science, not a “political deal” or a politician’s best guess.
A noble sentiment of course.
But when political leaders are (correctly) held accountable for expert advice, it is always a matter of politics.