One of the three phrases in Scott Morrison’s 2019 federal re-election slogan was “keeping Australians safe”. The situation today shows just how big a lie that was: almost everything that the Coalition needed to do to keep people safe during the pandemic it has either refused to do because it opposed public health measures, or it has done only after foot dragging or pragmatic shifting against its own better judgement.
How on Earth can it be that aged-care residents have not been fully vaccinated, when we know that they die in the greatest numbers during a COVID-19 outbreak? Opposition leader Anthony Albanese raised in Question Time yesterday that only 15 percent of aged-care workers have been inoculated. How can that have been allowed to happen when they are the first point of transmission into the aged-care centres? Why are almost 5 percent of aged-care workers in private centres, according to the federal health minister, still working across more than one site, increasing the risk of an outbreak spreading to new sites?
Why, when there have been regular breaches in the city-based hotel quarantine systems—breaches that result in crippling lockdowns to protect public health—are there no built-for-purpose federal quarantine facilities to minimise the risk of transmission? Why, when there is a brewing social crisis in Victoria—as the state shuts down again to protect the entire country—is Canberra reluctant to offer financial support?
The situation is gobsmacking. How can it be explained?
Financial cost can be ruled out as the primary driver of the federal government’s inaction. Treasurer Josh Frydenberg proved last year, and again in this year’s budget, that when under pressure and in exceptional circumstances he is prepared to spend. The evidence from around the world also makes clear that eradicating the virus quickly is in fact the best thing for the Liberal Party’s much-loved capitalist economic system.
A pathetic desire to win a popularity contest can be ruled out as well. The federal government would no doubt be more popular, rather than less, were it to have taken the initiative and established safe quarantine facilities outside of the major cities. It would be more popular if it got the vaccine rollout right. And, clearly, being the bearer of good economic news in the form of JobKeeper, JobSeeker and emergency payments to those in lockdown was immensely popular last year and would be again.
Incompetence can’t be totally ruled out. But the government has shown competence in other areas—the ability to deny refugees their right to claim asylum, for example, by preventing maritime arrivals and creating a system of off-shore gulags. It might be disgraceful, but no doubt the Liberals are good at it.
Perhaps it comes down to the government’s dogmatic ideology, one so deeply embedded that it has entered the Liberal Party’s collective unconscious—a revulsion so strong to the idea of government providing services and doing things for the public, that it simply cannot, of its own initiative, abide it. An ideology that genuinely believes that government services are akin to socialism and should be indulged only when circumstances dictate that there is no avoiding it.
Whether it’s telecommunications infrastructure, ports, rail and freeways, the health and education systems or welfare and social services, there is nothing that the federal Liberals don’t try to rid themselves of ownership of or responsibility for. At every chance, services and assets are outsourced or privatised. The prospect of electoral annihilation is probably the only thing preventing them from dismantling social welfare completely.
A mix of many factors would be more satisfactory and potentially more accurate as a reason for the abject failures we read about every day in the press. But the root of it surely comes down to political instinct; to the automatic reflexes that come from a life spent using government to undermine the collective security of working people—opposing wage rises, attacking trade unions, cutting social welfare, privatising public assets and so on—rather than lifting them up.
Ask anyone who has become a master in a profession about how they got to where they are and the response invariably will involve that they love and have a passion for the thing it is that they do well. The Liberals hate government services. So how could they ever become proficient at delivering them?
When Liberals talk about safety, their instinct is to define it in terms of boosting the capacity of the state to commit violence, as Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews did yesterday during question time, noting the more than $100 million funding increase to the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission and Australian Federal Police. She then goaded hecklers from the opposition benches:
“As soon as we start to make the point that this government is absolutely committed to keeping our community safe, the interjections start from those opposite. That is a very good indication of the softness that those opposite have on crime and how the Morrison government has always had the strength to stand up to outlaw motorcycle gangs and to stand up to criminals in our community.”
When the Liberals say, “keeping Australians safe”, they mean spending hundreds of billions of dollars on weapons to kill people, such as they are providing to the military. They mean spending billions of dollars on the refugee concentration camps and on Navy patrols to turn away asylum seekers. They mean hundreds of millions of dollars for the security services to be able to spy on people. They mean more resources for cops and for prisons to lock people away. (And even when it comes to these things that they like or love, they still make sure that, as much as possible, it’s someone else in the private sector being paid to do as much of the work as possible.)
By contrast, they instinctively baulked at doing almost all of the things required to keep us safe in this killer pandemic, before then calculating that the economic and political consequences would be dire if they didn’t act. Yet still they remain reluctant, and still they abrogate their responsibilities. It’s almost like right-wing ideology provides the perfect breeding ground for COVID-19.