Health Minister Greg Hunt

The escalating sense of fear around the coronavirus crisis partly reflects the rising number of cases in Australia and dramatic decisions taken by other governments around the world. But it also reflects a struggle by our own government to reassure Australians it knows what it is doing.

Until late last week, the Morrison government had responded relatively effectively to the crisis with well-balanced health measures and a substantial stimulus package that embraced exactly the kind of fiscal policy the Coalition had been decrying for years.

On Friday, however, the government began to lose control, first with Morrison’s mishandled post-COAG media conference and then, over the weekend, in a disastrous interview by the chief medical officer (and incoming Health Department secretary) Brendan Murphy and Health Minister Greg Hunt.

The repeated instances of mixed messages over basic questions even had Malcolm Turnbull publicly criticising the government.

There are two separate problems bedevilling the government’s response. One is that, for all the talk of “flattening the curve”, the strategy behind the government’s response isn’t being explained effectively.

Why, many in the media were wondering on Friday, isn’t the ban on gatherings of more than 500 people being implemented immediately, rather than on Monday? Conspiracy theories circulated on Twitter about Hillsong, and Morrison’s own professed eagerness to go to the footy didn’t help.

As Hunt explained yesterday, the ban had been brought forward ahead of when the government’s health advisers recommended it be introduced. But for many in the media, and for many public health figures, that’s not good enough — it should have been imposed immediately, along with a suite of other draconian measures.

This is worth teasing out, because it points to some unpalatable truths of a kind we might have to swallow more of as this crisis worsens. Policymakers have an array of options for responding to the crisis. What measures they land on will reflect multiple considerations.

Saving lives and preventing illness is the primary goal, but there are a range of other considerations as well — relative efficacy, health sector resourcing, economic and social impacts and an awareness that this crisis will likely last for months.

Locking down the whole country, or major cities, Italian-style, is an option, but one that would plunge the country into an even deeper recession that it already faces, causing a big rise in unemployment and an array of potentially systemic problems such as widespread mortgage defaults and ensuing damage to the financial system.

From a public health perspective, such outcomes are less important than the lives that would be saved via less transmission, and a health system better able to cope with lower numbers of infected. But policymakers and political leaders don’t have the luxury of viewing things purely from a public health perspective — they have to weigh up multiple factors.

It’s easy for epidemiologists and academics to issue warnings of disaster and demand lockdowns, and even easier for journalists to share them, but politicians like Scott Morrison don’t have the luxury of being able to act purely to achieve one goal.

And if that sounds like its putting economic considerations ahead of, or even on the same level as, saving lives, remember we do that every single day whenever we allocate finite resources to different ends — we could spend more money on health, or on safer infrastructure, or on better social services, but choose to direct it to other ends we also believe are important. It’s why there’s an official valuation of a human life for policy development purposes. This crisis only provides a starker demonstration of that basic challenge of policymaking.

But none of that is being communicated either by politicians or by the senior health official. The politicians are insistent that they are relying on the advice of experts; the experts are insistent the politicians are doing what they are telling them. But this leaves both exposed when the media demand certainty and the implementation of more rigorous measures advocated by public health experts outside the policymaking process.

The fault isn’t entirely the media’s: when the chief medical officer gives a major television interview and is unable to say clearly whether people should stop shaking hands or going to the movies, it undermines the credibility of the government. Greg Hunt trying to blame journalists — Scott Morrison was blaming panic buying on media misreporting this morning as well — also doesn’t help.

The second problem relates more to the nature of this government.

Any government would struggle to balance the challenge of dealing with complexity at a time when the public and the media are demanding simplicity and certainty. But it’s particularly problematic for a government that, for the entire time since Scott Morrison became prime minister, has been focused only on the political and not on policy.

As PM, Morrison hasn’t been interested in any significant policy problem — not wage stagnation, or the slump in business investment, not the productivity crisis, nor the collapse in trust in government, and certainly not key policy problems like climate change or energy. His focus has only been on political threats and opportunities.

Faced now with a series of diabolical policy challenges, Morrison and the government he leads — including a public service that has been systematically bullied, abused and ignored by the Coalition — must now flex long-disused policy muscles and switch out of political mode to actual leadership.

It’s clearly been a struggle. Morrison couldn’t surrender his carefully confected suburban dad persona for a single moment to acknowledge a major crisis on Friday, when he insisted he’d be going to the footy until Peter Dutton’s positive test prompted him to abandon the idea because it might be “misrepresented” (?). His declaration yesterday that we’d get through this if “Australians keep being Australian” may as well have been a yell of “Aussie Aussie Aussie”. 

It certainly didn’t dispel the lingering fear that Morrison isn’t up to it, that there’s nothing behind that ever-present smirk, that the confected persona hides emptiness. But Australia desperately needs Morrison to succeed in this.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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