national-cabinet-meeting
Scott Morrison and the national cabinet (Image: AAP Image/SMH Pool, Alex Ellinghausen)

The now-cliched “unprecedented” should be retired as a descriptor of our times. They remain extraordinary, terrifying, uncertain, no doubt. But we’ve been at this long enough to reflect on what has worked for Australia, and learn from other countries.

Nonetheless, our politicians are still operating under a governance paradigm built hastily in the first weeks of the pandemic, whose elements were never sold to the public as permanent reforms. On Friday, a meeting of the national cabinet decided to appoint a member of the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission to chair a new hotel quarantine inquiry. Four months ago, none of these forums even existed.

Premised on a war-like “state of exception“, these bodies mostly emphasise the speed and decisiveness of elite messaging, at the potential expense of hearing and reacting to affected people’s experiences on the ground.

As Melbourne and the rest of Australia enter two distinct new phases of the pandemic, we ought to reflect on who will be sitting at the tables where era-defining decisions have and will be made — and whether this reflects best practice and public will this time around.

Command and control doesn’t work

When the coronavirus was truly novel, frazzled and disoriented Australians demanded quick and decisive action from government. Scott Morrison, keen to remedy his slow and indecisive response to the summer bushfires, quickly centralised authority in the highly secretive national (“war”) cabinet and began issuing far-reaching edicts.

State leaders likewise clamoured to demonstrate speed and competence, flanked by small groups of senior ministers and bureaucrats. The adults were taking charge.

But international evidence now suggests that while high-level government coordination is important, centralising decision-making too heavily in the hands of too few elites undermines responses to the pandemic by creating “tunnel vision”.

A new study released Thursday found that Germany’s response to the coronavirus was hampered by elite concentration of power, while Trump and Johnson’s closed-off crews of cronies in the US and UK continue to disappoint.

Conversely, mutual learning emerges when institutions, stakeholders and citizen groups can work together productively, alerting each other to potential threats and opportunities. The countries that have been most successful at combatting the coronavirus, such as Taiwan and Iceland, have been particularly good at this.

Central coordination will remain important, but unilateral displays of strength and speed are looking less reassuring than ever. The Victorian government’s rapid deployment of police to affected public housing towers, for instance, provoked public backlash for imposing “order” on residents instead of working with them. A more collaborative approach later emerged, with community leaders, volunteer groups, politicians and social services working with authorities to ensure a smoother and more just operation.

A VIP-only network

Where the federal government has tried to bring outside actors on board, it has been highly selective. Its National COVID-19 Coordination Commission is a hand-picked cadre of business leaders who have faced conflict of interest accusations. The only union representative, Greg Combet, left in June.

This collaborative approach ends with the PM’s phone contacts. The rest of us are stuck with the command-style approach that is rapidly bleeding over into our rebuilding effort.

Morrison, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian and others are seeking to “fast track” various infrastructure projects to revive the economy by bypassing normal approval processes. The economic aim is sound, but such approval processes exist for important reasonsto ensure the projects stack up, and to ensure those who will be affected by the project are consulted and can influence the decision.

Again, speed and “efficiency” are being weaponised to avoid scrutiny and community dissent.

Take, for instance, the Berejiklian government’s recent decision to extend the license of a Hunter Valley coalmine further into the 2030s — hardly a “shovel ready” project to create immediate jobs. The relaxed approval rules are being taken advantage of to silence the legitimate concerns of environmental groups (who have also been locked out of the national commission) under the guise of emergency stimulus.

Giving people their say       

Northern European nations do a lot better at bringing governments, organisations and citizens together to bridge divides. Their tradition of “corporatism” involves entrenching the representation of various interest groups in the policymaking process, not only as advisers but with voting rights. This model is uniquely suited to the pandemic rebuilding project that requires a unified national effort.

Ten years ago this month, the Gillard government attempted a half-hearted version of this with its “citizens assembly” on climate change. The idea was later dumped, ending Labor’s flirtation with direct democracy that began with the failed 2020 Summit.

Now, the Morrison government is convening industrial relations working groups with unions and employers, hoping they may cooperate as productively and profitably as on industry super boards. But this portfolio is where stakeholders are least likely to find compromise, given their intractable disputes born of decades of neoliberal industrial policy.

Our leaders have been somewhat effective at practically addressing the coronavirus pandemic so far. But the authoritative, top-down approach developed for our initial mobilisation is quickly losing its utility. Pretty soon the bunker has to open up and let the rest of us in.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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