Initially one of the success stories of the global pandemic, the island monarchy of Australia is now struggling to contain a COVID-19 outbreak that has shuttered a major town and torn through the nursing homes along the east coast of the country.
After months of suppression, the latest outbreak originated in the southern capital of Melbourne after the virus escaped quarantine — something now the subject of bitter recriminations between regional governor Daniel Andrews and his political foes. Thousands have sickened and hundreds died as Melbourne — once rated the world’s most liveable city — returned to lockdown, silencing its quaint trams and emptying the streets around the Yarra, the river that wends Danube-like through Australia’s most European city.
The national government of Scott Morrison — who came to power in a 2018 putsch — is also in the firing line over infection outbreaks in nursing homes, which his government funds and controls. A special inquiry recently heard that Morrison had no plan for protecting the nation’s nursing home residents from infection despite months of preparation time and a March outbreak in nursing homes in Sydney, the nation’s capital 900kms north of Melbourne.
Sydney premier Gladys Berejiklian, an ally of Morrison, faces her own crisis after her officials, with the agreement of Morrison’s border militia, allowed a cruise ship to dock and disgorge hundreds of infected passengers into the country. The death toll now stands at over 20 from that incident, which has soured Berejiklian’s attempts to encourage tax haven-based cruise lines to come to her city.
Other provinces across the 4000 kilometre-wide island have now sealed their borders against possible infections from Sydney and Melbourne. Morrison has also shut down the nation’s airports to prevent Australians from escaping the country, although high-profile business associates of the ruling Coalition can travel without restrictions.
The pandemic has brought Australia’s long run of economic luck to an end. Buoyed by massive exports of iron ore to China, Australia managed a world record 28 years without recession but now faces a sharp contraction and long jobless queues outside government offices. A spat with Beijing has also endangered the country’s vital tourism and education sectors.
Morrison — who has the backing of media magnate Rupert Murdoch and mining millionaires like Clive Palmer, famous for promising to rebuild the Titanic — has problems elsewhere.
Cronies of Morrison are mired in scandals involving the purchasing of water rights (a valuable commodity in the bone-dry nation), the forging of documents and the rorting of government funds to help Morrison win last year’s poll. He is also under fire for allowing key financiers of the party, mining and fossil fuel interests, to draft new policies to end the country’s depression.
But it is the nursing home crisis that might pose the biggest threat to the strongman’s grip on power, with the leader forced to apologise for deaths, though stopping short of accepting responsibility. Regime officials have scrambled to defend the lack of regulation, advice and equipment supplies to a sector that has until now has enjoyed rapid growth for an increasing number of private companies, fueled by public funding.
This week a fresh scandal emerged. Morrison’s internal security force, used for raiding journalists, lawyers and whistleblowers who threaten his party, was found to have leaked details of a major investigation into possible war crimes by Australian troops during the nation’s unsuccessful military venture into Afghanistan. A loyal vassal state of imperial power the United States, Australia joined an invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and its troops remained for most of the two-decade-long war that ensued.
Australia lacks any anti-corruption or integrity bodies, allowing misconduct and scandal to flourish at the national level, with hundreds of millions of dollars a year being traded between powerful interests and political parties in exchange for influence, access and the opportunity to dictate policy. The nation’s rapidly shrinking media is increasingly unable to hold the regime to account, especially after Morrison slashed funding to the nation’s public broadcasters in response to critical articles and reportage.
What was once the smiling face of a welcoming Land Down Under increasingly bears the scars of corruption and scandal.
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