scott morrison vaccine
Scott Morrison at AstraZeneca laboratories (Image: AAP/Lisa Maree Williams)

There are two theories about Scott Morrison: too smart by half, or not that smart at all. In a prime minister, during a pandemic, either is less than we need.

So it doesn’t matter why Morrison decided to set the hares running on mandatory vaccination for COVID-19; what matters is that he did, and now we can all enjoy many months of mindless stupidity reminiscent of the climate wars.

The PM, perhaps over-excited by the ease with which his announcement of an agreement (which doesn’t exist) to secure the COVID-19 vaccine (which hopefully will exist) had drawn the media’s focus away from his aged care debacle, went the extra mile and said that he’d be making the vaccination “as mandatory as possible”.

Later the same day, to really underline his credibility, Morrison said the exact opposite: nobody will be forced to be vaccinated for COVID-19. No doubt his earlier statement had been trending poorly in QAnon Facebook groups, hence the precipitous retreat. The damage, however, had been done.

Pauline Hanson, sniffing an opportunity to be angry on breakfast television, was out of her sarcophagus at full speed, declaring to the world that she wouldn’t be getting vaccinated, due to some incoherent mix of conspiracy theories she picked up on Reddit.

We know what happens next: the anti-vaxx story line, already quite a fave with the media, will be blessed with limitless airtime for months to come.

The legal position is straightforward. The government could force us all to be vaccinated. Vaccination is one of the many things that can be imposed on Australians, by force if necessary, in the circumstances that have been declared with respect to COVID-19, under the Biosecurity Act. Fact is, the authorities can under that law do absolutely anything in the name of public health at the moment, short of shooting us.

However, that is not going to happen, and it’s worth exploring why. Bearing in mind that vaccination is ineffective in defeating a communicable disease unless almost everyone submits.

There is no history of mandatory vaccination in Australia (Indigenous people aside — there’s definitely a history of not asking them first). There has been, however, a traditionally strong culture of voluntary compliance. The immunisation rate among five-year-olds, for all the standard jabs we get as kids, sits at just under the targeted 95%. Famously, polio was eradicated in Australia by vaccination (we were declared polio free in 2000), as was small pox in the entire world by 1977.

Conventionally, there has been little difficulty for governments in convincing populations that vaccination is in their personal interests, making the wider rationale of “doing it for everyone” largely a feel-good add-on rather than an actual motivator.

In recent years, the anti-vaxx movement has grown out of its tiny anti-establishment roots, mainly in the US, tying itself to the broader personal sovereignty cause which is currently fighting an end-times war against face masks.

To date in Australia it’s been only an annoyance, having no material effect on immunisation rates. COVID-19, however, promises to provide a lightning rod for the lunatics. Hanson’s early grab for the amoral leadership of the no-to-COVID-vaccine tribe tells us that.

There is a legitimate question to be asked, about the intersection of human rights – specifically, the right of governance over our own bodies – and the imperatives of public health. Under Australian law, there’s no debate at all, because we have no such legally protected right and the government’s power to forcibly vaccinate us against COVID-19 would be upheld by the courts as a matter of course.

It seems highly unlikely the government would force the vaccine on conscientious objectors. This group already includes senior religious leaders who have ethical concerns about a vaccine developed using cells from electively aborted foetuses, as is the Oxford University vaccine announced in the government’s “deal” last week.

That’s not to say that there are no limits to the power. The authorities vested with the powers to declare public health emergencies and add diseases to the schedule of mass death threats, which then trigger the extraordinary powers to do whatever’s necessary (as in wartime), have to exercise those powers with rationality, reason and honesty. The law of necessary means isn’t an open ticket to capriciousness.

None of that will be seriously tested in COVID-19, because there’s no legitimate argument to be had about the reality of its threat or the necessity of rolling out a vaccine as soon as that exists.

Nevertheless, arguments will be raised and loudly championed on Facebook, then loyally amplified out of all proportion by the mainstream media. These will include Pauline’s theory that most of the people who’ve died from COVID-19 actually didn’t, the inevitable “the vaccine isn’t safe” claims she’s already flagged, not to mention Bill Gates, 5G and the “pizzagate” paedophile cannibal ring.

The medical authorities are hoping that that stays at its normal level of background noise. As National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance chair Professor Kristine Macartney said, “we know that disinformation isn’t listened to by the majority of the Australian people”.

We can take the Australian population’s overwhelming compliance with COVID-19 safety rules and restrictions as evidence that she’s right. However, it would really help if Scott Morrison didn’t say another word, because what he’s said on the subject so far has already done plenty of harm.