It feels like a broken record, but the lesson continues to apply: the Morrison government is only capable of political management of complex issues, and as the last few weeks have shown, its talent for political management is proving no match for what it’s up against.
Now that lesson applies to what, by the government’s own assessment, is the only political and policy game in town: the vaccine rollout.
Remember that not merely is it a political no-brainer that the government has to get the vaccine rollout right, and will trumpet its success if it does, but Scott Morrison has made clear it is the government’s biggest priority this year. “Suppress the virus and deliver the vaccine” was the number one priority on the government’s agenda, according to Morrison’s National Press Club speech on February 1. Morrison even made a point of saying he wouldn’t be pursuing any economic reform because he was too busy dealing the pandemic and rolling out the vaccine.
Until this week, the vaccine rollout was merely badly behind schedule. The head of the health department admitted the vaccination rollout now won’t be completed this year, only the first dose. According to the government’s own, recent forecasts, by this week around 1.8 million people should have been vaccinated.
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Yesterday Health Minister Greg Hunt was admitting that only 670,000 had been done. But state governments, which have a crucial role in driving the rollout in the first two months, had kept their criticisms of the process muted, and confined to matters like the government’s failure to provide detailed information.
Yesterday Morrison’s government, terrified it would end up wearing the blame for screwing up the thing it said was its most important priority, got half-smart and tried to shift the blame to the states, leaking figures to its News Corp friends purporting to show the states failing to use the vaccines they had been provided. Nationals dill David Littleproud helpfully weighed in to accuse the states of doing “three-fifths of bugger all”.
That is, in response to an major unfolding problem with its vaccination rollout, the government’s first instinct was — as always — political management and blame-shifting.
It didn’t go down particularly well, with the Morrison government’s NSW Coalition counterpart leading the charge. Both NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard and Premier Gladys Berejiklian raged at the federal government, pointing out they’d delivered twice as many vaccine doses as the Commonwealth and demanding an apology to all states. The Queensland government, normally at odds with Sydney on pandemic matters, was happy to endorse their fury.
Having dimly realised the blame-shifting had backfired, Hunt emerged to offer an olive branch to the states and lavish praise on their efforts. “The states and territories are doing a first-class job,” he declared, adding that the Queenslanders were doing a wonderful job on contact tracing as well. “I’m very thankful for the work of all the states and territories,” he added.
All this while the government’s rationale for taking its time with the rollout — that Australia had few or no cases and could afford to do it carefully — was being undermined by the locking down of Brisbane, another demonstration of the economic fragility that will plague Australia for the rest of the year given the slowness of the rollout.
The government has nowhere to hide on this. True, Australia’s health system is far more complex, and far more geographically challenging, than that of, say, the UK. It requires coordination with primary care and aged care as well as the state and territory medical systems. But it has had months to plan the rollout, and the risks to supply from vaccine nationalism have been known all along (and didn’t stop Morrison from promising Australians would be at the top of the queue for vaccines).
Yet here we are, way behind schedule, with the government focused on trying to shift the blame to the states. Political management and drops to News Corp won’t save the government if the rollout doesn’t speed up and deliver what Scott Morrison promised just a few weeks ago.