Scott Morrison covid-19 astrazeneca vaccine
(Image: AAP/POOL/David Caird)

Despite claims about foreign governments and bad luck, it’s clear that the vaccination rollout debacle was very much made within the Morrison government. It was the government that failed to plan for the predicted outbreaks of vaccine nationalism, and the government that placed too much reliance on a single vaccine.

That adds to the two other major pandemic-related failures by the Morrison government — the expensive and useless COVIDSafe app, and the failure to protect aged care residents in Victoria.

On the economic front, the government has been far more successful: JobKeeper worked very well (although profitable corporations have been allowed to keep billions of dollars in unmerited taxpayer support) while the HomeBuilder program kept the construction industry going.

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That is, when the challenge was to rapidly turn on the fiscal spigots, the government proved competent. When it needed to design and build something, coordinate a major delivery program or effectively use its regulatory powers and administrative institutions to protect people, it failed abysmally.

There’s a pattern here. The National Broadband Network (NBN) has ended up severely compromised by the Coalition’s imposition of a profoundly flawed Multi Technology Mix that delivered neither the more rapid rollout nor the cost savings promised, and instead left the government to announce it would pump billions more into the crippled network to make the original Fibre To The Premises model available.

The government’s decision to build a new generation of submarines in Australia is already plagued by cost blowouts and delays, with promises of local production looking unlikely to be met.

Its energy policy, apart from being driven by climate denialism and the Coalition’s fossil fuel donors, is a shambles that has required state governments to lead on new infrastructure and the transition to renewables.

The Closing the Gap initiative routinely missed most of its targets over the last decade, most of which the Coalition has been in power.

Even more symbolic nation-building initiatives requiring Commonwealth leadership such as Indigenous constitutional recognition remain stalled after seven years of wheel-spinning.

The government’s failures in relation to regulation are even more obvious — aged care; financial services; wage theft and worker exploitation; gas and electricity supply (where the government swung from laissez faire to break-up and reservation powers in a matter of months).

Some of these areas involve the Commonwealth having to work with the states. But most are entirely within the direct control of the Commonwealth. The government seems to lack the basic skills of using the powers of government to achieve positive outcomes — to protect people from bank misconduct, or abuses by aged care providers, or to build large-scale infrastructure, or to source and roll out a vaccination program. Its strength is to pour money out rapidly, preferably to business.

Is there an ideological component to this incapacity to effectively use the powers of government? Undoubtedly the last 30 years has seen an acquired helplessness on the part of governments of all levels and kinds as basic roles around infrastructure provision or service delivery were corporatised, outsourced or privatised and the expertise to deliver them was transferred to the private sector.

This manifested itself most obviously in the NBN: the Rudd government literally had to start from scratch developing a capacity to roll out a large scale communications infrastructure project because the government institution that held that expertise had been sold off, and couldn’t be trusted to provide what was required.

Similarly, an aversion to deregulation and a willingness to accept the narrative from business that regulators needed to be kept in check has contributed to the failures of regulation across multiple sectors and over the lives of multiple governments.

But this acquired helplessness doesn’t explain failures during the pandemic: while there have been major failures at the state government level, by and large the states — which have been assiduous outsourcers and privatisers too — have been the key to Australia’s successful suppression of the virus through border closures, contact tracing regimes, international quarantine (a Commonwealth responsibility) and testing facilities.

State and territory governments of course are fundamentally service delivery bodies, in health, education, infrastructure and criminal justice, so they can’t politically afford to be seen to have lost their capacity to deliver the basics. Even Liberal state governments, while mouthing the platitude that the private sector can do it better than government, still preside over vast service delivery bureaucracies.

At the Commonwealth level, however, the distance between the government and service and infrastructure consumers is much greater, and often mediated by state government anyway, so neoliberal notions that private is always better and governments just need to get out of the way and let corporations do their thing are less likely to confront electoral reality (until they do — see the banking and aged care royal commissions).

It appears as though really believing that government should be limited, that its powers should be curtailed and it shouldn’t be allowed to do things, has ended up crippling the capacity of the Coalition when it really has to do things. When the press gallery was insisting all Scott Morrison had to do was successfully roll out the vaccine in order to win the next election, they forgot to wonder whether that kind of task is exactly the sort of thing that the federal Liberals, and their conviction that Government Is The Problem, can’t do, or that the only way it could be done successfully is if the Commonwealth handed over much of the task to the states — which is exactly what it is doing now.

Is it all ideology, though? The other key aspect of the Liberal identity is that it acts as a machine for taking bribes from corporations to deliver policy outcomes (in the same way the Labor Party is a machine for converting bribes from large unions into results for unions, although the latter, given they serve large numbers of workers rather than investors, tend to align more with the interests of working households).

But despite Twitter nonsense that the government is somehow influenced by MPs’ shareholdings in pharmaceutical companies, there are no transactions to be made in a pandemic; no donation to be swapped for a government contract, no secret meeting between a donor and a minister to secure a regulatory win. Just the challenge of governments addressing the national interest as quickly and effectively as possible, And that’s a political muscle the Coalition is very unused to flexing. So much so that it appears to have atrophied entirely.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief
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