One of the clear differences between Scott Morrison and Malcolm Turnbull that became evident after the former replaced the latter was that Morrison and his office were far less likely to sit back and do nothing while problems worsened. Instead, they would move quickly on political sore points and deal with them — sometimes inelegantly, but the results were better than the inclination of Turnbull’s political machine to let things drift and fester.
Now, however, the Morrison government is marked by a strange passivity. After its fiscal flurry last year and its closure of Australia’s borders, its management of the pandemic has been complacent and slow: no new quarantine facilities have been built, Australians overseas and desperate to return home have been abandoned, its hastily-developed tracing app is an expensive and now-ignored joke, and the vaccine rollout has been a debacle despite months of additional planning and preparation compared to overseas.
Now that debacle threatens to have a real human cost if the Victorian outbreak spreads — as has been reported this morning — into aged care facilities which should have had vaccinations completed by the end of March. If the government had even vaguely reached its revised target — even missed it by just a month — then this potential tragedy would have been averted.
The passivity seems to have extended to the ability of Morrison’s staff to manage ongoing political problems. With hindsight, it’s unlikely that the Morrison brains trust would have used the phrase “it’s not a race” about the rollout — a phrase first used by the Coalition’s hand-picked health secretary Brendan Murphy on March 10 and by Morrison himself, twice, in interviews the following day, in what was clearly a deliberately chosen talking point. “It’s not a race. It’s not a competition,” Morrison would say repeatedly.
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The thinking behind such a phrase was to make sure that Australians understood the vaccine was safe and proper safeguards were in place, for fear of giving anti-vaxxers any room to encourage hesitancy. The blood clots caused by the AstraZeneca vaccine put paid to that, no matter how trivially rare they are.
But now the government is unable to find a way to quietly dump the phrase. Instead, ministers have to parrot it or they contradict the prime minister. Deputy PM Michael McCormack parroted it yesterday, in the face of clear evidence from Victoria that it is very much a race, very much a competition, not with other countries — although the government has stopped invoking international comparisons as our slow rollout has taken us further and further behind — but with the next outbreak.
And there will always be a next outbreak because we know hotel quarantine — the system the government has complacently relied on — will always produce them.
Not that the government has always been consistent with the “it’s not a race” rhetoric. Remember the “war footing” that the Prime Minister’s Office duped gullible journalists into repeating back in mid-April when it became painfully obvious the rollout was a disaster? For about a week, it wasn’t a race, but it was a war. But then the bi-weekly national cabinet meetings were abandoned, and “no one mention the war” became the new mantra.
Behind it all is Morrison’s strange reluctance, or inability, to lead: on vaccination, on repatriation, on quarantine, on borders (where Morrison has embraced the fortress mentality of state premiers with the zeal of a convert), not to mention non-pandemic issues like climate, Indigenous recognition and integrity. Even on aged care, where he has promised “generational reform”, Morrison has only been forced into action by the aged care royal commission and the deaths of hundreds of seniors in nursing homes last year.
No wonder he embraced “not a race” as a mantra. For Morrison, there’s never any risk of him being out in front.