Lieutenant General John Frewen addresses the media (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

Wow. I’m watching the global news on TV and in some tin-pot country somewhere in the world there’s a lieutenant general who’s going to be talking to business groups drawn in to work with him on the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine.

Those poor bastards are really in trouble, whoever they are. It must be one of those landlocked Latin American banana republics, right down in the southern cone — Australaguay or something.

Wait a second. I’ve tapped into the radio of its national broadcaster, El ABC, and the leader of the unions is on, telling Sister Francisca Kelly that they welcome the move, even though they have been excluded from any role in the workplace rollout. Must be a right-wing Peronist union outfit tucked neatly into the armpit of the junta…

Yes, yes, it’s not a junta. And our side of politics has a habit of predicting nine out of the last three coups. But really, when you have a military leader charged with responding to a disease which required steady application, rather than suspension-of-democracy crisis management, and is now drawing on that old pre-coup standby — the roundtable of concerned businessmen (and women too – viva la diversitia!) forming a de facto committee of the national interest — then if you can’t hear the mariachi band, you have no ear for war music. 

I suspect it would be paranoid to imagine that this was the plan all along, rather than one desperate fix after another, but my god, the shock doctrine really suggests itself. Is it possible that the 20-something wonks in Morrison’s office have read Antony Loewenstein’s excellent Disaster Capitalism and used it not as a diagnosis and warning but as a manual for action? Take a look at the facts. 

We have been dealing with a disease with a low fatality rate, largely among the very old, but which has required containment in order to try and prevent its general spread — which would then become lethal to the chronically ill and disabled of all ages — and the rapid developments of multiple variant strains.

When vaccines became available, the response was a level of wilful incompetence and lassitude that would have had the government fall if we had one major mainstream news outlet — TV or print — ready to actually hold the government to account, and give the opposition a run. And if we had an opposition willing to attack head-on, in the name of basic democracy and responsibility, and not read off results from focus groups like someone reading the print out of their own ECG to reassure themselves they’re still alive. 

Look, World War II comparisons are odious, but Scotty from marketing is so fond of channelling Menzies that it’s worth saying that he now resembles Menzies I — that is, the subservient empire loyalist of 1941 who couldn’t rise to the challenge of the war. Scotty’s government should have gone the same way, its support crumbling as its incompetence was assailed.

Instead there has been a vacuum that Morrison has been able to exploit by going to the exact other extreme, constructing the shambolic situation he has created as a randomly occurring emergency, and bypassing normal administrative processes altogether.

Having done the Menzies thing, he’s now doing the Howard thing: the appearance of a lieutenant general is a copy of Howard’s Northern Territory intervention. The absurdity then was using military command structures for social problems partly deep-set, partly created by sustained government neglect; now it’s analogous. What’s the plan, have the SAS shoot the vaccine into people’s arms? 

The idea that you have to resort to military command to impose efficient administration is unquestionably pre-anti-democratic. It is a way of saying that we are ungovernable, except through force clad in a uniform. It is not Scotty from marketing but Scotty the son of a Christian evangelist cop-mayor, a man who ran a local council like a fiefdom for years. Of course he turns to the military as his total mismanagement of the situation becomes impossible to ignore.

The appointment of a goddamn lieutenant general to a role in civilian government, in consultation with business heads and excluding unions, community groups and, you know, parliament, should be on the front page of The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald, and Guardian Australia. Instead there is anything but.

Indeed in The Age and SMH, Chris Uhlmann has identified the real totalitarian threat: it’s scientists, doing their science. Totalitarian, why? Not because they have any state power to enforce (merely to advise), but because the truthful world-picture of science interferes with the happy-clappy just-so stories that Uhlmann calls religion. The irrationalism the right needs to succeed is on full display there. The Age and SMH editors should be ashamed of publishing, at the direction on Nine, this kind of bilge.

Now for the record, I do not believe that Lieutenant General John Frewen is personally, in any way, anti-democratic. But his appointment represents a corrosion of the democratic commitment. It relies on the government’s reasonable assumption that there won’t be much push-back in those terms from anywhere. 

Of course, there is another, darker reason to put a military type in charge of this non-emergency. And that is to use it as a rehearsal for the next pandemic — the one with a virus that uses a different, more lethal, mechanism of transmission. We’ve seen with the current variants how COVID has evolved to deal with social distancing, with the Delta and other variants having a much higher R-0 (transmission) number. A new virus might come along which essentially explodes your lungs to transmit, and isn’t picky about who receives. Could you restrain yourself from holding your dying spouse, your dying child? May well never happen. May happen next year. In such conditions, normal life might well approach collapse, and the distribution of food and other essentials taken over by the state. 

But if it is a rehearsal, it’s the wrong type. What we need is what we haven’t had — a discussion of how we manage government and society in what may be a viral age. If this is a rehearsal for darker times, then we have gone from hopeless ad hoc management of it at the federal level to the blunting of such democratic institutions as we have. That has been achieved by the silence of “moderate” members of government, the hedging of the opposition, and the mainstream media’s abandonment of even the most vestigial responsibility to mount a case against such. News from a foreign country comes …