(Image: Private Media/Tom Red)

Leaders who aspire to be good at their job take the hard decisions and wear them. The other type takes advantage of that, to gain political advantage by telling people what they want to hear. Just as with Churchill in…arggghh, no! No World War II metaphors! Stick with the here and now. We have good leaders at the state level, Gladys aside, and Scott Morrison is… guess which? 

Morrison’s new push on opening up is made with the deepest cynicism, despite being wrapped in a parable concerning The Croods (another parable! Preach it, preacher man!). That will not be news to any reader here, but it’s worth considering the mechanism by which it occurs. The premiers must hold the line in order to preserve the safety and adequacy of state-based health systems. They know they’ll really get it in the neck if we were to get ventilator shortages, ward overcrowding, and deaths before medical attention. 

All that is playing out in the US now. The country that hates “rationing” and “death panels” is now seeing what a really brutal triage is like — triage as it was when invented, a doctor stalking through battlefields deciding who among the wounded is worth attention and who isn’t. 

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These nightmare scenes are something that would not disturb Morrison and that is neither because he is an utterly cynical professional politician nor because is a Christian literalist, but because he is both. His fatalism and belief in the supernatural is undergirding a lack of response to an emergency.

Morrison has been helped immensely in this by the reporting of the 70-80% vaccine targets, figures whose actual range the media has barely explained. It has taken many days for the stories on this to even explain that the target we are charging towards is 70-80% of adults, i.e. vaccine-eligible people.

There are good epidemiological reasons to express the numbers in terms of those likely to sicken without the vaccine, but, well, it’s not 70-80%, is it? It’s around 50% of the population — a less impressive and less comforting figure. The 70-80% hasn’t been questioned in News Corp because duh, but nor has come it under much scrutiny in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, or even Guardian Australia with their short communique stories, live updates, and relative lack of analysis. Peter Costello, chair of Nine, has called for lockdowns to end, but I’m sure he’s a fair-minded, hands-off chair who just lets journos do their job. 

Indeed, everything about this virus shows that the act of scientific communication has to be thought about very carefully, if there is to be some equalisation of understanding of what’s happening between leaders and led. The daily case reports are an example. The raw figures are given out — 44,812, etc, etc — with no explanation that these are as a proportion of the tested, which is a proportion of the population as a whole. 

The multiplier would appear to be between 25 and 40. Politicians in constant dialogue with scientists and with, you know, university degrees, are going round with this fact in their head. Much of the population doesn’t. The politicians may have strategic reasons for not explaining how the figures are derived. But the media-as-stenographer once again falls down. 

Thus Labor has been left with the task it has often been handed in recent decades: to have an eye to fairness and equality, and change in that direction, while also offering the unwelcome news drawn from basic prudence and responsibility, that things are not yet how we would want them. The right’s embrace of capitalism allows them to be nihilistic and chaotic at the same time.

And above all, to tell people what they want to hear. Which is that the virus is a one-off. And the Delta variant, which is practically a new condition, is a one-off. One-off number two. There aren’t going to be any more variants; the virus won’t respond to our initiatives with further evolution and adaptation; it’s not a super-virus, borne of having a petri dish of 8 billion people; it won’t turn to children if they are left unvaccinated; nothing really, really bad is going to happen next. 

How an opposition says that, in the face of a public that desperately wants to believe that the world has not changed, I do not know. But someone within the political-media mainstream has to. Some nations actually count the consequences: in Sweden, the prime minister has just resigned, citing the failure of Sweden’s contrary strategy. People have gone very quiet about Sweden, lockdown sceptics muttered a couple of months ago. They’re gone absolutely stone-silent now. I wonder why?

This feels like a historical passage with many rounds to go. We are in a stage that we will emerge from eventually, but we’re not out of it yet. When we are, the world will have to change the way it does things, in every dimension, simply to stay “as it is”. Just as, um, oh come on it’s Friday, let it rip. We are not yet at the end of the beginning. But Scott Morrison is on the steps, promising “freedom in our time”, his vax certificate in his hand, flapping in the wind.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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