• Sat. Oct 29th, 2022

The pandemic is a long way from over and the Coalition has created expectations about what decent governments do to help people

May 30, 2021

James Merlino spoke for Australia on Sunday when he expressed incredulity that Michael McCormack, the deputy prime minister, was still telling people the Covid vaccination rollout was not a race in the middle of a serious outbreak.
That was said today? Merlino, the acting Victorian premier, said to the journalist who brought it to his attention. There you go.
There you go indeed.
McCormack, currently acting prime minister with Scott Morrison winging his way to New Zealand, was having no loose vaccination race talk on Sky News. Over on the ABC, the trade minister, Dan Tehan, was also holding the line, but in a more Shakespearean spirit (think a rose by any other name would smell as sweet).
Tehan observed the Melbourne Cup or the Stawell Gift were certainly races. But he thought a vaccination program was something else again a sort of urgent thing that involved moving quickly, but not racing because (according to a previously undisclosed bylaw in the talking points manual) race can only be used literally, not metaphorically.
Unfortunately for McCormack and Tehan, while the nation sat gripped by this heart-gladdening exhibition of mid-pandemic keystone cops on the Sunday morning political shows, events elsewhere were moving decisively.
Victoria reported a handful of new infections, including, worryingly, a mystery case involving a worker in a federally regulated aged care facility where the residents had not been fully vaccinated despite their obvious vulnerability during any outbreak.
Under growing pressure about the dawdling pace of the rollout, the federal health minister, Greg Hunt, said the lack of full vaccinations in aged care facilities now relates to the residents not consenting to have the jabs, rather than the commonwealth serially bungling a key responsibility.
But unfortunately for the health minister, Australians do have eyes. They can see that a goodly portion of the commonwealth-led health response has involved stuff-ups in plain sight, with bursts of incompetence accompanied by a near-disgraceful lack of remorse or self-criticism.
As well as Victorias new mystery case seeming to underscore the overwhelming good sense of racing to inoculate people against a virus that could kill them, the state government, over the course of the past few days, has also decided to execute a decisive shift in the politics of the pandemic.
Previously, Morrison because he moves fast when cornered has largely managed to avoid getting pinged for Canberras mistakes in aged care, vaccinations and quarantine.
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But given Merlino now has to manage Victorias fourth lockdown which involves dealing with his psychologically fatigued community and enduring a visceral backlash from business the acting premier has decided to rebalance some of the political risks.
So while Dumb and Dumber got bogged down defending the not a race talking point that Morrison had uttered previously, Merlino and Tim Pallas, the Victorian treasurer, gathered Melbourne reporters for an update and went for broke.
Merlino opened the batting by emphasising the persistent lack of urgency in the vaccination rollout and the lack of purpose-built quarantine facilities.
Pallas then told reporters he had implored his federal counterpart, Josh Frydenberg, to tip in cash for workers deprived of an income during the week-long lockdown. But he said the federal treasurer was not for turning. Merlino had lobbied Morrison. That hadnt worked either.
Pallas: It would be really good if the self-styled party of the workers actually did some work for working people and provided them with the assistance that they need, indeed, that they require. I am angry and I am disappointed.
Pallas noted the Coalition liked to pride themselves on being the party of the forgotten people. Well, he said, the people they have seem to have forgotten is Victorians, and in particular Victorian workers.
Now, a couple of things to note.
The Morrison government during the first and second waves of the pandemic did spend billions subsidising the wages of workers, including in Victoria a point that Pallas acknowledged. Now that jobkeeper has faded into history, Frydenberg has not automatically topped up support for workers in other states affected by short, sharp lockdowns to curb outbreaks.
So Pallas going full Oliver Twist on Sunday is certainly maximising his material (as we say in the news business). But only up to a point.
If the Victorian lockdown is short and sharp, thats one thing. If (God forbid) things escalate, and the lockdown is protracted, that is another thing entirely, which is why the Morrison government isnt actually saying no to additional assistance if you listen closely.
The message from Dumb and Dumber and the other federal ministers on Sunday seemed to be No for now rather than No for forever. Frydenberg said: No but the situation is being closely monitored..
The reason for this hedging is obvious: if the Victorian lockdown becomes protracted, then Canberra refusing to help stranded workers becomes politically difficult, particularly when the state government has sent a public message that it intends to whack you if you dont.
What Sunday tells us is two things.
The first is the pandemic is a long way from over and the Morrison government has created a bunch of expectations in the community about what decent governments do to help people in extremis. People will judge the commonwealth against the benchmarks it set for itself, not against an arbitrary new standard it might want to invoke to get itself off the fiscal hook.
The second is that the long period of state governments smiling at Morrison through gritted teeth is over. The prime minister no longer absolutely controls the play.
The age of accountability has dawned. Politically, the pandemic has entered a new normal.