Scott Morrison has had a good month
Australia has also had a good month. There have been mis-steps, and mixed messages, and the occasional catastrophic blunder (the Ruby Princess springs to mind), but in a global pandemic we have, along with our cousins across the Tasman, apparently slowed the progress of the virus. It is not empty patriotism to be proud of our achievement.
Against many predictions, Scott Morrison not only turned up, but as the weeks unfolded, he began to seem empathetic. His confidence grew, and he stopped enumerating all the steps he had already taken, and he concentrated on the present. His press conferences began to resemble real information sessions, and to look less like infomercials for the Liberals.
Of course he began by taking on the workload single handed, but he then gradually introduced us to Greg Hunt, the Health Minister. He was formerly known as The Minister for Announcing New Drugs on the PBS, but he has, similarly to Morrison, grown in this time.
The real change has been in his attitude to us
The Prime Minister, during his time in parliament, and presumably for his entire adult life, has shown a strange lack of compassion towards “the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame”, as the Bible might describe those who struggle (Luke 14:21). I put this down to his religious faith, which is constrained by its pre-Enlightenment beliefs. This means that the very notion of any form of welfare goes against the grain. A loyal and grateful God will look after the Faithful should catastrophe happen, and supposedly charities will pick up the slack.
He seems to have been able to put aside his disdain for those who do not always ‘have a red-hot go’. Perhaps he has seen that occasionally life throws stuff at you which you can’t deal with, or even that some people are not so well equipped for a hyper-competitive world.
He doubled the unemployment benefit for those who were already unemployed, and included them in his stimulatory package. I still wonder that he did not make more political capital from his doubling of the Jobseeker Allowance, but perhaps he did not want to directly confront the IPA types.
He also, for once, listened to the Labor Party, and the ACTU, and broadly adopted their suggested wages subsidy, which is revolutionary for a neo-liberal Government. Boris Johnson had also done it, in the U.K. so there was a precedent. But he continued to elevate the good of the individual citizen above the needs of the budget.
In another break with ‘dry’ orthodoxy, he convened a ‘national cabinet’, made up of the leaders of the states and territories. This from a man not seen as naturally amenable to the idea of sharing power, but the Premiers have all been impressed with his growing spirit of co-operation.
It seems that he is governing with compassion, for most of us, and that he has shrugged off the strait-jacket of ideology. Or maybe he just decided that there was no benefit in ignoring the obvious. People need to eat, whether they are in work, or not.
What did it cost?
Early estimates were around $300 billion, and counting. But it has saved many lives. As of today’s figures, there have been 102 deaths, which means a lot of grieving families, but it is many less than we might have expected. It is worth whatever it costs. And it is money from the communal pot. We can afford it, because we want to.
The shutdown of the economy will be difficult to recover from. But Australia has weathered many storms, and I have faith that the measures he has facilitated, from an immediate survival perspective, will at least soften the blow for those least fortunate. Many have slipped through the safety net, but he appears to be discovering the fact that it is part of his ‘job description’; to alleviate suffering wherever he sees his fellow citizens doing it hard. Compare that statement with our expectations of him after the bush-fires!
Where to from here?
He will most probably face internal revolt from the hard right within his party, sooner rather than later. His current spending is heavily reliant on Keynesian economics right now. Keynes’ ideas may be the only credible theory for times like this, and it has been instructive to see so many of the world’s governments recently reverted to the old orthodoxy.
This economic theory postulates that “the government should increase demand to boost growth,” amongst other similarly expansionary fiscal measures. It was seen to work through Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’ package in the 1930s. This sort of stimulus is very unpopular with neo-liberals, who tend to be driven by their own ideology, concerning keeping government small, and spending minimal. Already we are hearing from libertarians and right wing think tanks such as the IPA that we need to re-open businesses, and to end the lock-down.
Interesting research from the period 1914 – 1919 shows that cities in the U.S. which maintained their social distancing and lock-downs during the Spanish Flu (1918-20) longer, bounced back more quickly, and more resoundingly. Read about this effect here https://arstechnica.com/science/2020/04/lockdowns-flatten-the-economic-curve-too/
Will he survive the challenge?
Scott Morrison has steered this country safely through the early stages of a profound crisis. He will see clamour for a return to the busy days, in an attempt to re-start the economy. He needs to hold his nerve, because the Spanish Flu pandemic taught us something else – if you take your foot off the brake, the second wave can be more devastating than the first. That happened in 1919, and there is no rule that says it will not happen again.
We have yet to see the worst of this particular crisis. India, Russia, Indonesia, Brazil and the United States are all entering unknown terrain, and we are very, very lucky to live where we do. The last thing we need is to listen to populists and ideologues, whose concern for society is zero. Remember their leader, Maggie Thatcher, who in 1987 uttered these words: “They are casting their problems at society. And, you know, there’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first. Not much of a belief system, if you ask me.
This article has been recently updated, to reflect some changes in relevant facts. The tally of deaths in Australia from COVID19 was revised from 62 to 102.