Catastrophes need drastic remedies and lots of cash

Australia has been through four natural disasters this year; the drought, the bushfires, the pandemic and the global climate catastrophe . Each of them has provided us with varying degrees of physical exposure, but if you were not directly and personally exposed to any of them, your mental health was probably affected.

Big government is an idea which allows governments the capacity to respond to natural phenomena such as economic depressions, recessions, wars, cyclones, fires, floods and pandemics. It utilises elements of Keynes’ theory that governments have a role to play when markets are not enough, such as times when catastrophes occur. It generally means government investment replaces private investment, if the market is unable, or unwilling, to invest. 

Notable examples of governmental intervention are Roosevelt’s New Deal, which helped to end the Great Depression, and the Marshall Plan, which re-constructed Europe after World War 11. The rebuilding of Darwin after Cyclone Tracy is a notable local example.   

At times like this we are often sustained by our families and friends, by our communities, and even by the kindness of strangers. But there is a level of assistance that we are unable to provide for ourselves. That is provided by the mechanisms and the solidity of our governments. 

We often speak disparagingly of our being over-governed. We complain about paying taxes, about regulations, about the nanny state. In Australia we have so many layers of officialdom it can feel stifling. But during such times as these, that infrastructure can be comforting. It is why we all quietly blubber when we see the kids singing “We are Australian”. 

We survived the bushfires 

The bushfires of 2019 were devastating and terrifying. Although it impacted mostly in regional areas we all had some form of connection. It might have been through a visit to Mallacoota, or Broadford’s near-miss in 2009, or as a survivor of the Ash Wednesday fires … You might be a volunteer firefighter, or your niece is. We were all affected, because Australians are way too familiar with bushfires. 

We would not have come through so well if not for all of our governments acting on our behalf. Of course there were stuff-ups and mistakes, some of which are still causing people to be living in tents seven months later, but the governments responded, with the defence force, with firefighters, with evacuations and food drops. Our kindergartens and shire halls were available, and there was shelter provided. Our citizens are resourceful, but we can’t have a navy ship waiting off the coast, or supply helicopters. The hospitals were open and staffed, and no-one was counting the cost. We as a society would accept nothing less.

The drought is breaking (maybe) 

2019 was very dry. By July, a climatologist at the Australian Bureau of Meteorology stated that the drought was now officially the worst on record in the Murray–Darling Basin, and “had now exceeded the Federation Drought, the WWII drought and the Millennium drought in terms of its severity through the MDB”. Drought in Australia

This year (2020) much of the drought stricken country has had, or expects, above average rainfall for the winter months. This is wonderful news. It will not immediately rescue those whose incomes have been slashed, or those whose mental health has suffered. It will not comfort those whose loved ones have taken their own lives, because of the stress and the perceived hopelessness of their situation. Many farmers have had to sell or shoot stock, or go into more debt to buy feed, or lost the opportunity to sow crops because of the intense drought. 

During the worst of it the public has participated in charity drives to buy and send hay for livestock. Many have donated funds to struggling rural families. Food parcels have been delivered to farmers who have thus far lived proudly independent lives. All of us know where our food comes from, and many of us want to be a part of any push to help.

Thankfully we also have a Government which has had the wherewithal to assist. These were trying times, and once again federal and state governments stepped into the breach. Of course the situation is only going to repeat, as climate change continues its inexorable march. 

“Every federal budget and update since 2002-03, when the millennium drought was just starting to affect parts of the country, has been forced to set aside money for drought relief.” The cost of drought – and it’s just going to grow  This obviates the need for governments which do not allow markets to determine outcomes. Farmers, like their families, and the communities which service them, operate as crucial elements of our society; we prefer to stand as one. 

The pandemic rolls on

As Victoria teeters on the edge of a second wave, Australia is having to look seriously at a  second, perhaps total, lockdown. As we concentrate on the physical health of the nation, some are demanding a re-opening of the economy. As if the idiocy of the Trump response is not enough, we are debating if we can afford to continue the stimulus packages in place. It is not a matter of choice. We do not allow people to starve in a country brim full of food. We do not have people thrown out into the winter streets, when we have thousands of empty houses.

We have constructed a society which has withstood the worst that nature can bring, and we have stood united. We do not treat the national accounts like a grocery list, striking out what we think might be a luxury. We look after our own, and if the Government needs to go into debt, we should be fine with that.  

The continuing saga of climate change stupidity

Climate change underlies the bushfires and the drought’s severity. It continues to be an open wound in our society. If there is an issue which has unified our young people, this is it. It is also the Morrison Government’s most notable failure. This week, in the midst of the pandemic, we hear that Craig Kelly is ‘investigating’ whether the Bureau of Meteorology is fudging temperature data for nefarious, presumably ‘green’, propaganda purposes. 

Angus Taylor continues to assert that black is indeed white, and our renewables industry battles manfully, while facing the headwinds of Taylor’s bluster. 

Scott Morrison has managed to overturn his disdain for science by largely following medical scientists’ advice on the Covid-19 pandemic. We can only hope that he decides to put Australia’s needs before his own, by changing his course on climate change. Choosing his personnel better would send a message that he believes in a society which wants to pull together. He needs to lead.

We need to stick together

The continuing argument between the left and right in politics seems to be one which boils down to whether or not we believe in the power of big government to cushion the blows of nature, and to maintain our social fabric, in the face of steep odds. 

It is a moot point, as Morrison, through the power he holds, will eventually decide which way we jump. He needs to step away from his ideological straight jacket, and study some history. Great leaders, such as Clement Attlee of the U.K. and our own John Curtin, consciously set out to build inclusive societies in their respective countries, after the damage done by World War 11. 

We have been agreeably surprised with Morrison’s seeming acceptance of Keynes’ roadmap for recovery. Let us hope it continues. It is the only credible way forward. As the Nobel laureate Robert Lucas, an opponent of Keynes, admitted in 2008: “I guess everyone is a Keynesian in a foxhole.”

Let’s not pin the second outbreak on the guards

It is clear that, after our initial success in dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic, Australians are disappointed and even angry that we have been thrown back into lockdown. Rates of infection have, relatively speaking, shot up. The entire Melbourne Metro area has been locked down, residents of high rise towers have been placed under virtual house arrest, and the economy has screeched to a halt, again. 

This has caused a cascading effect, where the other states are keen to blame Victoria, and some Victorians are equally keen to blame Dan Andrews and his Government. The Government, in an attempt to divert attention away from the cause of the outbreak, at least until it is contained, has scheduled a judicial inquiry, commencing on July 20.

What went wrong?

Returning Australians are required to quarantine for fourteen days on arriving in Australia. It is compulsory, and they are tested for the virus while in quarantine. At the end of quarantine, they go home. It was a system employed around Australia, with Melbourne and Sydney taking the bulk of the returnees. The system was very effective until the outbreak in Melbourne.  

It appears that the Government turned to contract labour firms to provide essential security staff at the quarantine hotels. These companies, in their turn, then sub-contracted the work out to other labour hire companies. There is doubt as to who contracted the security contractors, as the Health Minister denies hiring them. 

Compounding the problem, the Government had a list of approved providers. One of the companies contracted was not on the approved list. The contracts also appear to have been granted without a tendering process. One possible explanation for this is the haste with which the arrangements were put into place.

Notwithstanding any contract irregularities, as the chain of responsibility lengthened, so did the Government’s control of the situation weaken. Genomic sequencing of the outbreak has traced it back to the quarantine hotels. So there seems little to investigate. We know where the outbreak started, we know that many of the security guards became infected, and we also know that some then transmitted it to their families, and so on. What was the reasoning behind the decision to outsource the security work?

Why did the Government outsource?

Outsourcing is akin to the ‘cargo cult’ of old, where believers think that if you cut costs you will reap an immediate benefit, with no downside. It is usually implemented without adequate research, with very little evidence supporting the practice, and it is often ‘imported’ because it is reported as a rising trend overseas. 

It has a number of problems however, the most important of which is a trade-off between cost and quality. There is ample evidence that the more important the function, the higher the risk of an expensive failure. There is also a compulsion to overstate savings, which almost never eventuate. 

Although the New South Wales Government used some private security in their own hotel quarantine system, they mainly used Police and ADF members. It appears to be a matter of some luck that they did not suffer an outbreak similar to Victoria’s. Such is life.

Health Minister Jenny Mikakos on Friday said her department was not responsible for hiring private security guards to work at the hotels. Again, who hired them then?

Who is responsible for the outbreak?

Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton, along with other public health staff, was warned of major problems with the scheme in April, more than a month before the first outbreak was detected. 

Professor Sutton is fourth in the chain of command at the Department of Health and Human Services’ Regulation, Health Protection, and Emergency Management Division. He reports to Melissa Skilbeck, who has subsequently been stripped of many of her responsibilities in the Division. This seems premature, considering the inquiry has not started yet.

The problems included an inadequate supply of masks and gloves, poor infection-control systems, inadequate training in even the most basic hygiene protocols, and open breaches of physical-distancing guidelines by hotel staff, security and health personnel. Poor literacy and English language skills were cited as aggravating factors, and the lack of preparation time made the situation even worse, as did the fractured lines of command. Who was in charge? Was it hotel management, or the security provider, the Health Department or the federal Department of Immigration?

Some of the guards were provided at the last minute, and were unsupervised, as is often the case with labour hire staff. Some of them are alleged to have been less than professional in their interactions with each other, and more worryingly, with some of the quarantining guests. 

Another problem is that the qualifications framework within the security industry is considered haphazard at best, and criminally inept at worst. There is widespread confusion as to the minimum standards required, and there is apparently a black market for bogus security officer’s certificates. 

There is a two tier system, between registration and licensing, which weakens definitions and position descriptions. The industry has been the subject of a disparate number of investigations by the Fairwork Commission, due to its record of wage theft, and also its use of sham contracting. Many guards are paid in cash, and are employed under their own ABNs. This means that many are without any sort of leave entitlements, no workcover insurance, and no superannuation. Such conditions can lead to over working, unsafe practices and exploitation by employers. There is no real union representation. 

Several were rumoured to be working two jobs during the hotel quarantine period, which led to fatigue and possible under-performance. It has been reported that several were employed at more than one location during this period of time. This might have increased the risk. 

Any lessons to be learned?

Many of us have laid the blame for the outbreak firmly at the guards’ feet. They were undertrained, under resourced, under supervised, underrepresented and chronically underpaid. They were undervalued, as was the role they were expected to play. No matter who employed them, it was our public health being protected, and there was a cavalier disregard for the importance of the task. Whoever was in charge of the hotel quarantine project failed. They should have thought it through. The guards deserved better. Management means just that – to manage. 

On a systemic level, perhaps it is time in the 21st century to put aside our arrogance and our sense of entitlement. They are security guards. They are doing a job most Australians turn their noses up at. And many are recent migrants. Perhaps we could reflect on the fact that most of our forebears were migrants, and every man or woman deserves to be treated with some respect, and to be given consideration. When did we start throwing the vulnerable to the wolves? 

Is our alliance with Trump’s America worth it?

Almost eighty years ago Prime Minister John Curtin prepared a New Year’s Eve message for the Australian people. It was written three weeks after the war with Japan had begun. It was published in the Melbourne Herald on 27 December, 1941: 

‘Without any inhibitions of any kind, I make it quite clear that Australia looks to America, free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom.’

With this message he informed the world that Australia’s foreign policy direction must change, in response not only to the military situation with Japan, but to Australia’s location in the Pacific. From then on, he states, Australia will be proactive, the architect of her own interests. 

Australia disengaged from the ‘general war’ to concentrate on the Pacific conflict. Both Churchill and Roosevelt were surprised, and dismayed, but the die was cast. Australia survived the war, but only with massive assistance from the U.S. America has been the cornerstone of our foreign policy ever since.

Eighty years later, are Australia and the U.S. still a ‘perfect match’, or is it time to re-consider the partnership? Although America is the pre-eminent power on earth, does Australia need its protection, and secondly, does America provide said protection, and at what price? Is there a credible threat to us, or would we be more sensible to take a leaf out of New Zealand’s book, and be no-one’s enemy, and no-one’s target? It is important to look at our similarities, but also at the areas where we diverge.

Shared history, shared values?

For years, at least until President Trump was elected, there was a type of consensus that what we had in common far outweighed our differences. Recent events, particularly in America’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, and then the Black Lives Matter protests, have thrown some doubt on that shared vision. 

Many have used the “shared history, and shared values” argument to justify our continued relationship. Others question the value for Australia, which has stood loyally by its mighty ally, through its many wars, with not much to show for the effort, except in terms of lost lives, and wasted military resources. We were never there as equal partners. 

We supported American wars whenever we were asked

Australia joined the U.S. in the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the First Gulf War in Iraq, the Afghanistan War, the Second Gulf War in Iraq. When push comes to shove, Australia is expected to step forward, no questions asked. Perhaps the debt from 1941 – 1945 has been paid?

Democratic standards

Australia and the U.S. are both nominally democratic societies, and yet there is in the U.S. an active campaign to suppress the vote for minorities, and to rig elections by gerrymander. There are efforts to outlaw postal voting, even when in the midst of a pandemic. 

Australians are used to electoral matters being decided by independent umpires. We are not only encouraged to vote, but we are punished if we do not. So is America still a democracy, and worth defending?

Guns in America

Probably the most contentious right Americans possess is the right “to keep and to bear arms”. Covered by the Second Amendment, and intended to permit the personal use of arms as a defence against state tyranny, it has mutated into a violent and uncontrolled gun culture. 

In 2017, gun deaths reached their highest level since 1968, with 39,773 deaths by firearm, of which 23,854 were by suicide and 14,542 were homicides. see here  Another side of this tragedy is that suicide accounts for almost twice as many deaths as homicide. 

By comparison Australia’s gun deaths in 2017 were 189. It is incomprehensible to Australians that Americans insist on their right to kill, and to be killed. The USA had a death rate from guns, in 2017, that is effectively 14 times that of Australia.

This situation is exacerbated by the militarisation of the various state police forces, and the sheer number of mainly gun-fuelled deaths. Most of those deaths are of Black men, arguably by overzealous police. Do we share the values of a nation which practices officially sanctioned, racially based murder? 

Health system 

There is no universal healthcare in America. If you get sick in the U.S. someone has to pay, and there are tales of patients treated for Covid19 who have been charged as much as US$34,000 for testing and treatment. Estimates of costs usually range from US$9,000 to US$20,000.  

A recent study published in the American Journal of Medicine says the biggest reason for bankruptcy in the U.S. is medical debt. President Trump appears to be fixated on abolishing Obamacare, which is the closest many Americans come to being covered for illness and treatment. 

In Australia we have universal health care. Many see it as a basic human right. Some people opt for private insurance, but it is increasingly seen as a poor option, driven by elitism. The U.S. is actively pushing to remove any health insurance, and any welfare support, from its most vulnerable citizens. Do we share those values?

Is Morrison committing us to a war with China?

Recently our Prime Minister has ramped up the hysteria and the rhetoric concerning China. He even committed a sum of $270 billion to defence, which included funding for long range missiles. These are presumably to warn China that we are deadly serious about defending ourselves, militarily, against our largest trading partner. 

This can be traced back to a slavish desire, on Morrison’s part, to please Donald Trump. The President, in an attempt to divert attention away from his own criminal negligence toward handling the pandemic in America, has sought to demonise China for somehow ‘inventing’ Covid19. So by jumping on Trump’s bandwagon, Australia is going to be ‘protected’ if China reacts badly to our belligerence.

The logic behind that approach to foreign policy defies belief. If America was once a trusted ally, the Trump presidency must cause us to reconsider where we stand. A buddy this week, maybe not so much next week? We need to tread carefully until the U.S. has a leader who can be trusted, and we need to consider whether we actually do share values suited to a common future. Or is the American Empire heading toward its inevitable end? In Australian terms “have we backed the wrong horse?”