Crispin Hull / Profit First in the Pandemic

Thanks must go to Virgin CEO Jayne Hrdlika for spelling out exactly how big business thinks: profit first, lives and health last.

“We can’t keep [Covid] out forever,” she told a business leaders’ forum this week. “We’re all going to be sicker than we ever have been in the past because we’re not exposed to the viruses and challenges that the rest of the world is dealing with, so we need to get the borders open for our own health and for the economy…

“It will make us sick, but won’t put us into hospital. Some people may die, but it will be way smaller than the flu.”

Profit First in the Pandemic

Despite the later back-pedalling, it fits a pattern of business and conservative politicians opposing lock-downs and border closures.

They talk about the importance of “jobs” and “the economy”, but they really mean profits.

They do not want an economy with rising wages and living standards for all. They do not want more jobs. Most businesses go to inordinate lengths to shed employees. Business organisations like a pool of unemployed to suppress wages. That is why they support high immigration.

Incidentally, the unemployment figures showed another fall this week to the surprise of most economists because of the withdrawal of Jobseeker. But it should not come as a surprise. With the borders shut and no immigration, of course unemployment is falling.

This pandemic is changing a lot of thinking and exposing the folly of earlier thinking.

Business likes small government (other than subsidies, hand-outs and contracts for themselves). It likes austerity, balanced or surplus Budgets, and tax cuts for business.

The pandemic has exposed this poor thinking. Even the Coalition has espoused higher government spending and deficits to ward off the threat of a pandemic-induced recession.

Further the pandemic has revealed an appetite and appreciation for a greater role for government and for greater government spending on health and infrastructure. To some extent the Coalition has taken this on board as well.

So much so, that many think that the Coalition has stolen so much Labor ground that Labor has nowhere to go and will lose the next election.

However, the pandemic is revealing other political truths. It may be that the Coalition has surrendered its natural advantage of being seen (however misguidedly) as the better economic manager, because the pandemic has put the economy in the back seat compared to public health.

Further, it may well be that if public health, welfare and infrastructure are now the main concerns of government, voters might think that Labor, the party seen as doing better on these things, should be in government.

The Coalition has done a sterling job in reinforcing that perception by botching the vaccine roll-out.

According to a former head of the Federal Health Department, Stephen Duckett, “Australia’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout is not just a shambles, it’s an expensive shambles.”

He listed all the unmet vaccination targets. More importantly he cited contracts to private firms to help with the roll-out that were costly and meaningless.

A three-month $2.4 million contract signed by the Prime Minister’s Department with McKinsey and Company was for “capability services”. The department said McKinsey was advising the Government about “maximising economic and social opportunities as the Covid-19 vaccine progresses”.

Money for jargon.

It is in the Coalition’s DNA to do things through the private sector on the grounds that it is more efficient. It heeds the bidding of every private-sector medical lobby while undermining Medicare and public health.

With the vaccine it was determined to do the roll-out through private medical practices at a cost of $34 a shot. And they call themselves good business managers and constantly accuse Labor of wasting public money. Big public vaccination centres would have achieved more vaccines at much less cost.

But profit must come first.

Yes, we want a robust private sector competing for business in a market economy with the profit motive working well. But when firms do business with government, the public deserves to know how contracts were let; what results were expected; for how much money; whether the results were achieved; and if not, what were the penalties?

The Government worships the virtues of the private sector, but when it joins the private-sector fray by being a party to business contracts it falls prey to the private-sector adage: “There’s a sucker born every minute”.

The vaccine roll-out has been a classic of handing too much to the private sector and contributing too much to private-sector profits at the expense of the public purse.

The Government should now be wary of listening to business’s calls to open the international borders too early to boost business profits at the expense of public health.

First, it should prove itself a good public-health manager by getting the vaccination message across and getting more than 80 per cent of the population vaccinated to give us a chance to deal with new Covid break-outs.

This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Australian media on 22 May 2021.

Crispin Hull BA, LLB (Hons) | Property Convenor  |  ANU School of Legal Practice Lawyer of the Supreme Court of the ACT, on the Register of Practitioners kept by the High Court of Australia