Crispin Hull / Federal Government Flails in Covid Response

The spin unravelled this week, to reveal a flailing Federal Government.

The two keystones of its response to the Covid crisis cracked: Prime Minister Scott Morrison acted contrary to medical advice and he made a major decision without the support of the National Cabinet.

The advice of the Therapeutic Goods Administration is that the Astra Zenica vaccine should not be given to people under 60 – that is more than 80 per cent of the population. But in the face an appallingly low vaccination rate, for which his Government must take blame, he gave GPs indemnity for any liability if they gave the dose to young people.

He wanted to be seen to do something and to get rid of the glut of AZ shots which should only be given to 20 percent of the population.

Several State Premiers stated this had not been discussed at Federal Cabinet.

The spin has been there all along. Hitherto, it had convinced a lot of people that the Government was doing reasonably well.

But as the spin unravels more people are seeing that the genesis for this week’s massive lockdowns goes back a long way and was grounded in the Government’s poor decision-making.

Morrison’s statement that the “vaccine roll-out is not a race” has turned out to be dangerous spin. Other countries have correctly treated it as a race – one to get enough people vaccinated to prevent the easy spread of new strains of the virus, like  the Delta strain which wreaked this week’s havoc.

Australia was the envy of the world in the early months of the pandemic with one of the lowest incidences and death rates anywhere.

Now it seems that the Lucky Country is yet again squandering its good fortune.

Less than seven per cent of the population has been fully vaccinated. Half or nearly half of the populations of the US, UK and many European countries have been vaccinated. It has always been a race, and Australia is losing it.

And, in a sign that this week is a turning point in the fortunes of the Government, one Minister contradicted another, preferring the truth to the spin. Trade Minister Simon Birmingham, (part of the very small sensible centre of the Liberal Party) acknowledged that Australia is nowhere near the head of the queue for international vaccine supply as put in the spin of Health Minister Greg Hunt.

We are now at the end of the queue for Pfizer and Moderna supplies.

This is why the Government has not rolled out a huge advertising campaign – as it should have done long ago.

Even without such a campaign, there are not enough vaccines to meet demand and there are not likely to be until sometime next year. That is because the government made bad decisions early on.

It preferred Astra Zenica and the Queensland University-CSL vaccines which could be produced in Australia, with no back up if these two failed. It then scrambled to get Pfizer and Moderna, but at greater cost and delay than if it had got in early and had helped fund research..

In short, it failed to ask the basic “what if” questions that good managers ask. And that is largely due to successive Coalition Governments cutting, denuding, intimidating and disrespecting the public service.

The Coalition’s whole philosophy of putting the individual over the public good and private enterprise over public administration has landed us in this mess.

Its insistence on relying on GPs and pharmacies for the lion’s share of the roll-out was inefficient and expensive. The Coalition will do anything to appease medical lobby groups.

Why pay GPs $34 a shot, rather than having large vaccination centres staffed by nurses?

In Britain people are lining up in places like Westminster Abbey to get their shots. That’s how you do a public-health program.

If the decision to go with AstraZeneca was based on cost (the EU is paying $2.80 a shot) rather than Pfizer ($19) and Moderna ($28.50) it is puzzling, given the Government was going to waste $34 a shot for GP delivery.

Or worse, it can be explained by the Government needing to economise drastically on the cost of the vaccine because it was squandering so much on its delivery.

And now, being at the bottom of the queue with a begging bowl, Australia is going to pay a lot more than the EU.

In short, the Coalition, which prides itself as being a brilliant economic manager, has been done over by the drug companies and its own incompetence.

It also failed to vaccinate all health and emergency workers early; failed to set up remote quarantine centres; was too eager to put the economy before health; and failed to prevent business ripping us off with JobSeeker.

The collateral damage is the health, security, and well-being of Australians – the core function of government.

There was another related turning point this week. The fifth Inter-generational report continued it misplaced concern over the effects on the Budget of the ageing population.

Its solution, of course, was to increase immigration to the cheers of the property and retail sectors and big business generally, who want to see demand rise and wages fall.

For more than a decade I have been rabbitting on about the perils of high population growth caused by high immigration, with very few others sounding the same warning.

But this week noted economics writers from the centre-left (Ross Gittins of The Sydney Morning Herald) and centre right (Judith Sloan of The Australian) have joined the warnings. Better to age gracefully than have a migrant blitz, Sloan wrote.

The pandemic has shown we can do without high immigration. Employment is booming; unemployment falling; and wages rising, despite the pandemic, and despite all the predictions of mainstream economists who have got this hopelessly wrong.

Young people require 18 years of high dependency and cost a lot more (mainly in education) than over-65s who mostly fund themselves.

High immigration with its attendant infrastructure costs will be a much bigger drain on the federal budget than an ageing population. Other countries have managed without it.

The Intergenerational Report is an insult to everyone over 65. We are not a burden or a drain. We are an asset – as workers, contractors, carers and volunteers.

This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Australian media on 3 July 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