Crispin Hull / Australia’s Covid Crisis Buck

US President Harry Truman had a sign on his desk saying: “The buck stops here”. If Prime Minister Scott Morrison had a buck-related sign it would say: “Send the buck lower down the food chain to anyone but me.”

The “buck” is a counter used in card games to indicate who is responsible for dealing. If you don’t want the responsibility, you pass the buck to somebody else. Morrison has been adept at that in recent weeks as it becomes clear that he and his government have made bad decisions on quarantine, isolation, and vaccines.

These are life-and-death questions. Truman made a momentous one: to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 

But this week Morrison shied away from responsibility. He refused to acknowledge that the fact half the country is in lock-down is his fault and, when asked, to say unequivocally and immediately that he is sorry.

The public-relations and legal professions shy away from “sorry”. In public-relations “sorry” is thought to tarnish reputation by acknowledging guilt. In law, “sorry” is an admission of legal liability.

So, under Scotty from Marketing, there is no sorry, just as under solicitor John Howard there was no sorry to the Stolen Generations.

The Government’s decisions should not be judged in hindsight. The unexpected and unpredictable can turn things sour. But the quarantine and vaccine decisions were made in the context of a wealth of historic and scientific evidence and with the benefit of the vast resources of government.

When the plague hit in the 14th century, people could only put it down to God.

When this pandemic hit, we had two centuries of relatively successful dealing with infectious disease. The solutions have been to isolate, quarantine, eliminate the source, and ultimately develop vaccines and make sure everyone is vaccinated, all as quickly as possible.

With this pandemic we cannot easily eliminate the source because the Chinese Government will not help. With others you can. Change the water supply to slow cholera and kill mosquitoes to slow malaria. But the other measures were available.

The mistakes have built upon each other. The first was pre-pandemic. It was to wind down public health and not put in place the recommendations of inquiries into previous pandemics, like bird flu, to stockpile personal protective equipment and have big public-information programs ready, among other things. 

Australia knew from experience in World War I and the flu pandemic of 1918-20 that we were vulnerable of the tyranny of distance. That we would be last in the queue. That’s why the Federal Government set up the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories in 1916. It was a mug’s game to privatise it in 1994, with the support of both major parties.

The second mistake was the delay in closing travel into Australia. Travel from China was banned quickly, but not from the US or Europe. Was there a slight undertone of racism here?

Then, there was no early public-information campaign or compulsion to wear masks. Masks were used extensively during the 1918-20 flu pandemic. Public-information worked successfully with AIDS in the 1980s. But you cannot have a public-information campaign, nor compulsion, if there are not enough masks to go around.

Quarantine has been bungled in the face of historic evidence. Australia had a quarantine station way out of the heavily populated city on North Head from 1832 until it was closed in 1984. 

It was foolish to expect hotel quarantine would work in the densely populated parts of cities. People went in to hotel quarantine disease-free and then caught Covid in the hotel. Isolated immigration detention centres should have been used and ramped up. Morrison was Immigration Minister. He knew they were there.

With lock-down, he attacked Victoria’s Labor Government for locking down hard and early while praising NSW for staying open longer and locking down more loosely. In general, he has erred on the side of keeping open – until the past fortnight, when the consequences of poor decision-making became much clearer.

NSW Liberal Premier Gladys Berejiklian now well knows it. She has broken ranks and put the blame for NSW’s extended lockdown on Morrison’s failure to get enough vaccines and his inability to meet vaccine hesitancy. Several tactics come to miind: a public-information campaign; incentives such as vaccine passports or even lottery tickets; and penalties such as no vaccine, no attendance at sporting events, or even big weddings and funerals.

Early on, it was obvious that only universal vaccination would deal with this pandemic, as it had done for polio, smallpox, and a myriad of other diseases. It was obvious that Australia would not be able to do this alone and that many nations would be working on it.

The Morrison Government’s mistake was not to join the international effort with generous early research funding, but to put all of its eggs into the basket of “can this be made in Australia”. He should have sought as much supply as needed from as many sources as possible.

And then, having got some supply, got it into people’s arms with mass-scale government vaccination centres rather than scattered through small-scale private GP practices and untold millions spent on corporations’ “advice”.

These failures stem from a mindset. Early decisions were made while the Government was still in the mood of balancing the Budget at all costs. Penny pinching. The Government’s mindset is to prefer the private sector (staying open for business and to outsource administration). It has a mindset of being reluctant to spend government money on the broad public good – preferring to hand it directly or indirectly to its private-sector donors and supporters. It also is averse to international co-operation and scientific research on anything from climate change to public health.

Morrison foolishly said the vaccination roll-out was not a race. This week he tried to assert that the comment was about a race to get approvals, but he made the statement after, not before, the vaccines were approved.

Well now it is a race – one for his political life. An election must be held within the next 11 months at the latest, and it is difficult to see Morrison getting the population vaccinated before then or to get them to forgive or forget these lockdowns.

By the way, Truman, who knew where the buck stopped, went on to win the 1948.

This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Australian media on 24 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