Hewson's View: We're all in this together - some more than others

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock

Under the Morrison government, all of us are left to live with the "tyranny of the slogan".

With COVID-19, "We are ALL in it together". Sure, we are all caught up in it. But our experiences differ in terms of intensity, timing, geography, and consequence.

We have all had to struggle with the frustration of incomplete and often variable information, mixed messaging, the at times inconsistent application of guidance and rules, compounded by the complexities of our federated political structure.

Nevertheless, it has been to our national credit that we have mostly "pulled together" quickly, while accepting and responding to our individual circumstances and responsibilities. Overall, lifestyles and behaviour have shifted significantly - how we work, how we travel, what we eat, our priorities, businesses and practices, and so on.

In reality, it has been awkward to have to accept that not all industries and practices have been "locked down" or treated differentially - the main exceptions have been agriculture, mining and construction, but the latter has still been supported directly through HomeBuilder, the outcome of heavy political lobbying. Our pollies and bureaucrats haven't led by taking a pay cut.

While the messaging on "social distancing" and travel restrictions has been mostly consistent, its application has been variable. While most have attempted to adhere, there have been some glaring exceptions - footballers travelling interstate, images of the PM having a beer at the football, protests, lines of hundreds at pubs as lockdowns were eased, special dispensations for the likes of airlines, the debacle that is aged care, and so on.

For example, in the last week my wife had to take an internal NSW flight to deal with a family hospital emergency. She wore a mask to the airport, and the airline enforced social distancing in the boarding queue. However, none of the crew wore masks, and although masks were offered once on board, it was made clear they weren't compulsory, so the take up was at most 25 per cent. Passengers were seated six-across on a full flight for an hour. It begs the question why government hasn't required the airlines to insist on masks, especially when the industry has been offered significant financial assistance, and for whom the rules have been "bent", as early on flight crews on international flights could avoid quarantining.

A five-year-old schoolchild gets it - no hat, no play!

A five-year-old schoolchild gets it - no hat, no play!

Although our governments have made much of taking advice, specifically medical and economic advice, this too has been variable, and its application sometimes has reflected prejudice and privilege.

Recall the early 500-person limit on gatherings to be introduced after the weekend when the PM wanted to attend the footy, and to allow time for a major religious event; note the support packages for effective lobbyists, and the "blind spot" in not supporting the university sector despite its significance as an employer and exporter, as the PM sees them as hot beds of left-wing radicals and protesters, and is offended by the salaries paid to senior university administrators.

While the focus on recovery and in particular jobs is an imperative, it is difficult to accept the continuing prejudice about "the unemployed" by not giving certainty to those on Newstart/JobSeeker beyond the end of the year, when the unemployed could be approaching 2 million, and could remain high for many years.

There are also the conflicts and biases of those advising on recovery strategy, for example pushing gas projects which will be "stranded assets" in a decade, when recovery offers a unique opportunity to accelerate the transition to a low carbon Australia by mid-century, generating jobs and emissions reductions across all sectors. Not to mention the opportunity for a "reset" of our industrial and social policy bases.

While the "butt end" of the virus is its impact on our aged, COVID has revealed many of the failings of the care sector - the result of the drift from government homes to today's mixture of for-profit and not-for-profit businesses, and governments having ignored the recommendations of many reviews.

It is most unedifying to watch this debacle, and emerging waves of the virus, to now be the focus of another "blame game" within our National Cabinet.

Unfortunately, we can't hope to come out of this, and waves to come, until an effective vaccine is developed and deployed.

We all need to redouble our collective efforts and attitudes, and encourage imagination in our governance.

  • John Hewson is a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU, and a former Liberal opposition leader.
This story We're all in this together - only when it suits first appeared on The Canberra Times.