Andrew P Street
The great secret about government in Australia is this: no-one wants to know about government in Australia.
Our wide brown land contains multitudes, as diverse as our many, many regionally specific words for swimming costumes. But whether we wear bathers, togs, cozzies or wet-times stretchy pants, we are united in one thing above all else: a passionate desire to not think about what the government is up to, under any circumstances.
And that makes things great for this government, because it means it can carry on doing, whatever things it fancies doing without any of that annoying ‘transparency’ or ‘accountability’ stuff that would otherwise make it awkward to, for example, appoint failed political candidates to incredibly lucrative gigs with the Fair Work Commission. Isn’t that right, Sophie Mirabella?
Unfortunately, when the unwilling Australian public is forced to pay attention to the government, it historically doesn’t end well. And with the vaccine rollout falling 3.4 million doses short of its four million dose target, Scott Morrison has ensured that his government has Australia’s full attention.
If this were a single large screw-up by an otherwise solid government, the rollout would probably not be the political crisis it’s shaping up as being. But it’s not a one-off, and that’s why everyone’s now talking about the next election being at risk for a government that seemed on track to walk to an easy win as recently as three months ago.
It’s merely the latest in a series of rolling disasters, all characterised by the Morrison government’s reliance on announcements masquerading as action, a seeming lack of interest in successfully managing problems as they occur, and an emphasis on angrily insisting that it’s anyone else’s fault when the crisis inevitably becomes public.
It’s a strategy that has worked with bushfires (it’s arsonists!) and the collapse of the Centrelink site (it’s hackers!) and the Ruby Princess debacle (it’s a state responsibility!). And that’s before we mention the reports of abuse against women within the government which Morrison is attempting to sidestep while refusing to do anything as radical as, say, investigate MPs accused of stalking or sexual violence.
And that accumulation of scandals has been teetering on the precipice, just waiting for the weight of one major catastrophe to tip it into an avalanche of voter fury. And… say, can you hear that distant roaring sound?
Up until very recently, the government had been able to tout their success at keeping Australia’s COVID-19 impact at a level below much of the rest of the world. But now, with a vaccine rollout that rivals nobody but Botswana, it’s starting to look less like the product of good federal management and more like swift border control and population testing by the state governments, and a handy amount of pure luck.
We’ve seen this reflected in the thumping returns of governments in Queensland and WA, likely to be repeated shortly in Tasmania, whereas the feds have spent the last year demanding states open their borders (including an aborted High Court challenge to the WA government) and failing to protect residents in Commonwealth-run aged-care facilities.
This means that the bungled vaccine rollout isn’t a typical Morrison political embarrassment that’s of interest to Twitter but with little wider impact on the community – like, say Energy minister Angus Taylor using a fake document to smear Sydney Mayor Clover Moore and never providing a sensible explanation.
The government’s failure means we risk more public health and economic crises, as the longer Australians go unvaccinated against a fast-mutating virus, the more lockdowns, travel restrictions, event cancellations, lingering illnesses and potential deaths we have to endure.
The recent three-day pre-Easter lockdown has been estimated as having cost Brisbane literally billions in lost revenue: a huge loss to the local economy and a massive political snafu for a federal government desperate to improve their electoral prospects in the state.
And now the government has abandoned even setting a vaccine target, along with any thought of holding an election this year. Obviously, the plan from here is to wait it out and hope the public gets bored and dozes off again.
But the longer a rollout takes, the longer Australians are separated from overseas friends and family members, and the greater risk every city and state faces of further snap lockdowns and border closures – all of which will now be laid at the federal government’s door.
And hey, maybe everything will go great from here on. Maybe all those doses Morrison claims to have secured will actually appear, the bureaucratic confusion for GPs and patients will diminish, and it’ll be smooth sailing to our nation’s glorious post-COVID future.
But the longer that Morrison fails to provide a competent government, the more likely it is that the public will replace it with one they can more safely ignore.
Andrew P Street is a journalist, columnist, author, editor and broadcaster.
For more information, visit www.patreon.com/andrewpstreet.