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'It's not a race': Morrison palms COVID responsibility to the states

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Prime Minister Scott Morrison rarely if ever takes responsibility for his actions and that of the Government (image via YouTube)

From RATs to the "stroll out", COVIDSafe to quarantine, the Morrison Government has shown it’s more about style than substance, writes Nicole Taylor.

WHEN PRIME MINISTER Scott Morrison jetted into Melbourne last November to deploy his daggy dad persona, it was impossible to view his tour as anything other than a spell of pre-campaigning campaigning in a city he’d all but ignored for the previous two years.

It’s not for nothing his moniker is Scotty from Marketing. He was filmed making spring rolls and gnocchi. He had his hair cut in Malvern. "Crowds of people" waited by the window, "excited to see his new do", or so Nine News’ Gillian Lantouris breathlessly told us.

He popped into Toyota’s Altona plant to grudgingly spruik new-found climate strategies. His Party’s sudden encouragement of electric vehicle take-up interestingly, and predictably, coincides with News Corp's recent editorial push for net-zero emissions by 2050.

Reminded of comments made in 2019 that Labor’s EV policy would “end the weekend”, he was characteristically reflective:

"Labor wants to tell everybody what to do… I think Australians have had enough of governments telling them what to do, frankly. We’ve just been through two years of governments having to tell people what to do."

The implication couldn’t have been clearer: Morrison’s Federal Government was content to lean on the various state governments when it came to the pesky task of actual governance.

The PM had more pressing priorities, like attending the South Australian Liberal Party's annual meeting, placing 55 telephone calls to help get a mate a new gig, enjoying a private dinner in New York with News Corp’s CEO ​​Robert Thomson, hectoring for voters to show ID despite "vanishingly small" incidents of fraud and whipping up a New Year’s Eve barramundi curry

Dereliction of responsibility, of duty, has been the defining attribute of the Morrison Administration since his infamous "I don’t hold a hose, mate" remarks in 2019 and his lack of leadership has only become more pronounced during the Coalition’s mishandling of the COVID pandemic response.

Quarantining of international arrivals, within Commonwealth remit since Federation in 1901, was swiftly outsourced to states and territories to not only establish and manage but also to primarily fund.

The vaccine rollout was so staggeringly slow many commentators dubbed it the "stroll out".

“It’s not a race,” Morrison said, of the tiered, almost year-long plan to innoculate the adult population.

Except that that’s exactly what it was. In June 2021, the same month the Delta variant first started spreading in the community, just 28.6% of people aged 16 plus had received at least one dose. States and territories were left to establish pop-up clinics and additional vaccination hubs to speed up the process, though not all states were equal. 

By the end of August 2021, the Victorian Government had been responsible for administering 50% of vaccinations, while the New South Wales Government had been responsible for administering just 36% of vaccinations in that State, with the majority being administered through the federally run GP scheme. 

The $12 million COVIDSafe app (of which $7 million was allocated to its marketing) was plagued with so many issues that in the first 18 months of its inception just 17 contacts had been identified, forcing the development of individual state and territory check-in apps.

The political party that constantly, yet erroneously, self-identifies as the country’s superior economic managers was similarly wasteful of taxpayer funds distributed through the JobKeeper program. $38 billion was gifted to businesses where turnover had not fallen below the threshold. A further $1.3 billion landed in the accounts of businesses where turnover had actually tripled during the quarter JobKeeper had been claimed. 

Morrison and co then transferred the task of governance to industry, generously allowing businesses to choose for themselves to return the money to treasury, or not. 

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg was empathetic to businesses’ distress, saying:

"Our focus as a government was to get money out the door to support those who were in need."

Imagine, for a moment, if we substituted business with job-seeker or disability pensioner. We need only look to the brutality of Robodebt to see how things may have played out.

Or we could observe Morrison’s comments regarding the cost of rapid antigen tests (RATs):

"We're just in another stage of this pandemic now where we can't just go round and make everything free."

More than $38 billion may have been incorrectly handed out to businesses but there’s not enough in the coffers to provide RATs to individuals in the thick of the greatest health emergency this country has seen for a hundred years, despite research suggesting its economic benefit. 

Concession cardholders now have access to ten free RATs – if, of course, they find a stockist – but this scheme did not come into effect until 24 January, nearly three weeks after its announcement and days after the likely peak of the Omicron wave.

Everyone else, including low-income earners without concession cards, continue to be at the mercy of retailers. Price gouging is rife, with some outlets reportedly charging $50 for a single test

Morrison’s response:

 "Well, that is what the private market is for."

All of this begs the question: if quarantine, vaccines, check-in apps, border controls and decisions about lockdowns are matters for state and territory governments and repayment – or not – of JobKeeper is a matter for industry, and supply of RATs is a matter for the private market, what exactly is a matter for Morrison's Federal Government?

A week in politics, so the saying goes, is a long time: for Morrison, the past month must have felt like an eternity.

He popped up in early January in daggy dad mode, joining a pair of Fox commentators at the cricket. "This is Australia living with the virus," he said, on a day the country had recorded over 71,000 new COVID cases "and Australians are taking wickets in the virus."

During an address at the National Press Club, he confessed he didn't know the price of some of his so-called Quiet Australians' basic necessities, the implication being that that's yet another task for someone else.

He said:

"I'm not going to pretend to you that I go out each day and I buy a loaf of bread and I buy a litre of milk. I'm not going to pretend to you that I do that. I’ll leave those sort of things to you, mate."

2021 Australian of the Year Grace Tame understandably wants nothing to do with him. Former New South Wales premier Gladys Berejiklian reportedly described him as a 'horrible, horrible person'. His own Deputy Barnaby Joyce has said he's a 'hypocrite and a liar'.

His popularity with voters is plummeting, too. The first Newspoll for 2022 revealed support for the Coalition has dived to 34%, the lowest rating since 2018. Morrison remains preferred prime minister, just. He leads Leader of the Opposition Anthony Albanese by two percentage points. In December, he led by nine.

On Friday, Morrison returned to Melbourne for a second stint of pre-campaigning campaigning, washing hair at a salon in Mount Eliza. He doesn't hold a hose, he doesn’t manage hotel quarantine, he doesn't know the price of a RAT, but he will wash your hair for the cameras.

It remains to be seen, however, whether a bunch of marketing ops are enough to make up for the Federal Coalition's feeble management over the last couple of years, particularly with Victorian voters, many of whom felt not only abandoned but continually criticised during the 2020 wave Morrison pointedly referred to as the "Victorian wave".

Nicole Taylor lives in Melbourne. Her writing has previously appeared in The Guardian Weekly, among other places.  

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'It's not a race': Morrison palms COVID responsibility to the states

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