It’s the ultimate bubble news perhaps, but this week the Department of Parliamentary Services put out a circular saying work was underway to ensure Parliament House “is prepared to manage any potential issues relating to coronavirus”.
Most immediately, hand sanitisers have been put around the place and cleaners are concentrating on “disinfecting high traffic touch points, particularly in the public areas”.
Goodness knows what will happen in the event the virus hits Parliament House, especially if the politicians are there. We can report, however, that so far the national toilet paper panic hasn’t threatened the spare rolls in the parliamentary lavatories.
The circular was a small reminder of how fast the COVID-19 situation is moving.
In just a week, we’ve seen a dramatic escalation. The travel ban has been extended and widened; it now prohibits the arrival of foreigners from Iran (announced on Saturday) and South Korea (added on Thursday) as well as from China, and there is enhanced screening for those coming from Italy.
We’ve had the initial locally-transmitted cases emerge. The first nursing home has been hit. The government has flagged the possible use of drastic biosecurity powers. The Reserve Bank has cut interest rates, and an official number has been put on COVID-19’s likely impact on the economy.
Scott Morrison has received praise for his handling of the situation, which is being contrasted with his cack-handedness during the bushfires.
(Notably, without the crisis, Morrison would have been on the back foot this week. It overshadowed embarrassing revelations at Senate estimates about the role of the Prime Minister’s Office in the sports rorts affair, and the Chief of the Defence Force, Angus Campbell, saying he had expressed concern to Morrison over the use of defence material in the PM’s notorious bushfire advertisement.)
Often secretive and downright slippery, on the coronavirus the government has shared information, and provided regular updates. It has acted strictly on the medical advice. The border closures are slowing the importation of the virus, allowing maximum time for local arrangements to be put in place.
Early on, some questioned whether the government was over-reacting. And the caution hasn’t been without cost, with about 90,000 students still unable to reach universities here. In a measure of the deepening crisis, that issue, at the centre of attention only weeks ago, has receded from public view.
Despite what it has done so far, the government’s real battle is just beginning. Containing the virus from spreading in the aged care sector, and from penetrating indigenous communities will be critical tests for federal and state authorities. And if we reach the stage that draconian powers are used, they could be very controversial.
Then there is the economy.
Appearing before a Senate committee hearing, Treasury estimated the virus would shave “at least” half a percentage point from growth in the March quarter. That’s on top of the bushfires taking off an estimated 0.2% across the December and March quarters, mostly the March one.
In one piece of positive news this week, the national accounts showed 2.2% annual growth and 0.5% in the December quarter. Worse numbers had been feared, which would have left the economy in a weaker position for the difficult time ahead.
Authors: Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra