Excess buying of toilet paper has become a leading indicator of public alarm about COVID-19. This week in Victoria, people were heading for the shelves again.
Just when Australians’ march out of our dark months was accelerating, Victorian numbers of new cases started ticking up. The state government reimposed some restrictions and declared dangerous hotspots.
Daniel Andrews asked the military to help on both the logistical and medical fronts. Other states were ready to assist. More negatively, the Berejiklian government, which has been insisting Queensland should lift its border restrictions, suddenly wasn’t too keen on traffic across the open NSW-Victorian border.
“Please reassess where you’re going in the next few weeks,” Gladys Berejiklian said on Thursday. “If you have a planned trip to Melbourne, please don’t go. Please do not welcome your friends, who may be intending to visit from Victoria, in the next few weeks, into your home.”
Australia remains balkanised.
Scott Morrison’s frustration is obvious. After reluctantly but wisely initially accepting more of a shutdown than he wanted, Morrison has his eye firmly on the exit sign. With the government announcing $250 million for the creative arts sector, he is asking national cabinet to give the entertainment industry a timetable for venues reopening.
Even chief medical officer Brendan Murphy, a fixture at prime ministerial news conferences for months, is vacating his role for a much-delayed start on Monday in his new job as secretary of the federal health department.
When the reopening of the economy began some weeks ago, Morrison and Murphy warned there would be fresh COVID outbreaks that would have to be managed. Now they’ve arrived, and how effectively they can be contained is yet to be seen.
Victoria’s daily tallies of new cases this week were: Monday 16; Tuesday 17; Wednesday 20; Thursday 33. Numbers are expected to rise with wider testing. The question for coming weeks is, when do selective outbreaks turn into a new “wave”?
Unless the health situation deteriorates dramatically, Morrison is determined not to take a step backward.
He sees Australia having the chance to emerge more strongly and rapidly from the crisis than most countries, a prospect reinforced by the latest figures from the International Monetary Fund. It revised its forecast for the Australian economy’s contraction in 2020 from 6.7% to 4.5%. But the broader picture became grimmer: the world recession is likely to be deeper and more prolonged than earlier thought.
Morrison believes in Australia we have reached the point where, with an adequately-reinforced health system and arrangements for dealing with limited outbreaks, we need to accept “that we live alongside the virus”. Speaking at the launch of the arts aid, he said with some force, “We can’t go, stop, go, stop, go. We can’t flick the light on and off, and on and off, and on and off, and on and off. ”.
But ultimately, it is the states that have the whip hands and in general the premiers, and not just Andrews, are a lot more risk-averse than the prime minister.
Andrews announced he was dispatching 1000 door-knockers to canvass a slew of suburbs, telling people to get tested at vans and ambulances stationed at the end of streets. “We again find ourselves on a knife’s edge,” he said on Thursday. “What we do now will determine what comes next.”
The Victorian outbreaks have stirred a blame game. Critics claim Victoria fell down on testing, didn’t spread the health messages effectively to ethnic communities, and failed to act strongly enough against the black lives protest.
Although only several protesters have tested positive and there’s no evidence the demonstrators in Victoria and other states spread the virus, the condemnation has become that they set a bad example, resulting in other people flouting restrictions and social distancing.
Morrison, who’s been outspoken about various states maintaining closed borders and censorious about the protests, is in general keeping himself in check. This is both to ensure his national cabinet works as smoothly as possible despite internal differences, and because he knows the public wants co-operation at this time, not political sniping.
In just-conducted University of Canberra focus group research ahead of the July 4 Eden-Monaro byelection, participants were in furious agreement with the proposition that in a post-virus world politicians needed to be more collaborative and less adversarial.
Most participants felt Morrison had gone through a learning process and this was reflected in the creation of the national cabinet. But there were some fears the old, more negative politics would return.
Labor’s research in this seat it holds on a margin of less than 1% would no doubt be hearing the same messages, which fit with leader Anthony Albanese’s point, expressed when he became leader, that the public has conflict fatigue.
With an eye to Eden-Monaro, Albanese this week proposed his lets-get-together-and-talk initiative - that he and Morrison should negotiate a bipartisan “framework” for energy policy.
Albanese stressed he wasn’t seeking the impossible – bipartisan agreement on the detail. Rather, this was a quest for broad brush strokes to give investors the certainty they crave.
The Albanese move could be read several ways.
Some regarded it as a policy pivot by Labor, especially as its reference to support for carbon capture and storage meant - though it was not spelled out in the letter he wrote to Morrison - there was provision for the coal and gas industries.
And here was Albanese trying to juggle Labor’s strains over climate policy, where there’s pressure from some in caucus, notably resources spokesman Joel Fitzgibbon, to have the opposition’s 2019 position softened.
But primarily, Albanese was trying to put Morrison on the spot, given climate is an important issue in Eden-Monaro and voters are demanding a co-operative approach to politics.
In his letter, Albanese made no significant policy concessions. This was about a public political vibe.
For the opposition leader, there seemed little to lose. The push for bipartisanship echoes what business groups as well as the public desire.
Assuming it goes nowhere with Morrison, the proposal provides Labor with a serviceable line to run out in the last days of the byelection.
Authors: Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra