This article was first published in The Australian.
I did not vote for Scott Morrison. But like so many Australians I am willing him to succeed in the fight against COVID-19. And he is.
The squashing of the curve to date has been one of the great public policy successes of our time.
When the facts change, I change my mind. At the start of this crisis the Prime Minister’s communications were rightly critiqued as a dog’s breakfast at best, dangerous at worst. Who will ever forget his urging that it was all good to go to the football one weekend and un-Australian to go to the beach the next? Those late-night press conferences tested everyone’s patience.
Back then lots of people seemed to be willing the Prime Minister to fail. After his disastrous management of the summer bushfire crisis many Australians felt badly let down. The polls showed their reserves of patience and goodwill were at an all-time low.
But even as he stumbled at the beginning of this pandemic many others of us were reserving judgment — after all, communication is important but it is not everything. Policy, evidence, implementation, convincing colleagues, cajoling others, i.e. politics, is also important.
The fascination with our politicians’ “performance” in front of the media seems endless. How they sounded; were they “on their game”; did they have a cut-through line; and, above all, were they “on message”. This is all fair enough. A leader must take the electorate with them. But over time, it is what a politician does, as opposed to what they say, that counts in shaping a nation.
Too often in our 24/7 media age we are lulled into thinking the message is everything. It is not. Facts still matter. Evidence still matters. And the Prime Minister and premiers and the public service were attempting to put it all together, implementing as best they could as the coronavirus crisis took off. All the time the Prime Minister was also trying to craft a consistent message under extremely fast-moving circumstances that were anything but consistent.
So here we are, just weeks after the first burst of crisis activity, and the Prime Minister looks like he got the policy response right. His performance in fighting the spread of COVID-19 is better than many people predicted and better than some people are still now willing to admit.
Of course, there is a long way to go and things can and will go wrong. But when a prime minister gathers the best scientific evidence and is willing to take tough preventative measures — even when there is great economic cost — he should be congratulated.
Some people might be surprised that the head of a progressive think tank would praise a conservative prime minister. However, one of the biggest challenges our country faces is some people’s determination to barrack for tribes instead of ideas. It is too easy to stick with “your team” come what may. The Australia Institute genuinely strives to be non-partisan, working with all sides when we can. One day it is policy ideas for then treasurer Scott Morrison for a reformed reverse-mortgage pension loans scheme; on others it is assisting Clive Palmer and Ricky Muir on climate policy, or renewable energy jobs analysis for Bill Shorten. We have even published joint research with the Minerals Council.
People advocating for a more progressive society are always confronting arguments that their proposal cannot be supported because it would “hurt the economy”. So when a prime minister so swiftly and emphatically puts economic interests behind the health and wellbeing of the population it means something profound has finally shifted.
Being willing to act on the best scientific advice and take preventative measures is the hallmark of good policy. So when a prime minister does it and it succeeds — despite the huge obstacles that confront anyone making such massive, unprecedented decisions — he should be congratulated.
To do otherwise undermines the cause of public policy approaches that strive to put research and evidence at the centre of decision-making.
That is not to say the government’s economic policy response to the COVID-19 health crisis is perfect. The wage subsidy plan, for example, will need fierce interrogation — both because so many miss out and because so many businesses are set to make windfall gains. Those problems will need tackling.
“Snapback” is not going to cut it in an economy whose recovery will be rocky. “Temporary and targeted” will not be enough. We are going to need a permanently bigger public health service; long-term big government industry policy so Australian manufacturing thrives; and direct government investment to stimulate aggregate demand and provide direct jobs to build the new, better, more resilient economy. Then there is the question of parliamentary scrutiny and accountability, which is woefully insufficient given the clamp down on freedoms and the scale of government spending.
But science-led health prevention policy has helped protect the wellbeing of millions of Australians and the Prime Minister should be congratulated for it.
Ben Oquist is executive director of The Australia Institute