Grattan on Friday: Vaccine rollout has enough problems without ministers politickingMichelle Grattan, University of Canberra
COVID-19 has an evil sense of humour. Despite Australia being mostly free of community transmission, it managed to spoil Christmas for quite a few Sydneysiders and their families and now it’s struck just before the Easter holidays.
The Brisbane lockdown was lifted but many people cancelled plans, and the Byron Bay Bluesfest was called off.
The latest disruption, though limited, reinforced the importance of rolling out the vaccine as fast as possible.
If you believe Health Minister Greg Hunt, that’s going fabulously – even though we’re way behind the original targets. If you believe the NSW and Queensland governments, and many people’s lived experience, it’s another story.
NSW reacted furiously to Wednesday’s News Corps tabloid report, sheeted home to Hunt, that focused on states failing to get enough shots into arms. Queensland was riled when senior Nationals minister David Littleproud condemned the states for doing “three-fifths of bugger all”.
Federal “spin” and blame shifting were red rags to the two states; NSW health minister Brad Hazzard declared “I’m as angry as I have ever been in this 15 months of war against this virus”. The federal government was criticised for the lumpy and unpredictable distribution of vaccine supplies.
Hunt and Scott Morrison sought to soothe; things calmed somewhat.
Morrison didn’t hide his anger at Hunt and Littleproud for their provocation.
The feds like to say the rollout is “not a race,” because we don’t have a “burning platform” like many countries.
But – apart from the risk of bigger breakouts – the slower the rollout, the longer we endure spot lockdowns, a closed international border, and a brake on the economy.
In the coming weeks and months, Morrison will be grappling with two very tangible issues and another which is much more elusive and for him, especially difficult. They are the rollout, ensuring the economic settings are optimal, and the “women problem”.
The rollout is basically about administration. It should get better. The vaccine shortages will ease with the ramp up of local production. The efficiency on the ground will presumably improve but how fast and to what extent remain open questions. The job will get done, but the October deadline for jabs all round looks beyond reach.
Behind the scenes, another job is in full swing – work on next month’s budget; like the rollout it is complex, albeit in a completely different and much more familiar way.
This budget, like its October predecessor, is being crafted against a backdrop of high uncertainty.
The Australian economy is recovering remarkably well from the COVID recession, climbing back up that V shape. But with JobKeeper ended, and people on JobSeeker receiving less money than before, there are big unknowns. How many businesses will close? How many workers will lose jobs? What will be the economy-wide effect on spending?
The government gets “real time” information; even so, it is framing the budget in rapidly changing conditions. On the positive side, the latest numbers indicate a better fiscal position than at the December update, which had a deficit forecast of just under $200 billion for this financial year.
Economist Chris Richardson, from Deloitte Access Economics, says in preparing the budget the government will need to consider where more “sticky tape” is required (like that already applied to the aviation and tourism industries), and what should be done about the failed JobMaker scheme (which was designed to encourage the employment of younger people).
Richardson also argues the government needs to move towards the Reserve Bank’s position in what it says about unemployment. It has said it won’t make budget repair a priority until unemployment, presently 5.8%, is “comfortably” under 6%. But the bank wants to see unemployment down to 4.5%, which Richardson maintains is the rate the government should be embracing.
The big new spending will be on aged care, with its huge challenges. Hunt took on major responsibility for this in the December reshuffle – the rollout problem must be eating into the attention he can devote to the policy drafting.
The October budget was criticised for not containing enough for women; now Morrison has his new “lens” on them. That comes with the danger of disappointing expectations.
One of Morrison’s many problems in dealing with the women’s issue is that it extends beyond policy although good policies, such as initiatives addressing workplace sexual harassment, are vital.
Since Brittany Higgins’ allegation she was raped by a colleague in a minister’s office, the country has seen the eruption of a social movement that is about feelings, perceptions and attitudes as much as about specific policies.
It is about the behaviour of men – in parliament house, and everywhere else.
While bad behaviour exists on all sides of politics, the recent revelations have mainly been about the Coalition.
Last week saw the spotlight turned on Liberal MP Andrew Laming, accused of trolling constituents and taking an inappropriate photo of a woman. Laming says he won’t seek another term, but Morrison isn’t wanting to banish him to the crossbench, which would wipe out the government’s majority.
Although the allegations against him are far less serious, trenchant critics would say he should follow the example of NSW Nationals MP Michael Johnsen, who has resigned from state parliament after an accusation (which he vehemently denies) that he raped a sex worker.
Another bad week for Morrison could have been worse if parliament had been sitting, when Laming would have been front and centre. But this is only a temporary reprieve: if Laming is still on the government benches come budget week, he’ll be a distraction.
The national debate sparked by Higgins and escalated by the historical rape allegation against Christian Porter – strenuously denied by him – is seeing tough conversations in many Australian households.
It would be fascinating to know what impact it is having on Morrison’s own close-knit family, which is mostly female, including his wife, two young daughters and his mother. We heard early on about Jenny’s advice, but how’s the kitchen table discussion going?