We listened to the scientists and the economists. We put aside ideology. A conservative government instituted policies that didn’t come naturally – rules that impeded personal freedom and the dumping of billions of dollars of taxpayer money into the economy to prop it up as business activity withered on the vine.
Communities were willing to accept lockdowns, for the most part, because of the economic safety nets Scott Morrison’s government laid out for us in the form of JobKeeper and JobSeeker.
And the world noticed.
Buzzfeed last week published an article titled “There was a pandemic? What life is like in countries without COVID”.
“In Australia, they are watching live theatre and sports and seeing bands perform at packed concerts,” it read.
The article singled out New Zealand, Thailand, Taiwan and Australia as countries where, “helped by geographic isolation or governmental response or both,” infections are low to non-existent, and “some people even occasionally forget there’s a pandemic going on”.
In November The Washington Post published a glowing article asserting “Australia provides a real-time road map for democracies to manage the pandemic”.
It singled out our timely international and state border closures, our track-and-trace measures, the national cabinet and, importantly, “a lack of partisan rancour” which increased the effectiveness of the government’s clear communication on the harsh measures taken.
“Political conflict was largely suspended, at least initially, and many Australians saw their politicians working together to avert a health crisis,” the Post stated.
Australians had a “willingness to conform”, reflective of the fact that here, “governments tend to be regarded as the solution to society’s problems rather than the cause”.
Health Minister Greg Hunt granted an interview to the paper. “We had a clear strategic plan, which was the combination of containment and capacity building,” he said.
It was heroic stuff, and Morrison has the approval ratings to prove it.
And then there is the other narrative, in which Australia is not the hero but instead the laggard, the recalcitrant, and increasingly, the pariah. We’ve all had a dreadful year, but for Morrison, the misfortune and bad news rolled in earlier than it did for the rest of us.
He faced criticism and even condemnation, in some quarters, over his disastrous decision to take a holiday in Hawaii as Australia burned with the most devastating bushfires in our history.
On his return to Australia, he was given short shrift by some members of the crisped, traumatised communities affected by the fires. His reluctance to link the fires to dangerous climate change – in the face of evidence shouting that link – was embarrassing for him, and worrying for those of us who thought the ferocity of the fires might end this country’s brain-dead climate wars.
Time has circled for Morrison and he ends the year with a renewed debate on climate action. Last week The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age reported Morrison would have a speaking spot at a United Nations climate summit this weekend, and intended to use his speech to announce Australia’s decision to drop the use of Kyoto carryover credits in reaching our 2030 emissions-reduction target.
On Friday we learned Morrison had been dropped from the program because his government’s climate policy is not deemed ambitious enough to justify a spot. To put this into context, leaders from 70 countries, including Belize, Afghanistan and Rwanda, are speaking, but Australia does not have a seat at the table.
All the international evidence shows that apart from being a climate challenge, the switch to green energy is the next industrial revolution, yet in Australia we are still stuck in a debate on coal jobs. That debate extends to the Labor opposition.
The most successful countries in the world are all racing towards that future. Business is already moving, as are the state governments in our federation.
Morrison insisted his disinvitation was no big deal.
“Australia’s climate and energy policy will be set here in Australia, in Australia’s national interest, not to get a speaking slot at some international summit,” he told Parliament on Thursday. “The only approval I seek for the policies of my government is the Australian people. That’s it.”
These two narratives – Australia’s response to the pandemic, and its response to climate change – seem like they’re at odds. But perhaps they are both the product of a political and public culture of Australian exceptionalism. The belief that we are different. That we are special. That we are lucky.
Our shut-the-borders isolationism on the pandemic is the same thing that leaves us stranded on climate action. The material difference is, with climate change, we cannot ground the planes and seek comfort in parochialism.
The world knows it, but we are the last to grasp this blindingly obvious truth.
Jacqueline Maley is a senior journalist, columnist and former Canberra press gallery sketch writer for The Sydney Morning Herald. In 2020 she and Kate McClymont won a Walkley Award and a Kennedy Award for coverage of sexual misconduct allegations against former High Court judge Dyson Heydon. They also won the 2020 NSW Civil Liberties Council Media Award. In 2017 Maley won the Peter Ruehl Award for Outstanding Columnist at the Kennedy Awards.