More impressive yet is that Australia did all that while simultaneously dealing with the China problem. Again, it’s not been perfect. But which of our liberties would you suggest we sacrifice to Xi Jinping’s megalomania? On the whole Morrison is doing well to protect Australia’s democratic systems while calmly coping with an autocratic great power hell bent on breaking Australia’s sovereign will.
If someone had told you a year ago that Australia would successfully deal with the most deadly global pandemic in a century plus simultaneously confront a historic trade embargo by a nuclear-armed China, you’d probably have laughed. The Prime Minister must get primary credit, but he couldn’t have done it had Labor chosen to be irresponsible. Anthony Albanese’s constructive approach to these crises has made the country immeasurably stronger.
Australia’s other problems? The perennial ones we’ve proved unable to fix? They should be a snap for the capable country. You can make your own list of priority problems. Mine would include: An incoherent energy and climate policy; years of economic lethargy; a second-rate science and innovation effort; persistent underfunding of public hospitals; the long-running decline in school education standards; the refusal to unite Australia’s First Nations with the rest of the nation.
The second big lesson of 2020 is that leadership is indispensable to success. This is so obvious – is it even worth mentioning? Absolutely. It wasn’t obvious to Scott Morrison a year ago. He modelled absentee leadership during the savage season of fire. We know what a leadership vacuum looks like. Without leadership, nothing gets solved. With leadership, just about anything can get solved.
But not just any style of leadership. And this is the third lesson of this fateful year. A cooperative, unifying style of leadership is very effective. Morrison didn’t act as autocrat setting himself up as Caesar but brought the premiers into a national, collective leadership. If he’d tried to wield absolute power he would have thrust the country into a paralysing constitutional crisis. Australia is a federation. He sought to bring the pieces together to maximise cooperation rather than setting them against each other.
Fourth is that problems are best solved by putting expertise at the centre rather than politics. When you put politics ahead of the health advice you get America – Donald Trump rampant and Anthony Fauci repressed. And a death rate of 958 per million population. Worse than let-it-rip Sweden’s 779 dead per million. More than double next-door Canada’s 367. And in another universe to Australia’s 35 deaths per million or NZ’s 5 per million.
It probably helps that Australia’s Biosecurity Act gives the power to declare an emergency to the Commonwealth’s chief medical officer not to a politician. A prime minister cannot pretend that there’s no problem, even if he or she wanted to. But it still requires political will to tackle all the many facets of the pandemic, from urgently sourcing ventilators to conscripting the supermarkets, private hospitals and defence forces to the task. Hats off to Morrison and Health Minister Greg Hunt for not only respecting the medical advice but throwing themselves into finding solutions.
Listening to the experts obviously was the right choice with the health advice but also with the economic advice. Morrison and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg hesitated to decide on JobKeeper for instance. But they ultimately took the main advice they were getting from the Treasury and Reserve Bank to support jobs and activity through the crisis.
Fifth is the central importance of social trust. That cuts two ways. It means the people’s readiness to trust their leaders and their medical experts, and the people’s readiness to trust each other. The vast preponderance of people followed health advice and government orders. There were a few attempts at protest marches by attention-seeking activist wannabes and some obvious every-man-for-himself stupidity in supermarket panic buying. But there were millions more cases of families, neighbours and strangers showing consideration for each other.
A May survey by ANU’s Centre for Social Research and Methods found that anxiety was up, naturally, but also found that: “Social cohesion has increased. Australians are more likely to think that their fellow Australians can be trusted, are generally fair, and are generally helpful than they were prior to the spread of COVID-19.” This was useful in helping society overall cope with the situation. And it was a direct contributor to containing the plague. An epidemiologist at Burnet Institute, Professor Michael Toole, said that “community involvement, trust and support are also essential features of effective case finding”.
Australia’s only Nobel laureate in epidemiology, the delightful octogenarian Peter Doherty of the Doherty Foundation, made five predictions when I spoke to him in August. First, that the global vaccine effort was succeeding. Effective vaccines were on the way. Remember that at this point there were still scaremongers telling us that no vaccine for any coronavirus had ever been found and therefore none ever would be found. Second, Doherty predicted that we’d have the first clear idea of the exact effectiveness and safety of the leading Western vaccine candidates by October. He was right about that, too. Third, he estimated that the first priority vaccinations in the Western world would be happening by December. He got that exactly right. And, fourth, that broad roll-outs to the public would be under way in early 2021, which now appears inevitable.
His final prediction and advice: “Then we should get ready for the next pandemic.” Four new zoonotic diseases – passing from animals to people – had appeared in the last 20 years and more were to come, he said.
Genuine, world-class experts really know their stuff – who knew? We should draw two other conclusions from Doherty’s remarks. One is that we should literally get ready for the next pandemic. The other is that we should take more seriously other expert warnings of other crises and catastrophes heading our way.
The capable country has discovered its own strengths in this crisis. And its weaknesses. Australia now needs to reinvest in its sources of strength and fix its weaknesses. Australia’s improved social trust should be treasured and built upon; it’s an intangible of great value. It’s not something that can be created by government fiat or a budget allocation. It’s slow to build and easy to blow. Probably the most immediate risk to it is the disinformation and division that is the stock in trade of “social” media. The governments of Australia, the European Union and the US have all started to civilise the traffickers – the global multinationals that profit from it – and will need to intensify their efforts.
Australia has benefited from a century of brilliant people working in health and medical research. The need for a sustained, new investment in public health, medical research and innovative commercialisation over the next decade is as necessary as it is obvious.
All government ministers, state and federal, have serious jobs and need to take the opportunity of the pandemic to plan for reform and renewal. But probably none more so than Josh Frydenberg. The Treasurer can take some satisfaction from his success in supporting industry and incomes through the worst of the pandemic. But handing out money is not the true test of a treasurer. If Frydenberg is content to restore Australia’s economy to its pre-pandemic level of employment and growth, he will have failed miserably. The economy was flagging years before. The main driver of growth is investment. The incentives he’s put in place this year merely bring forward the investments that companies already had in mind. He’s borrowed from the future to support recovery today.
It’s Frydenberg’s job to create the policy framework for a generation of investment in new avenues of growth. The world is awash is cheap capital; Australia is full of new potential. His job is to connect the two through good policy. And create a new generation of healthy growth. He can be a reformer, a figure of genuine stature like Keating or Costello, or a guy who just wants to be liked for handing out money and tax cuts.
Australia’s political history of the last decade counsels us to prepare for disappointment. Already a handful of federal politicians on both sides are getting back into their populist playpens promoting coal in the pretence that it’s the key to Australia’s golden future rather than a sooty relic of a fading past. The temptation to revert to pre-pandemic complacency and political parlour games will be strong. The capable country has shown that it can achieve great things, but only with great leadership.
Peter Hartcher is political editor and international editor of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.