page loader

As published in the Canberra Times on 22 April 2020

Methods for dealing with the Covid19 virus vary little from the methods adopted to deal with the Spanish Flu, which ravaged the world from January 1918 until December 1920, causing the death of 50 million people. There was no vaccine to deal with that pandemic, just as there is currently no vaccine to deal with Covid19.

The Spanish Flu has been referred to as the forgotten pandemic, the same might be said for SARS and the Swine Flu. Neither the Swine Flu nor SARS saw substantial change in the international or domestic organisational approach to managing pandemics. Expunging pandemics from public memory has not encouraged the development of policy. The World Health Organisation (WHO) prepared an interim protocol, updated in 2007, for the management of pandemics. However, there is no compulsion to adhere to it and some countries including initially Australia and more recently the United States ignored the recommendations. Donald Trump, who is as mad as George III, has said he will withhold funding to the WHO because he claims it has given incorrect advice.

There is a need for reform. Protocols should be negotiated and implemented in a binding International Agreement with provision for strategic stockpiling, Inspectors, compulsory intervention by trained medical teams, ongoing research, lock down procedures and airline responses.

Neocon xenophobes such as Trump, Morrison and Johnson, have been forced to deal with the WHO, the UN and other international agencies and institutions in seeking a means of control, containment and supplies of vital equipment to handle Covid19. The virus has brought the global community closer in attempting to contain in a health crisis.

Covid19 underlines the need for strong and focused aid programs to reduce the gap between haves and have not. In the current circumstances aid repayments should be waived from the poorest countries. The haves have nothing if the have nots drag them backwards as they will with respect to this pandemic. India and Africa are indicative.

Just as the pandemic has highlighted the need for reform in the international community so it has in Australia. Initially Morrison reacted slowly, stupidly and with self-interest. A Hillsong get together appeared to govern his declaration of a gathering of 500 as acceptable. It was quickly changed to 100, 10 and then 2, following the intervention of the States. Morrison in a show of macho bravado said he would attend a football match only to be forced to back down by the weight of public opinion.

Under pressure he initiated a National Cabinet consisting of State Premiers, but in a predictable act of partisan pettiness, not the leader of the Opposition. The National Cabinet unofficially led by Victorian State Premier, Daniel Andrews, soon moved to pin back Morrisons ears, leading to a national sigh of relief by all but the IPA. Long queues at Centrelink panicked the government into the realisation that many were LNP voters who might desert if something was not done to alleviate their distress.

The National Cabinet decided to implement regular Jobkeeper payments to workers who had lost jobs. They increased the Newstart allowance and took over funding childcare centres. They refused to extend Jobkeeper to casuals in employment for less than 12 months, backpackers and temporary visa holders, despite all three categories paying tax. How they are meant to house and feed themselves did not worry Morrison or other responsible ministers. Presumably beg, borrow or steal and if caught to be transported to Christmas Island. Dutton, came out of Ruby Princess isolation, to announce measures would be put in place to deal with the inevitable rorting of the Jobseeker allowance. He understands how the criminal mind works.

Morrison has been talking of ‘snap back’ after the virus has been beaten. It seems to mean a rapid return to the status quo pre Covid19. It demonstrates the limitations of his imagination. His enforced adoption of Keynesian solutions to the crisis highlighted the lack of social justice in Australian politics for the last twenty years.

On becoming prime Minister in 1996 Howard embraced the privatisation agenda of British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. It fitted the political philosophy of LNP backers such as the IPA. The benefit to the people of Australia has not been apparent. Costs have risen.

Howard ushered in an era where mediocrity, meanness, greed, cruelty and selfishness became part of the political fabric. He encouraged corporate Australia to plunder the country for profit which continued under Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison. The State should exist for the benefit of the people.

It will be difficult for Morrison to back track on measures already put in place, to renege will give the Labor Party a platform.

Australia has allowed its manufacturing base to collapse. It imports more than is strategically wise. Using cheap renewable energy now coming on stream Australia should look to import replacement particularly in manufacturing.

There was a time Commonwealth and State enterprises underpinned and supported the private sector. It was a productive arrangement, it worked.

The Commonwealth once built ships and ran a shipping line, it owned two airlines, it owned the Commonwealth Bank which served to keep the other banks honest. It owned Telecom (Telstra), ports and airports, it built small arms for the ADF and funded universities, TAIF and the CSIRO and it underpinned the car industry. It owned and operated the Commonwealth Oil Refinery (COR). It owned a health fund which like the bank served to keep the other bastards honest.

The States distributed water and produced and distributed electricity. They owned and operated insurance companies and rural banks. They built and operated trams and trains. They built and ran schools and hospitals. The privatisation of both (significant funding of private schools) has not been in the public interest.

The Labor party ought now to be developing a blue print for the future. We are not going back to the past. The future will be different and the Labor Party ought now to be developing socially progressive options as part of new policy to take to the next election. It is not too early. Part of those options should be state intervention for greater equity and efficiency.

Promisingly, the Labor Party is arguing that the government should take an equity share in Virgin Airlines rather than a bailout or letting the airline fail.

Labor should be planning to end the more unfair aspects of the private sector and ending rorts such as those relating to water. They need to be bold. The principles need to be socially democratic. They can afford to do so. Morrison has nowhere to go. Electorally he can’t take back what he has already given. The Labor Party has some excellent foot soldiers in the form of Chalmers, Wong, Leigh, Burke, Plibersek and Bowen. Albanese gives no confidence that he has the boldness, courage, imagination or leadership to embrace and implement such change. His team, if they stick with him, will need to lead the way and hope that he can follow.

We cannot go back to the past. We need to recreate ourselves with boldness, vision, optimism and courage. Are we up for it?

Bruce Haigh is a retired Diplomat and political commentator.