We are living in two countries — and only one can be right

There are two views of the political landscape over the next nine months. Which of them proves to be right will have large bearing not merely on the outcome of the next election — whether it’s this year or next — but the course of the pandemic in a highly vaccinated Australia.

One view is that pushed by the Morrison government, with the backing of its media supporters at News Corp and the Financial Review, which supports the business case that the economy should be reopened regardless of the amount of illness and death that results. Let’s call it the Canberra view, although more accurately it’s a view of much of the south-east of Australia.

In that world, there’s a national reopening plan that everyone signed up to, informed by optimistic Doherty Institute modelling that once certain vaccination targets are reached, there can be an end to both lockdowns and border closures and only a few hundred people will die (invariably, “tragically”), not much worse than a standard flu season.

And in that world, voters are desperate for an escape from lockdown and will cheer gratefully the moment they’re released from their imprisonment, while those who oppose freedom will be politically destroyed — including Labor, even though Anthony Albanese supports the reopening plan, but particularly Mark McGowan in WA and Annastacia Pałaszczuk in Queensland. Little mention is made of Tasmania, which is in exactly the same position as those two states, nor of South Australia. But they don’t fit that narrative because they’re led by Liberal governments.

It’s the sort of world view you’d expect from politicians, staffers and journalists who live in Canberra, Sydney and Melbourne, all of which are locked down, and where what happens outside the south-eastern corner of the country is seen as provincial eccentricity at best.

The view of the political landscape is rather different outside the south-east corner, out in the “provinces”. No one’s in lockdown. There aren’t hundreds of cases a day and soaring hospitalisations and ICU admissions. And they intend to keep it that way. In particular, they don’t intend to let people from states with rampant infections enter to start infecting and killing their citizens and flooding their hospitals.

Imagine you’re Mark McGowan and you tell West Australians “I know we’re COVID-free and our economy is doing well, but I’ve agreed to a national plan developed in Canberra and I’m going to let infected people from the east fly and drive into WA and I know a lot of West Australians will get sick, and many will die as a result, but it’s for the good of the federation and because people in Sydney want to come for a holiday.”

His premiership would last about five minutes beyond any such announcement, notwithstanding any pious op-eds in support in the AFR from business leaders and economists.

How do we know? Consider the case of maladroit Attorney-General Michaelia “Chuckles” Cash this week. With the government, News Corp and the AFR, and much of the press gallery going full bore on the “stick to the national plan” Canberra view, Cash — ironically, from WA — emerged to declare that the High Court would reverse itself and find against the WA government if it kept borders closed once vaccinations reach 70% or 80%.

In doing so, she left the door open to the Commonwealth supporting any future challenges from the likes of Clive Palmer, just like her predecessor Christian Porter backed Palmer’s last, unsuccessful challenge. Like Cash, Porter had thought the High Court would find against WA.

But all Cash was doing was exposing the weakness of the government’s position. In case she hadn’t noticed — she’s in the Senate, after all — Scott Morrison once again lied to parliament this week on that very issue: he claimed the Commonwealth did not “pursue” Palmer’s challenge, when in fact Porter intervened to support it.

Morrison knows Palmer attempting to force open WA’s borders so West Australians can get infected and die is politically toxic enough that he will lie to Parliament about his support for it. But Cash, displaying characteristic misjudgment, had no such fears.

And how did that play out in the west? Liberal WA backbenchers lined up to give Cash a kicking. Former Liberal premier Colin Barnett went public to criticise her. Cash, Morrison and Josh Frydenberg were forced to rule out repeating Porter’s error of supporting another Palmer challenge. “I have repeatedly commended Premier McGowan for his handling of the pandemic in Western Australia,” Cash added pleadingly. That is, when political push comes to shove, the Canberra perspective isn’t one the government will stick with.

Imagine going to an election on a platform of forcing West Australians to get infected. Or Tasmanians. Or South Australians. Or Queenslanders.

Or, for that matter, the whole country. You might notice — though no thanks to political journalists — that Scott Morrison isn’t promising to reopen borders even after the 80% target has been reached. There’s always been a strange double standard about reporting of state border closures without mentioning Scott Morrison has a much harder border closure round the whole country. And, like Mark McGowan, he’s not promising to open it up any time soon, even once we hit 80%.

This seemed to pass most of the press gallery by as it continued to push the Canberra perspective ahead of that of outlying states. Perhaps journalists really are trapped in a Canberra bubble. Perhaps they don’t understand the very different political dynamics of lockdowns and border closures. Perhaps they’re too focused on maintaining their inside access to the government to question what they’re told. But only one view of the world can turn out to be right.

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Peter Fray

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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