COVID Australia: Scott Morrison tries to shift the focus from vaccine rollout to state lockdowns

http://www.afr.com/policy/economy/an-image-of-leadership-that-is-slowly-unravelling-at-the-edges-20210826-p58m1h

It’s hard not to think that images are also changing the politics of COVID-19.

In 2020, there seemed to be endless images and interviews on our televisions of weary nurses and doctors in PPE, here and overseas.

Fractured stories

Both the health and economic stories about the virus have become more fractured: these are not stories that are playing out evenly around the country, being experienced uniformly as a national experience. They differ from one state or community to another.

It has become harder for television cameras to get permission to film in hospital wards, or even to interview staff.

The economic distress is also not so immediately conspicuous, in picture terms. None of those huge queues at Centrelink, for starters. But the lack of pictures doesn’t mean, for example, that parents receiving welfare payments can ensure their children have the internet access to participate in home schooling.

And lockdowns, of course, make it harder to film in remote towns.

In NSW of late, the government has included health specialists from the front line in the daily 11am press conferences.

But it is the daily round of press conferences by politicians that have become the primary piece of managed information around the country.

The favoured pose: the PM alongside the military man and the health bureaucrat. Alex Ellinghausen

This creates its own problems. For starters, it is hard, once you have started giving daily press conferences, to stop them. And there is only so much you can say before you start repeating yourself.

It also completes the transformation of the televisual COVID-19 story from a human story to a political one, with a side order of authority coming from various kinds of experts.

In the federal government’s case, this started with health bureaucrats, who were supplanted by military figures when it became clear the vaccine rollout, among other things the government was responsible for, was not going to plan.

The daily press conferences give the illusion of transparency and accountability, even as they sometimes delude the country.

The military figures haven’t been fully supplanted as yet. However, our new authority figures are a bunch of modellers who aren’t physically at the daily press conferences, but whose work is quoted – and more often misquoted – as the source of instruction for what politicians do, rather than being presented as what it is: advice on what happens if politicians make certain decisions.

At the state level, the side order has been the chief health officers, more recently supplemented by police and others.

Increasingly unaccountable

There has been a lot of commentary about the extent to which we – along with other societies – are becoming an authoritarian country under the pressure of COVID-19. The images of defence forces out on the streets have added to that.

What we are certainly becoming is an increasingly unaccountable nation: one in which the modelling shaping our lives is not available for long periods; in which the discussions of federal and state governments are treated as “cabinet in confidence” (despite judicial rulings that they are no such thing); and where we can get little insight into the government discussions taking place not just in Canberra but in state jurisdictions as well.

Increasingly troubling stories erupt from the hospital system about its capacity to deal with growing case numbers. But we are told by politicians that there is nothing to see here.

The daily press conferences give the illusion of transparency and accountability, even as they sometimes delude the country.

They may also actually only diminish the authority of our leaders, particularly if individual leaders advocate complex and shifting rules.

There seem to be regular reports about how the Prime Minister is going to haul the states into line behind the “national strategy”. Really? And what lever would he have to do that?

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has been out warning the states this week that the federal government will not provide funding support to jurisdictions that lock down once we have reached the legendary 70 to 80 per cent vaccination targets – a lever that can’t be pulled for months.

Shifting the focus

Scott Morrison has been engaged in a strategy in the past 10 days of trying to shift the public’s focus from blaming him for the botched vaccine rollout to blaming the states – in advance of anyone being able to do anything about lockdowns because not enough people are vaccinated because of the botched vaccine program – for the fact half the country is in lockdown.

Whenever there is some trouble there is an announcement about vaccine supplies going to the troubled spot.

And now, this week we have the alibi that the government is opening up vaccines to kids as young as 12 – from September 13 – being given to a nation where parents are alarmed about their children catching COVID-19, no matter how many times people in authority – who, troublingly, aren’t necessarily regarded as authorities any more – tell them COVID-19 doesn’t seem to be as severe in kids as adults.

Generational equity in access to vaccines is a real issue, or should be, just like the woeful performance of authorities getting it to vulnerable communities is an issue.

Vaccination rates in the largely Indigenous NSW town of Wilcannia are less than half the state average, while infection rates are twice the rate in western Sydney.

Scott Morrison is holding out the image of families being able to sit around the table together on Christmas Day as he seeks to persuade us that things will indeed get better.

But the image is blurred by the fact that, at current vaccination rates, the slowest state – Queensland – won’t get to 70 per cent until the end of November and 80 per cent until the week before Christmas.

Instead, the imagery of coming months looks dangerously like it could be one of a continuing and increasing unravelling of the authority of our leaders, and the community’s willingness to abide by their daily pleas.

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