The halcyon days of pandemic partisanship are crumbling as Morrison ramps up the politicking | Katharine Murphy | Australia news

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If you can’t fix a practical problem, polarise the country. This has been the working maxim of the Liberal party since the Howard era. Climate change is the obvious case in point, where the fight, not the outcome, has become the bankable electoral currency, and we can see some of the same methodology at work in the escalating border dispute between Scott Morrison and the premiers.

It has been obvious over the past month or so that Morrison has not achieved a decisive victory in his dogged campaign to persuade the premiers to open their borders and control any Covid-19 outbreaks with localised lockdowns.

When diplomacy fails, war often follows, and that’s the point Morrison reached this week – at least with Queensland. Morrison and his ministers took a breather from carpet bombing Daniel Andrews and turned their sights on Annastacia Palaszczuk after a young Canberra woman was denied permission to attend her father’s funeral in Brisbane.

I reckon Morrison’s political skills are sufficient to be able to hold his own in a ruckus with the premiers. I don’t think he needs a rapid response Greek chorus, ululating synchronously as if their lives depended on it. But the chorus turned up loyally anyway. Various News Corp publications, Ray Hadley on 2GB, Peta Credlin, flanked by a couple of serially angry Sky blokes whose names currently escape me, all reported for duty on Thursday to amplify the sad tale of a young woman unable to attend her father’s funeral.

Politics is as much a psychological battle as a practical one, so when the media braying starts, opening on early morning radio, rolling through the intra-day news cycle, and culminating in split-screen fulmination on Sky News at night, Labor governments begin to feel that an impossible weight of cultural forces is ranged against them, because the appearance of inexorable momentum is created.

This is the grim story of Australian politics since the digital disruption created a vibrant subscription market for nakedly partisan coverage – a caterwauling hell we can’t seem to escape. We achieved a brief respite from this during the opening months of the pandemic, and that was a tonic, but we are back to barracking in politics, amplified by media barracking, counterpoised by social media swarms of people standing for Dan, or for Scott, or for freedom, or for the police state – hackles permanently raised, curiosity seemingly at all time lows.

Living inside that matrix is not compulsory, fortunately, and enlightenment is generally found at a safe distance from it. So let’s turn down the tribalism and try and weigh some of the facts of the week.

Obviously the story of Sarah Caisip, the 26-year-old from Canberra who was denied permission to attend the Brisbane funeral of her father, Bernard, who died from cancer last week, is a terribly affecting one.

It seems inexplicable to me that public health officials in Brisbane continue to designate the ACT a coronavirus hotspot when there has not been an active case in the territory for two months.

From my perch, it’s also discomfiting that Palaszczuk outsources ultimate decision making in these cases to the state’s chief health officer. Regular readers know I’m a big wrap for experts. That’s a given. But I’m keen on representative democracy as well, where politicians make decisions based on expert advice and we vote them out if the decisions are crook ones.

So I reckon we can all agree this was a really sad story, with some genuinely head-scratching elements from a governance perspective.

But maintaining a bit of perspective also helps, because there have been so many sad stories during this pandemic. There are so many Australians currently slogging through the worst year of their lives, and all the hardship is worthy of attention, not just fragments that assist the pressing political objectives of the moment.

If we are sad for Sarah, surely we need to be just as sad for the relatives of people in aged care. More than 500 people have died prematurely from Covid in residential aged care, because there was a second wave of coronavirus in Victoria, and the commonwealth funded and regulated system that is supposed to provide Australians dignified care in their final years of life, failed them. That’s an agonising story.

If we are sad for Sarah, we should also be sad for the Australians currently stranded overseas because of the commonwealth’s decision to close the international border. Perhaps some of those people missed funerals, or couldn’t attend to family emergencies too, and I reckon some of those stories would be fully capable of breaking hearts. If you speak to federal MPs, many will tell you that the bulk of constituent work currently revolves around dealing with families with relatives unable to find their way back home to Australia because of the cap on arrivals. But somehow the state border closure story gets more attention.

It’s also a bit hard to fathom why Palaszczuk is the designated bad premier on border closures and Mark McGowan in Western Australia, these days, gets a leave pass from Canberra when his position is the most hardline in the commonwealth. Morrison initially joined a legal action to open the WA border, but clambered out of that, and now says he understands McGowan’s position, because there aren’t border communities inconvenienced by the closures in the west.

But a professional sceptic might wonder whether the dispensation for one premier and rolling war with another relates to the proximity of the Queensland election. Morrison will obviously be under significant pressure from the Queensland LNP to make life uncomfortable for Palaszczuk over the next month or so, partisan politics being partisan politics.

In ramping up the offensive against Palaszczuk on Thursday night, Morrison wondered aloud whether Australia was in danger of losing its humanity during this crisis.

Setting aside the obvious irony of Morrison, the implacable stop the boats guy, now worrying out loud about whether border closures inflict indiscriminate cruelty on innocents, and demanding somebody take responsibility for inflicting that cruelty – the prime minister is absolutely right.

We should be worried about losing our humanity, but because history tells us crises like the one we are in can lead societies into very dark places.

At the start of the pandemic, preserving our collective humanity really was the guiding force of policy making by Australian governments. That impulse set Australia apart from some countries we routinely compare ourselves against.

But the big question of the current phase of the pandemic is this: does safeguarding our social capital remain the most important objective, or are we flagging in the fatigue of a pandemic without an endpoint?

Let’s just take just one example that Morrison has complete control over. If concern about losing our humanity was really the test for decision making, I very much doubt that we would be cutting income support at the end of this month for people who have next to no chance of finding a job until the economy picks up.

More than one million Australians are currently unemployed. Victoria will crawl out of lockdown, not sprint.

A recent survey conducted by the Australian Council of Social Service says more than a third of people receiving pandemic-boosted welfare payments say they will live on less than $14 a day when the coronavirus supplement in the jobseeker payment is cut in a few weeks. That same survey found 80% of respondents would skip meals and reduce their intake of fresh fruit and vegetables, while 47% said the income reduction would force them to ration their medicines.

Preserving our humanity doesn’t involve mouthing the right words on Sky News.

It involves having the courage of that conviction. It involves doing something.

Source: The Guardian
Keyword: The halcyon days of pandemic partisanship are crumbling as Morrison ramps up the politicking | Katharine Murphy | Australia news

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