Everybody wants to conform to the call for national unity and to avoid resorting to political point-scoring in the face of a national crisis.
But the fact is the Federal Government has provided poor leadership in this crisis.
Here is Daniel Andrews’s clear message on what to do. It is simple- stay home. If you can stay home- stay at home.
By way of contrast Catherine Murphy from ‘The Guardian’ described Scott Morrison’s advice as follows:
“Tuesday night’s cascading instructions from Scott Morrison’s podium were “stay home everyone”. But if you have a job, you are an essential worker, so make sure you keep working. Go to school, but don’t go to the food court. Five at a wedding, 10 at a funeral, 10 at a boot camp, but no yoga. No waxing, but a hairdresser for 30 minutes is still OK.”
Again, by way of contrast, Jacinta Adern has provided clear leadership in New Zealand. As the Guardian reported:
“Ardern’s address to the nation on Monday announcing a four-week shutdown of New Zealand from Wednesday – “Kiwis, go home,” she said – was clear and unequivocal. The four-stage alert system in New Zealand – rising to level three immediately and level four by Wednesday is simple to understand.
Level four means people are instructed to stay home, schools and universities are shut, all non-essential businesses close, air travel and public transport are only to be used to transport essential workers and freight. There will be no weddings, parties, gatherings of any sort. Essential services such as supermarkets, GPs and pharmacies will remain open.”
Catherine Murphy points to the different interests faced by state and federal governments in Australia.
“The states run hospitals and schools. They will deal with the horrendous scenes in intensive care and emergency as the pandemic worsens. They also have to manage the fury of teachers and parents about schools remaining open.
The commonwealth, meanwhile, has primary carriage of the economy, which is now facing a massive pandemic-induced shock. The critique of Morrison is he has been more focused on trying to prevent Depression-era unemployment levels than on the health impacts of the crisis.”
This is a fair point. And if it was just a question of meandering language one might refrain from criticism of Morrison in what is after all new and extraordinary circumstances. But it appears the federal government may not have followed at least some of the expert advice received.
A key member of an expert panel advising the Government’s response to COVID-19 has voiced her frustrations at Australia’s staged shutdown approach, warning the death toll could potentially arise if the Government does not take a “go hard, go now approach”.
Raina MacIntyre from the UNSW’s Biosecurity Program is part of an expert panel from Australia’s leading universities, which recommended an immediate but short lockdown to curb cases, an approach the Government did not take.
“I was hoping we’d see a more comprehensive lockdown for a short period of time, but that is not the approach we’re taking,” Professor MacIntyre said.
“It’s more a trickle sort of approach, a little bit by bit, which won’t be as effective at stopping the transmission in the community.
And even apart from Morrison’s confused messaging the Commonwealth’s initiatives on the economic front are also deficient. It compares very poorly with the approach of the government’s Conservative counterparts in the UK. The so-called “party of small business” has offered subsidies of only 20-40% of worker’s salaries for those small businesses keeping on workers who are not working due to social distancing policies compared to 80% in the UK.
The Coalition’s policy for retention of workers in employment by small business is a complex, difficult to understand, initiative based around the withholding tax. Tony Burke has critiqued this initiative in Parliament. He says the Government claims its withholding tax package will encourage businesses to retain people in employment. But whether you get the subsidy depends on the payroll from the previous quarter, not the current quarter. So if you have two businesses one of which sacks everybody and the other of which keeps them on both businesses get the same withholding tax subsidy. That is not a recipe for employee retention.
But more importantly, the subsidy is just too low. There is genuine fury within small businesses at the Coalition’s approach.
Under the recently announced Coroner Virus Job Retention Scheme in the UK, the government will reimburse employers up to 80% of the wages of employees who they continue to pay but who would otherwise be laid off if not for the virus.
The scheme applies to “furloughed workers”. This term refers to staff whose employment is not terminated but who are on an unpaid leave of absence from work.
The government guidance says that employers need to designate employees as furloughed workers and notify them of this change. It also points out that making such changes remains subject to existing employment law and may need to be negotiated, depending on the employment contract. Some employment contracts or negotiated agreements provide specifically for lay-offs in which case those provisions could be invoked to designate the employees as furloughed workers. However, in most cases, it will be necessary to agree with employees that they will become furloughed workers. If the alternatives are redundancy or unpaid leave of absence, it is very likely that employees will agree to become furloughed workers in order to receive the financial protection on offer.
Burke predicts that the Coalition may fix problems with its withholding tax subsidy scheme in a few weeks but in the meantime, many livelihoods will have been destroyed. Businesses told to shut down because of the need for social isolation will mostly not wait a few weeks to make a decision if their sources of income have already dried up.
More positively Australia is relatively well placed in some respects. We have a high rate or testing and tracing and this seems to be a fundamental element for those countries that have been able to most effectively flatten the curb on new infections- China, South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan.