Politics, Protest, Pandemic

Politics, Protest, Pandemic: The Year That Changed Australia

Eddy Jokovich and David Lewis, 414 pages. Released 2021

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Politics, Protest, Pandemic: The year that changed Australia is the story of the year in Australian federal politics, told through a collection of extended essays from the New Politics Australia podcast series, and a selection of political essays published online.

The 2020 year was one of the most dramatic in human history, shaped by a coronavirus pandemic that influenced society in so many different ways, combining the fields of health, politics, economics, business and education into the one area that proved to be difficult for many governments around the world to manage.

Incumbency during a time of crisis was considered to be beneficial for political leaders and this was shown to be the case in Australia, with the Queensland Government returned at the October 2020 election, and the Western Australia Government returned at their March 2021 election, a result which saw the WA Liberal Party reduced to only two seats in a Parliament of fifty-nine seats. Certainly, those governments did hold political advantages but a mysterious and invisible coronavirus isn’t the sole panacea for political difficulties: governments still need to provide competent management and offer safety to the electorate and, in the case of these two governments, they were rewarded for their efforts.

The opposite occurred in the United States Presidential election: early in 2020, US President Donald Trump was expected to be re-elected, only for those expectations to dissipate throughout the year, primarily due to mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic, and an indifference which at the time of the November election, had led to over 10 million infections and the deaths of over 245,000 people. A crisis can be beneficial to political leaders but the defeat of Trump proved the electorate is prepared to punish incumbents when there is mismanagement of such critical health and economic issues.

The ashes and smoke particles from the 2019/20 bushfires season were still lingering in the air when the political year commenced and it seemed the damage to the Prime Minister’s credibility was so severe—after he surreptitiously went overseas for a family holiday at the height of the bushfires season—that there were some considerations about if he would be able to survive and discussions within the Liberal Party focused upon whether it was time—yet again—to choose new leadership.

But the one crisis which seemed to ruin the tenure of Scott Morrison was replaced by another—the coronavirus pandemic—and this dramatically reversed his political fortunes and changed the discussions from how tenuous his hold on the leadership was, to one where journalists in the mainstream media were suggesting the Labor Party should forget about winning the next federal election, and start campaigning for the election after that—in 2025, or even further ahead in 2028. That’s how fickle politics can be: events can make the world change dramatically, and it’s wise to show caution when viewing these events through a political prism.

The year also commenced with further allegations of corruption and misappropriation of Commonwealth funds in the so-called ‘sports rorts’ scandal, where over $250 million from sports infrastructure programs was directed to Coalition-held seats in the 2019 federal election, in many cases, towards unwarranted and unwanted projects.

Corruption was a continuing theme throughout 2020, with further revelations of the federal government paying ten-times over the market valuation for land in western Sydney owned by Liberal Party donors; the NSW Premier in a secret relationship with a former politician extracting commissions from government land deals; a $3.9 million payment made by the federal government which was outside of the purview of Freedom of Information laws; millions of dollars paid to Foxtel without public justification; corporations reaping larger-than-expected profits and paying dividends and bonuses to senior executives after receiving JobKeeper subsidy payments—no questions asked, and no answers provided.

Anthony Albanese started the year as the preferred prime minister in opinion polls—and that was to be expected after Morrison’s poor handling of the bushfires crisis—but his role as Leader of the Opposition receded into the background, once the coronavirus pandemic arrived. It seems a crisis has no time for political leaders and parties who are outside of government, and Albanese found it difficult to gain political traction and media attention throughout the year, leading to media speculation as to whether he would lead the Labor Party to the next election.

Albanese’s intention was to support the public interest, as well as provide as much political support and cover for the federal government to create stimulus packages and cushion a quickly-deteriorating economy and reduce ever-increasing unemployment queues. Of course, this was the best series of events for the public and the economy, but left Albanese without any political capital, or credit for acting in a responsible manner.

State Liberal opposition leaders in Victoria, Queensland and Western Australia saw matters differently and, in conjunction with the mainstream media, directed hostile campaigns against Labor Premiers Daniel Andrews, Mark McGowan and Annastacia Palaszczuk, calling for borders and the economy to open up immediately—and quite often, reversing their positions as soon as the circumstances changed. Morrison and his senior leadership team also attacked the Labor premiers, even going as far as supporting Clive Palmer’s court challenges to Western Australia’s border closures, and demanding Queensland and Victoria urgently end their respective lockdown strategies, even through Liberal premiers in South Australia and Tasmania had engaged in exactly the same closures and lockdowns. The shock of the onset of the coronavirus pandemic encouraged the federal government to use the mantra of “all in this together” and, as the year progressed, it was evident not everyone was part of this rhetoric.

Political protest and action was also a theme throughout the year. The blacks lives matter movement was ignited after George Floyd was murdered by a police officer, and the movement spread from the streets of Minneapolis to over 400 cities across the world, including in Australia.

But far from the passive support and encouragement shown by Morrison to anti-vax/5G/lockdown protests in May, where he understood “the frustrations that they’re feeling”, the Prime Minister suggested the black lives matter protests organised several weeks later would place “the economic recovery at risk”, were “politically-driven left-wing agendas”, and instructed NSW Police to charge protestors. Again, not everyone was “all in this together”, and Morrison offered his musings according to his political biases.

The coronavirus pandemic was most certainly a combined health and economic issue, but it also provided an existential crisis. What is purpose of government? What is the purpose of the economy? What is the purpose of society? Human history has been littered with salient points that change the course of that history and it’s only after those points have occurred that humanity has a full perspective and understanding of these events. World War I was one of those points, as was World War II. Fundamental changes occurred during the post-war period: cities, communities, societies and countries were rebuilt, guided by Keynesian economic thinking, until the onset of neoliberalism in the late 1970s and early 1980s, which fast-tracked economic development and technological change, but also privatised essential social services, as well as creating a larger barrier between the super-wealthy capital classes and working classes.

Neoliberalism has failed. As an economic ideology, it was teetering after the global financial crisis in the late 2000s, but bailed out by the United States government and the European Union, hoping to continue with the easier option of unsustainable growth and endless productivity drives. This pandemic has offered an opportunity for the world to reassess a future pathway over the next decade or two, and new economic thinking and strategies are required to navigate world economies through this precarious path. Which political parties will be able to successfully guide their national economies? In Australia, Morrison has pushed forward the notion of ‘snap-back’, hoping to return the economy to pre-COVID-19 conditions but this seems to be offering false hope to the electorate. Sometimes, prevailing circumstances dictate a set of economic responses—as was the case in the post-World War II period—and perhaps this expectation of returning to the economy of yesteryear offers comfort to the electorate, even if this means the unpalatable truth is pushed further down the political road.

Primarily, the electorate is after solutions from their political leadership, and the leaders who fail to deliver, are the ones likely to suffer at the time of an election. Morrison—and many of his ministers—have the habit of making public announcements and promises, only for those promises to remain undelivered, or re-announced in a different form. And, if there’s anything that goes wrong, deflections are offered, as are excuses and mistruths: it seems there’s always someone else to blame, rather than accepting the responsibility for errors and ensuring they are not repeated.

In the latter part of the year, there were revelations senior male ministers were engaged in inappropriate relationships with young staff members. Other allegations implied against the Attorney–General, Christian Porter, and aired by the ABC Four Corners program, exploded onto the scene in early 2021, when the full details of an alleged rape in 1988 were made public. There was also an allegation of a rape committed by a ministerial staffer in Parliament House just before the 2019 federal election, and the details of this incident were revealed in February 2021.

Other incidents of sexual misbehaviours by ministerial staffers were also revealed, which brought up the question: is Parliament House a safe workplace for women? It seems there are serious issues there and the federal government will need to make reforms within its own system if it is to match public expectations and the way the rest of the community is expected to behave.

This book primarily offers insights into the performances of the Liberal–National Coalition and the Labor Party throughout the year. It was a dramatic year in which no-one really understood what the final outcome would be, and this is still a delicate issue for 2021 and beyond.

Vaccines for coronaviruses have been created and that is one of the biggest breakthroughs in medical history. There is still some way to go in this area but the discovery of the vaccine is a game-changer for the field of medicine, despite varying efficacy of some versions of the vaccine, and the issues caused by the AstraZeneca version, where rare blood clots resulted from a small number of vaccinations.

It was said that developing a vaccine to coronaviruses was close to impossible and, if it was to be developed, it would take many years, if at all. Twelve months after the coronavirus pandemic commenced, a vaccine became available to the public: there was an international will to make a vaccine, and the vaccine was developed.

While there were successes in the field of medicine, politics was disappointing. An opportunity to find constructive responses in the public interest was available to political leaders, but the opportunity to point score and seek political benefit always seems to be greater. Politics in Australia had become too tribal and these divisions are eagerly exploited by a conservative mainstream media and key political players, including Prime Minister Morrison.

The rollout of the vaccines seemed to coincide with a political timetable—the completion schedule of October 2021 fitted in neatly to expectations Morrison planned to call an early federal election to exploit the anticipated success of this rollout—but the political party which prioritises politics and places its own interests first is in peril of losing control of its agenda and is destined for failure. There is now a shortage of vaccines and there is no schedule offered for when Australia’s population will be fully vaccinated; there is confusion about whether these vaccines are safe, primarily because the federal government placed vested interests ahead of the public interest. And it will suffer politically for acting in this way.

Australia is still at the crossroads, with no clear direction of which way it will proceed. The country has handled the pandemic well: coronavirus cases are in single digits across the country, and these have mainly been caused by overseas passenger arrivals. If there was a choice of residing in Australia, or in one of the many countries with thousands of new cases reported every day, most of the electorate would choose to live here.

But there are still many areas needing attention: long-term economic issues need to be resolved; climate change and environmental issues are still largely neglected by a federal government, which sees more merit in a ‘gas-led recovery’ than investing in a renewables energy future. The structure of federation placed a handbrake on Morrison’s initial desire to place more emphasis on the economy, rather than health, and the responses of the premiers and chief ministers were the ones which stopped Australia replicating the severe outbreaks, caseloads and deaths that occurred in the United States, and many parts of Europe.

Politics in this country needs to change, but the system itself is unclear about where it needs to start. The simple act of increasing female representation within the Liberal and National parties created a raucous response from the existing male members, unwilling to relinquish their privilege, or in the case of Morrison, saying he didn’t “want to see women rise only on the basis of others doing worse”.

A constant theme within Politics, Protest, Pandemic is the belief that Australia currently has the wrong type of federal government at the wrong time. Australia’s Constitution is outdated, created in 1901 and not fit-for-purpose in 2021; a political system which makes it difficult for women, migrants and community interests to engage and be an active part of that system; vested interests taking prominence over public interests; endless corruption, media manipulations, mismanagement; a hostile mainstream media which seems to be more intent on holding the public to account, rather the federal government.

It has been said that a government should “never let a good crisis go to waste” but it’s often forgotten that these are words from British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, mentioned towards the end of World War II. It took many years for the changes implemented at this time—the Bretton Woods agreement, the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the International Monetary Fund, as well the creation of the United Nations—to come to full fruition in the latter part of the 1950s and the 1960s. The leadership towards the end of World War II comprised Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, John Curtin, among many others around the world. In comparison, during 2020, the world leadership comprised Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and Scott Morrison. Trump has departed the scene—for the time being—but the leadership of Johnson and Morrison remains.

An opportunity to reform world economics and communities—or, at least, install the first building blocks of change—was missed during 2020 but that’s not to suggest the opportunity has been lost forever. Finding the right vaccines was critical in reducing the impact of the coronavirus all around the world and, through human endeavour, those vaccines were found.

The French philosopher, Henri Bergson, believed solutions to all of the problems in society do exist; the issue for humanity is how to find those solutions. The same resolution is evident in the political sphere: the solutions to the many problems that exist in Australia’s political system are there and available.

It’s just a matter of choosing the right kind of leadership that can find and implement those solutions.

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