The continuing failure of libertarian governments

When the NSW Government removed all COVID restrictions on 15 December last year, there were 2,800 new COVID cases across Australia. Fast forward one month and, on 12 January, that number had escalated to 175,000 daily case numbers, before easing to the current number of around 37,000. How did these numbers move so rapidly and spiral out of control?

Having so many sick people with COVID has opened up a wide range of other issues and having that amount of people unwell with COVID within the community meant that many people couldn’t work, including supply chain workers, people who deliver services and essential workers in hospitals and aged care homes. In addition, rapid antigen tests – which would have greatly assisted in managing the outbreak of COVID have been in short supply.

It’s difficult to think of a way the NSW Government could have mismanaged this crisis any further. The statements coming from the NSW Premier, Dominic Perrottet, and Prime Minister Scott Morrison, that ‘nobody saw Omicron coming’ are simply not correct, with many health experts and epidemiologists predicting that fully removing restrictions without an adequate support system in place, would have these poor outcomes, and they also warned that an unhealthy community riddled with coronavirus would result in many essentials unable to work, and supply chains would be severely disrupted. Which is exactly what occurred in NSW during late December and January, and a situation that spread throughout all other states and territories across Australia, with the exception of Western Australia. Should the NSW Government have listened to the experts, rather than the business community?

Of course, it’s always easier to be wise after the event, but the evidence was there, and the evidence was presented in vociferous way by the medical community: that a new strain of the coronavirus was coming, that it was far more virulent, that it was far more contagious. And there were many warnings that a high increase in COVID case numbers after removing restrictions would result in a far higher hospitalisation rate, more people in intensive care units, and more deaths, with the Doherty Institute predicting 80 deaths per day, within six months after the lifting of restrictions, if the appropriate systems of control were not implemented, claims that were ridiculed by some media commentators and senior politicians. On 31 January, Australia had a seven-day average of 86 deaths per day.

And this has contributed to a summer of discontent experienced by many people. Morrison, promised a safe holiday when he said “the restaurants are opening and a big Christmas is coming for all of us” in his 2021 Christmas message. “Big”, yes, but not in the way Morrison anticipated. Many people in Sydney had to spend their Christmas in isolation, either because they had coronavirus, or they were waiting for their PCR tests, which were taking around four or five days to come through, and many aged care facilities were locked down for a few weeks.

The expected retail bonanza failed to material, because people were afraid to venture out and many supply chains were disrupted because the government failed to arrive at the simple understanding that COVID doesn’t discriminate and that a high number of cases means that the chances of supermarket workers, forklifters, drivers, essential workers in hospitals and aged care homes being afflicted with COVID also increases. Which is exactly what occurred.

This situation in NSW – which then spread to Victoria, Queensland, Tasmania, South Australia, the ACT and Northern Territory – wasn’t directly caused by the Morrison government: that was primarily the fault of the NSW Government, which had its third major event of COVID mismanagement, following on from the Ruby Princess disaster in March 2020, and it’s failure to adequately manage the Delta outbreak in June 2021. But the actions of the NSW Government to remove restrictions on 15 December were fully supported by Scott Morrison and the business community.

To be sure; if a government is ideologically committed to removing restrictions and opening up the community, the least they could do is be prepared for the inevitable health outcomes. There should be an expectation that government would increase testing clinics; open up more vaccination centres and hubs; adequately source, secure, and supply rapid antigen tests and make them widely available.

But the NSW Government did the opposite. They removed restrictions – only for them to be re-instigated one week later after the mistake was realised – many testing clinics were closed down for the Christmas period; many vaccination centres were closed for all of January; and rapid antigen tests were impossible to find for consumers; and the Prime Minister suggested individuals would need to manage their own health and a “greater level of self-regulation”. The management of this crisis was inadequate and the actions of the NSW Government and federal government seemed to be a either a deliberate act of pushing the spread of Omicron through the community – not that they could publicly come out announce this was intention all along, although the Queensland Chief Health Officer, John Gerrard, came close when he suggested the spread of Omicron was “inevitable and necessary – or, in the words of former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, the “worst failure of public administration in Australian history”.

Many other developed countries are providing rapid antigen tests for free – there are currently six countries that offering this – or at cost price. In Australia, the tests are being sold for at least $15 per test, for a mark-up of around 400–500 per cent. And there are also Australian companies – AnteoTech and Lumos Diagnostics – currently awaiting approval from the Therapeutic Goods Administration to supply their testing kits to the domestic market but, instead, are supplying their products to international markets.

In this environment, it would be reasonable to expect the Australian Government to step in and fast-track the approval process and support a domestic production sector, and supply domestically – after they were approved for use in the United States in February 2021 – but it’s difficult to comprehend why approvals have not yet occurred and why the government is keen to import rapid antigen tests, and deny local manufactures to follow the more sensible approach of producing in a local market, and supplying to a local market.

It’s clear that rapid antigen tests have been used as yet another political, and a tool to provide favours for the business community. Aside from the issues of whether the tests should have been provided for free, it seemed more consistent with a de facto business stimulus package, where they were appearing in some unusual locations – phone repair shops, tobacconists, electronic stores, Harvey Norman, and at heavily marked-up prices through an artificially inflated market created by increasing demand and reducing supply.

And, of course, this is the end result of governments ideologically linked to the desires of the business sector, and not the community. Towards the end of 2021, many businesses – large and small – complained incessantly about the need to in restrictions late last year to open up as soon as possible. On 15 December, they were granted their wish, but when COVID case numbers started to rise and shoppers deserted the malls, they then started to complain that the government removed restrictions too soon and they now weren’t the customers that were promised.

Perhaps the main message to government is that stakeholders and vested interest will complain about anything – even if they are a government’s most vocal supporters – and it’s best to ignore those voices, listen to experts and proceed with what it in the interests of the community. Essentially, the NSW Government ended up with was the worst of both worlds: a sick workforce and a sick economy, and a lesson that in politics, it’s best to take in the bigger picture and not just stick rigidly to your ideological pursuits or listen to your political donors.

This follows on from the continuing bungles in many aspects of the management of the pandemic by this government, and it would be hoping that all of these issues are resolved in time for the next federal election, which is due in May 2022. But there are limits to how much memory can be erased by the electorate for this mismanagement. A mistake can easily be forgotten about if there is a remedy applied and quickly resolved: that is the role and function of good government. The Morrison government appears to making mistakes followed by more mistakes, never implementing a solution until it’s far too late, and unable to learn from its mistakes. And, so, the mistakes continue. A missed Christmas or a miserable holiday spent in isolation from everyone and suffering the effects of COVID are events that are not easily forgotten. More people have died from COVID during January 2022, than died throughout all of 2021 and there are memories that cannot be erased simply because the federal government managed to get their supply and vaccines sorted out according to an election timetable, rather than when they were needed by the community.

And it is becoming more apparent that the Ministers in charge at the federal level and at the state level in NSW, are not equipped for the tasks required of them, and seem to lack the intellect, experience, wisdom and leadership. And the results of this lack of skill are obvious to see and results in some of the more bizarre ideas coming into play, such as Morrison’s thought-bubble of children under the age of 18 obtaining licences to drive forklift trucks to rectify supply-chain issues and empty supermarket shelves. It’s also evident that the leaders that lacked intellect and created the problems in the first place, is not going to have the intellect required to solved those problems, and it was case where big business made a half-thought-out idea, which then ended up at the discussion table of the National Cabinet. And, after the idea was rejected by National Cabinet, it was lampooned as Morrison’s ‘onion-eating moment’ (in reference to the incident where former Prime Minister Tony Abbott ate a raw onion in 2015 and the political narrative he is so desperate to control, started navigated through to all the unwanted places of national ridicule.

Every prime minister wants to control the ‘narrative’ and their political messaging, and one key message Morrison has been pushing through has been that nobody could “have seen Omicron coming”, his government was “blindsided” and could not have done stop its spread. But these are excuses and covering over a failure of leadership and a failure to take up that responsibility.

Governments are the largest organisation in any country and have the resources and the personnel available to assess all of these situations: the community can’t do these tasks by themselves and the critical reason why governments exist.

Government also perform risk assessments and the pros and cons of each decision they need to proceed with. That’s what governments do. Perhaps the federal government had the high-level risk assessments and strategies in place but decided to ignore those risks because it didn’t adequately reflect its political and ideological needs. The Omicron variant first appeared in early November 2021 in South Africa and this should be enough time for a government to clearly assess a situation and reduce threats as much as possible. This government failed to do this: they’ve had two years to prepare for new quarantine centres in Perth, Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne but these tasks have not been completed yet. If there are problems in the creating of any of these tasks, governments have the ability to fast-track resources and ensure problems are resolved in the best interests of the community. That’s why governments exist.

However, an incompetent and indolent government, with little pressure placed upon them by the mainstream media, one that feels that it can lie its way out of any predicament, will produce these kinds of results: chaos in the community, chaos in the economy, and a government that has almost lost all of its political capital. If only the Morrison government performed the work that was expected of them in the first place, they wouldn’t be in the political trouble they currently find themselves in, behind in the polls, and widely expected to lose the 2022 federal election.

The community is discovering that this type of ideologically-driven, libertarian and anti-government government is not suited for these times. If they’re so committed to “removing government from people’s lives”, then they should vacate office at the next election and let those committed to strong and effective government manage the pandemic.

The current centre of the Liberal Party in Australia now resides in NSW, and the Morrison–Perrottet model of non-government has failed – partly because both of those men are political failures anyway – but it’s also because it’s an extreme ideological model that could never work effectively, even when the political circumstances suited this style of thinking the 1980s and 1990s.

In 2022, there is a series of byelections in NSW (February); a general state selection in South Australia (March); a federal election (May); and a general state election in Victoria (November). It will be a year that provides an opportunity to the electorate to outline what it really expects from government: a laissez faire approach to political management which has largely proven to be disastrous and ineffective; or a more constructive, effective and responsive approach to implementing solutions in the interests of the wider community, not just to the select few.


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About David Lewis 3 Articles
David Lewis is co-presenter of the New Politics Australia podcast, historian, musicologist, musician and political scientist based in Sydney. His lecturing and research interests include roots music, popular music, Australian, UK and US politics and crime fiction. He has published in Music Forum Australia, Eureka Street, Quadrant, Crikey and has edited several books.