Our political leaders haven’t learnt from past COVID mistakes, they just wait to listen to the mob


Just on a month ago, about the same time he was dumping social restrictions and advocating personal responsibility in dealing with COVID, NSW's still new Premier Dominic Perrottet made a speech arguing the need to think about the lessons the pandemic had taught us about our system of government.

What he specifically had in mind was the nature of the federation.

"The pandemic may not yet be over," he said.

"But now is the right time to start thinking about the lessons COVID has taught us about our federal system of government — and how we can respond."

It was a genuinely interesting speech, and vaguely refreshing to hear someone sounding like they were actually thinking about stuff in amidst the chaos of pandemic management.

Of course, some of it looks a little … sick now, given how the actions of Perrottet's government appeared to accelerate the spread of the already contagious Omicron variant.

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He said the Federation had allowed states to tailor their responses and for all to learn from each other. But the pandemic had also identified weaknesses in the system too, he said.

In the health system, in particular, these weaknesses "are all familiar: lack of clarity around who is responsible for what; buck passing, blame shifting, and sometimes hyper-parochialism".

"When it comes to COVID, no response has been perfect. No response could be. But we can learn from our mistakes."

On Friday, Perrottet was compelled to make a further backdown from his aggressive easing of restrictions position — what we might call the "all (no) singing and dancing" restrictions — as he also announced the suspension of non-urgent elective surgery until February, amid forecasts people with COVID could be taking up 6,000 beds in the state's hospitals by the end of the month.

It has been an expensive mistake. And hardly the only one made by a political leader in Australia.

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The perplexing and frustrating thing is how, particularly at the federal level, there seems to be so little learning from mistakes in this pandemic.

The Prime Minister was asked on Thursday whether the speed and spread of Omicron had prompted the government to go back and reconsider all the scenarios that might arise in future, and what contingencies they may require, so that we would be in a better position to respond faster to whatever the next variant might throw at us.

Scott Morrison's response was that this was what the health teams, and the national cabinet, do every day.

"The proof of that is in what are quite world leading outcomes", he said. "I mean, you want to judge a process, judge it by its outcomes and its outcomes is one of the lowest death rates, one of the strongest economies and one of the highest vaccination rates."

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Yes, a journalist followed up, it's also seen a nationwide shortage of rapid antigen test supplies.

"And if we did have the modelling and the Health Department doing its job and preparing for worst-case scenarios, why weren't we ready?" she asked.

The PM's response was that everyone globally was in the same boat, there were plenty of armchair critics and that he wouldn't accept the suggestion that health officials hadn't been doing their job.

"There's no guidebook to COVID. We all know that. And so I what I think is important is the country just focuses on the task ahead. Keep looking through that windscreen. That's where I'm looking. We're looking forward."

So the PM says he is not looking backwards (and perhaps, as a result, not learning anything). But if he is looking forward through the windscreen, it's not clear that he's looking through it in any great anticipation of possible hazards ahead, or that he picked up any driving tips on his recent visit to Bathurst, and is driving accordingly. (Since excruciatingly drawn out metaphors seem to be the order of the day these days).

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And it is indeed a grim view out the windscreen just now.

Just two weeks ago, the PM said Doherty Institute modelling showing Australia could reach 200,000 cases a day by late January or early February as "a very unlikely, extreme case scenario that assumes that nobody does anything; nobody gets boosters, there are no changes that take place, no one exercises common sense".

"The chief medical officer and I just want to assure people that those sort of numbers aren't what we are expecting," he told breakfast television.

Daily cases were already nudging 80,000 on Friday and political leaders around the country were starting to take drastic steps to keep systems functioning.

These measures came on top of the debacle which has seen the PCR-based testing regime overwhelmed, and authorities racing to try to alleviate the pressure by ramping up the use of rapid antigen tests (despite the fact there are not enough to go around), and that systems to record the results of such tests are only now being developed.

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A steady rise in the stories about people not being able to get appointments for their kids to be vaccinated, and of GP practices receiving Health Department emails saying expected deliveries of vaccine supplies were delayed, were other signs of a system in crisis.

The PM spoke this week of alleviating pressure on hospitals by getting people who are sick to contact their GPs – even though GP practices say they are not resourced to deal with the upsurge in demands for treatment and for booster rollouts.

Proactive leadership?

Most predictions seem to still point to this surge peaking sometime later this month or in February. But the chicanes along the way include the fact that, even on the official plan, 5 to 11-year-olds will have only received one dose of vaccine before school starts, and will be seeking the second dose just as the surge in people becoming eligible for boosters also hits.

Read more about the spread of COVID-19:

Overwhelmed hospital systems, a primary health care system unable to cope, the return of many restrictions, people staying at home and not spending money out in the economy, millions of people getting sick and/or being frustrated by access to vaccines for themselves or their kids: it's hardly a great backdrop for an election campaign. So we may at least be spared that misery until closer to May.

Despite everything the pandemic has thrown at us, our political leaders still seem incapable of anticipating, of getting proactive, even considering taking out a bit of policy insurance.

Instead, whether it is the policy or the rhetoric, it seems to still all be driven by waiting to find out what the mob thinks — on everything from an anti-vaxxer tennis star to an opposition which seemed reluctant to go hard this week on the issue of access to free rapid antigen tests until the issue had well and truly developed a head of steam in the media, lest they be attacked for appearing profligate.

Is it just that several generations of politicians who have been trained to be driven by polling have lost the art of detaching themselves from the safety of mob opinion and … actually leading? With all the risk that entails?

This pandemic shows such an approach is not just dispiriting. It can actually be fatal.

Laura Tingle is 7.30's chief political correspondent.

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Source: https://www.abc.net.au/news




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