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Look over there! A vaccine!

Aug 21, 2020 • 13m 59s

As a number of inquiries interrogate how prepared state and federal governments were for the coronavirus pandemic, the Prime Minister has evaded criticism by changing the topic to a potential coronavirus vaccine. Today, Paul Bongiorno on Scott Morrison’s attempt at distraction.

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Look over there! A vaccine!

292 • Aug 21, 2020

Look over there! A vaccine!

RUBY:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.

As a number of inquiries interrogate how prepared state and federal government’s were for the coronavirus pandemic the Prime Minister has evaded criticism by changing the conversation.

The announcement of a coronavirus vaccine made headlines, but how realistic is it?

Today, columnist for The Saturday Paper, Paul Bongiorno, on Scott Morrison’s attempt at distraction.

**

RUBY:

Paul this has been a week where we’re hearing a lot about responsibility and accountability around Australia’s pandemic response, including the hotel quarantine inquiry in Victoria and the Ruby Princess inquiry in New South Wales. So, what has the federal government’s response been?

PAUL:

You know, you could almost hear the sigh of relief from Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton when the commissioner in Sydney, Brett Walker SC, acquitted Border Force from responsibility, instead choosing to lay the blame for the fiasco at the feet of New South Wales health.

Archival Tape -- News Reader

“An enquiry has found New South Wales health made inexcusable and inexplicable mistakes…”

PAUL:

Peter Dutton has claimed exoneration for the absolution given by the commissioner for his Australian Border Force people and the biosecurity officer from the federal Department of Agriculture.

Archival Tape -- Peter Dutton

“I don't employ a doctor or nurse at the airport, at ports - that is the responsibility of the Victorian Health Department, of the Queensland Health Department, the New South Wales Health Department. It is nothing to do with the Australian Border Force…”

PAUL:

Now, as for the Premier and Health Minister in New South Wales, they promptly apologised, but no one's been forced to resign. And there's been a rather surprising lack of political pressure given the fact that the Ruby Princess was Australia's largest coronavirus cluster at the time.

RUBY:

Mm. And so how does that compare to the reaction that there's been to the Victorian government's handling of hotel quarantine?

PAUL:

Well, Ruby, I think a good example of how it compares unfavourably was on Wednesday, Channel Nine's Karl Stefanovic showed that he firmly believed in an all embracing doctrine of ministerial accountability, at least when it comes to Daniel Andrews.

Archival Tape -- Karl Stefanovic

“Victorians, meantime, I mean, they're tough, they’re get-on-with-it kind of people, but they have been completely, utterly and hopelessly let down. I don't know whether it's lies or incompetence. PM, but the government had three months to prepare Victorians for the second wave and didn't do enough.”

PAUL:

He asked the Prime Minister why he hadn't lost patience with the Premier for his mistakes, his ‘deadly mistakes’ he called them.

Archival Tape -- Karl Stefanovic

“Your own ministers have been unloading on Dan Andrews. You haven't disciplined them - why haven't you personally lost patience with Dan Andrews? “

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison

“Because that's not my job. My job is to keep focused on the challenge…”

PAUL:

He characterised the Victorian government as incompetent and unprepared. And Scott Morrison agreed that there had been many issues on tracing and quarantine.

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison

“Well, there clearly have been many issues there on the tracing, on the quarantine. And I think that's all becoming very clear…”

PAUL:

And although the Prime Minister insisted the Australian Defence Force was on offer from the get-go in Victoria's second wave, Morrison was careful not to overtly join the Daniel Andrews pile-on.

RUBY:

Mm. Why do you think that is?

PAUL:

Well, his response, no doubt, was tempered by news of a hotel quarantine failure in Sydney involving a private security guard.

Archival Tape -- News Reader

“Sydney is dealing with its own Hotel Quarantine breach tonight; a security guard contracting COVID-19 at the Mariott Hotel in the city…”

PAUL:

The guard who tested positive to the virus had worked at a number of locations all across Sydney. And so there was a real risk that this could have been the start of a new cluster. And perhaps Morrison also realised that distilling Victoria's disaster down to the absence of the ADF on hotel duty begs more questions for the federal government, particularly, than it answers.

RUBY:

Right. And what else do you think might have led to the Prime Minister adopting this more sort of subdued line this week?

PAUL:

Well, I think another reason for the circumspection may have been that two Royal Commissions set up by Scott Morrison himself into aged care and disability, they heard evidence that the government, in their regard, wasn't as effectively COVID-prepared as you'd expect.

And in this instance, unlike the muddier waters of the Ruby Princess and the hotel quarantine sagas, there's no doubt these sectors of the Commonwealth's responsibility.

RUBY:

We'll be back in a moment.

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RUBY:

Paul, Scott Morrison tried to change the political conversation this week - can you tell me about what he did?

PAUL:

Midweek, he changed tack. He tried to convince people that he had some good news to offer. He went on a morning media blitz. You know, he did nine radio and TV interviews to make his latest announcement.

Archival Tape -- Various News readers:

“We're joined now by the prime minister, Scott Morrison. Good morning-...
...Prime Minister Scott Morrison joins us now from Kirribilli House in Sydney-...
...Prime Minister, it's great to see you. Thank you for joining us-...
...Joining me now, Prime Minister Scott Morrison-...
...The Prime Minister Scott Morrison Good morning!”

PAUL:

And Ruby, it wasn't free beer for all the workers, but free coronavirus vaccine for all Australians.

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison

“We’ve been able to strike this deal with AstraZeneca, and this would mean a vaccine for every single Australian-...
...manufactured here in Australia, distributed free, for 25 million Australians-...
...and so we wanted to ensure that we were right in the lead pack on this, and we have the added advantage that we can make it here too…”

PAUL:

But the issue with this is that, well, he still hasn't actually signed the deal, it's an intention. And, of course, there may never be a vaccine.

RUBY:

Right. So, there is no actual deal to acquire a vaccine yet...is that right?

PAUL:

Yeah, well what happened is that the Australian government signed a letter of intent with British-Swedish big pharma company, AstraZeneca. Now, AstraZeneca itself said the deal was far from done. It says there were a number of further steps to take, including finalising contractual discussions and selecting a local manufacturer.

Now, it has to be said that the development of this vaccine at Oxford University is very promising, but even there, again, we still don't actually have a safe vaccine ready to go. But, of course, all of this detail was lost as Morrison proclaimed that not only would the vaccine be delivered for free to 25 million people, it would be mandatory...that is, before he backtracked later in the day.

RUBY:

So Scott Morrison said that the vaccine would be mandatory. And then he changed his mind?

PAUL:

Well, that's right, Ruby. On 3AW Radio on Wednesday morning, Morrison said he would ensure the vaccine would be as ‘mandatory as you can possibly make it’.

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison

“I would expect it to be as mandatory as you can possibly make it. There are always exemptions for any vaccine on medical grounds, but that should be the only basis…”

PAUL:

At a later press conference, Morrison talked up his credentials as the social services minister that introduced ‘no jab, no play’, a policy used to try and increase childhood vaccination rates by threatening to cut off family tax benefits payments for families who refuse to vaccinate their kids.

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison

“As you know, I have a pretty strong view on vaccines, being the social services minister that introduced ‘no jab, no play’…”

PAUL:

Well, by late afternoon, the PM was backtracking. He told Sydney's 2GB that it's not going to be compulsory to get the vaccine. And curiously, given his position for most of the day, he says there are no mechanisms for compulsion. He even said you can't hold people down as you give them the jab, which makes you wonder why he spent most of the day saying he could do it.

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison

“Can I be really clear to everyone? No one's going to be...it's not gonna be compulsory to have the vaccine. It's not compulsory. There are no compulsory vaccines in Australia. There are no things that force people to do things…”

PAUL:

Well, Ruby, despite the backflip, this served as a convenient distraction for the Prime Minister, who until then was facing increasing heat over a number of issues.

RUBY:

So are you saying that the COVID-19 vaccine announcement was a way to change the conversation, Paul?

PAUL:

Well, look, it certainly looks and smells like that, frankly. I mean, there's just so much swirling around the head of the Prime Minister. The controversies, as I said, over aged care and disability. If people drill down into what really went on at the Ruby Princess enquiry and the rolls that Border Force and the federal Department of Agriculture paid, I think the Prime Minister realised he was beginning to skate on very thin ice.

In fact, making it worse - and a parallel, really, which was quite eerie - making it worse for the Prime Minister was that five days before Ruby Princess docked in Sydney, he went on and said “I've had enough. From now on, Border Force will have direct responsibility for ships.” But we now know, after evidence given to the Senate Covid enquiry midweek, that he did nothing to put those words into practise. He didn't give legislative force to the role that Border Force could take.

RUBY:

And so, Paul, how do you think the Prime Minister is going? Do you think that this is a strategy that will work?

PAUL:

Well, look, distractions, and look-over-there, and as we said last week, throwing a chunk of red meat for the media pack to chase in another direction, isn't new. And I do think a lot of people are aware that politicians will make mistakes, our leaders will make mistakes in this rapidly evolving pandemic situation. But the difference this time is with the lockdowns and the national anxiety about coronavirus, people are paying a lot more attention. And I think the danger here for Morrison and indeed the premiers and other political leaders is: if they fall too far short of promise in their delivery, then I'm sure they'll pay a price for that.

RUBY:

Paul, thank you so much for your time today.

PAUL:

Thanks again, Ruby, bye.

RUBY:

Paul Bongiorno’s column on the week in politics will be published in tomorrow’s issue of The Saturday Paper.

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RUBY:

Also in the news…

The Western Australian Government has announced people designated a “flight risk” from COVID-19 hotel quarantine will be forced to wear electronic monitoring bracelets.

The Premier, Mark McGowan said people in quarantine would be fitted with ankle bracelets only on "rare" occasions, but those with a criminal history would be monitored and tracked.

The announcement came after two women were charged by police for escaping hotel quarantine.

And former US President Barack Obama has declared “democracy is at stake” in the upcoming presidential election.

Speaking at the Democratic National Convention Obama warned that Donald Trump would "sneak or steal his way to victory".

**

RUBY:

7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper. It’s produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, and Michelle Macklem.

Elle Marsh is our features and field producer, in a position supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.

Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief.
Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

New episodes of 7am are released every weekday morning. Subscribe in your favourite podcast app, to make sure you don’t miss out.

I’m Ruby Jones. See ya next week.

As a number of inquiries interrogate how prepared state and federal governments were for the coronavirus pandemic, the Prime Minister has evaded criticism by changing the topic to a potential coronavirus vaccine. Today, Paul Bongiorno on Scott Morrison’s attempt at distraction.

Guest: Columnist for The Saturday Paper Paul Bongiorno.

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7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper. It’s produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, and Michelle Macklem.

Elle Marsh is our features and field producer, in a position supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.

Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief.
Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

New episodes of 7am are released every weekday morning. Subscribe in your favourite podcast app, to make sure you don’t miss out.

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292: Look over there! A vaccine!