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Snapback: Scott Morrison's pandemic optimism

Sep 1, 2020 • 15m 00s

For months the prime minister has been projecting a return to normality, but what kind of Australia is waiting for us on the other side of the pandemic? Today, Sean Kelly on the type of society Scott Morrison envisions, and what might lie ahead.

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Snapback: Scott Morrison's pandemic optimism

299 • Sep 1, 2020

Snapback: Scott Morrison's pandemic optimism

[Theme music starts]

RUBY:

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

For months, the Prime Minister has been projecting a return to normality, once the pandemic is over.

But, it’s become increasingly clear the world around us has fundamentally changed. The question is, what kind of Australia is waiting for us on the other side?

Today, contributor to The Monthly Sean Kelly on the type of society Scott Morrison envisions, and what might lie ahead.

[Theme music ends]

RUBY:

Sean, earlier this year, Scott Morrison was talking about an economic snapback which was supposed to happen right about now in September. Can you tell me about that?

SEAN:

He was very, very insistent about this.

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:

“We do need to snap back to the normal arrangements on the other side of this.”

SEAN:

In an interview in April he talked about there being a snapback in September, we would bounce back on the other side of this.

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:

“And we are being very careful to do that. But we will need to build the economy strongly again…”

SEAN:

So there was this really strong sense from the Prime Minister that this virus would be around maybe for a while. But in terms of the way Australia would approach it, there'd be a six month period of shutdowns and whatnot, and then things would be absolutely back to normal.

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:

“We want the businesses to be able to snap back and just get on with the job, when we get on the other side. We don’t want them to be burdened down with debt…”

RUBY:

And what does this idea of a snapback tell you more broadly about the way that Scott Morrison has envisioned this crisis right from the very beginning?

SEAN:

To me, it says that Scott Morrison thought that this would be a short term thing. He was open to the idea that the virus would be around for a while, that things would change in some ways, but essentially, he thought ‘well, we're here, we're at point A and by the time we're at point B, we will be back to exactly the way things were before.’ Now, later, he tried to distance himself from this idea, tried to distance himself from the idea that he'd ever really believed in any such a thing as snapback.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Man #1:

“... is this the snapback that you envisaged when you put JobKeeper in place?”

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:

“Well, a lot has happened since then, Tim, as you would know. I think we've got a lot more information than we had back then. What was important back then was we knew that Australians would need an economic lifeline…”

SEAN:

But the truth is, it was there in government policy. They had a ban on evictions. They had mortgage holidays, JobKeeper, the high rate of JobSeeker, loan schemes, apprentice schemes - they were all set to end in September.
And the thing about this approach, the idea that we'd snap back immediately in six months was really in keeping with Scott Morrison's general approach to this virus, which is that right from the beginning, he's been slow to accept that it will be as bad as everybody else has said it would be, that it would have the types of consequences that we've seen rolled out across the world.

Like that great Friday where he said, right, from Monday, we're all going to stop going to the football, but I'm still going to go to the football this weekend. You know, there's a sense that he'll say these things, but really, he doesn't believe that things are that bad. And I think that really has been a dominant theme of Scott Morrison's approach to coronavirus.

RUBY:

And some of those policies that you've mentioned were interpreted initially in some quarters as the prime minister embracing socialism, even though that was a message that he himself distanced his government from fairly immediately, right?

SEAN:

That's right. I mean, as soon as this virus happened, as soon as there was some sense that it was a global pandemic, a lot of people started talking about the idea that this would change everything, that we would have to revisit the ways that we did many, many things, revisit the assumptions that had driven our society for decades.
And when Scott Morrison announced billions of dollars in support for the economy, he announced free childcare, people suddenly said ‘look, the change is here already, this conservative government is embracing socialism.’ But the Prime Minister was very, very quick to hose that down, both behind closed doors to colleagues who are a little bit worried and more or less in public, as he said the same thing.

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:

“So make no mistake: today is not about ideologies. We checked those at the door.”

SEAN:

The proof that Scott Morrison was genuine in saying to colleagues, this is not socialism, this is not a departure from our usual practise really came through over time as we began to see that there was ideology in every aspect of the government's response.

Take JobKeeper, this massive, massive wage subsidy scheme - it excluded to a very large extent, artists, academics, recent migrants, many, many, many women and young people were excluded, and the list when you looked at it, was exactly what an unimaginative critic of the government would have predicted the government would exclude.

And when the government was asked why, why these people, the Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, repeatedly said ‘a line had to be drawn somewhere’.

Archival Tape -- Josh Frydenberg

“You see, at $130 billion, David, we had to draw the line somewhere. This is a massive call on the public purse and it is a debt that the country will pay for years to come…”

SEAN:

Which was never much of an answer and really made you think, well, clearly this is about something other than just what's going to get us out of this economic disaster fastest.

And in every one of these examples, you see a couple of things. Firstly, the government supporting the groups it normally supports. And you see the government really just going ahead with things that it probably would have done anyway.

RUBY:

And Sean, given economic forecasts and the government's indications that it will cut spending soon. What do you think is to come and how prepared are we?

SEAN:

Nobody really knows. I think everybody's got a lot of predictions wrong through the course of this crisis. But my sense is that most Australians, and I include myself in this, don't have a very great feeling, even if we say it at some intellectual level, we don't have a very great feeling for how bad things are potentially going to get.

RUBY:

We’ll be back in a moment.

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RUBY:

Sean, when Australians saw those huge lines at Centrelink earlier in the year, there was a real sense I think of national shock. But we now know that was really only the beginning. So, how do you think Scott Morrison and Josh Frydenberg envision unemployment, and the people who are experiencing it?

SEAN:

The government, to its great credit, increased JobSeeker, what most of us would call the dole at the start of this crisis. In fact, it almost doubled it and that lifted a huge number of Australians out of poverty. And the government has said it's not going to bring that payment back to what it was before, but it is going to cut it.

Now, if you look at the way the government has talked about people hit by this crisis, it's been fascinating.

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:

“A business, that through no fault of its own, just like if there's any Australian who has lost a job through no fault of their own…”

SEAN:

Over and over and over again they've used this phrase - they've said, ‘people thrown out of work through no fault of their own. People who are suffering economic hardship through no fault of their own’. And they use that about this particular period, this virus crisis period.

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:

“...we are simply trying to preserve and support them in the best way we possibly can for the simple reason that A; they are Australian, and that is what we should do, and B; that on the other side we want them to surge again…”

SEAN:

The weird thing about that is it seems to imply that there's this other group of people, the people who were already unemployed, the people who lost their jobs in the past, who were at fault, that there's this group in the virus who weren't at fault and everybody else who actually couldn't keep up their end of the bargain, who couldn't manage their lives effectively to stay and work and stay out of poverty.

And I think this is very revealing about the way the government sees Australia. And you can see it in Scott Morrison's rhetoric about having a go and getting a go; if you have a go, you get a go. And it's actually a very brutal way of looking at things. But it's the type of thing that justifies the government's approach to the unemployed. It justifies their previous policy of getting unemployed people to take drug tests. It justifies the idea that JobSeeker should be cut again. And Scott Morrison's come out with this line that there are businesses that are struggling to get workers because people are being paid too much in JobSeeker. But there's absolutely no evidence of that out there. And in fact, the figures suggest there are huge numbers of people looking for work and really not enough jobs to go around.

RUBY:

Scott Morrison's reaction to this crisis, what does it tell you about him and his leadership? Is it just that he doesn't think that things will be that bad?

SEAN:

I think some of it is ideological in that in the tedious sense we usually mean it by. He's not used to thinking about these things. His mind - as all of our minds do - runs along particular railroad tracks, and it's very hard to break off those tracks. But that is a particular problem right now, because the Australia that Scott Morrison concentrates on, the Australia that he imagines is the Australians for whom things have basically worked out. It's the Australians who, in his mind, have had a go and have got to go. And a pandemic runs right against that.

As to other massive emergencies like climate change, they say, actually there are bigger things out there. There are structural forces. There are unexpected events that can derail your life. But because the Prime Minister is so relentlessly focussed on those people who can control their life, as far as he's concerned, he doesn't really believe that things can derail a life. He doesn't really believe that things will get that bad. Not in his bones, not at his centre. And I think that's a real failure of imagination. It's a real failure of imagination at this point in history, in particular because we are suddenly seeing a confluence of crises. But Scott Morrison's approach is to think ‘well, things were fine and things will be fine again soon.’

RUBY:

And that kind of thinking would explain, though, why Morrison was so keen on a snapback at the start of the year. But is a snap back to life pre-pandemic feasible, or is it that our world is changing too much for that to even be an option now? Do we need to start to think about things differently?

SEAN:

I think we do need to think about things differently. I don't think we can just go back to what we had before. The virus has pointed us to problems in our society, it’s pointed us to problems with the insecure work, it’s pointed us to the problems in our aged care homes, it's pointed us to the split in our country, the inequality in our country between people who have comparatively simple lives, who work white collar jobs, who can work from home, and those who have no choice but to turn up to jobs that are potentially dangerous every day.

And the reason for all of those things is that as a society, we've developed a couple of troubling ideas. We've developed the idea, first of all, that the economy is everything. And secondly, that because the economy is everything - forget community, forget equality, forget quality of life - because the economy is everything, then businesses are the absolute most important thing, and we must do everything to help businesses. Even at the cost of climate change, even at the cost of spreading a pandemic.

Ultimately, the job of a leader is not just to shepherd us through the next few months, though of course that's very important, is to look to the long term and to try to help all of us find our way to a better society.
But my concern right now is that his focus on getting back to the way things were before and his refusal to acknowledge the significant problems in our society at a time of enormously rapid change and a time of enormous crisis, one after the other, means that he will be particularly ill-suited this time to making the changes that we need to make.

RUBY:

Sean, thank you so much for your time today.

SEAN:

Thanks very much, Ruby.

RUBY:

You can read Sean Kelly’s piece, Snapback, in the latest edition of The Monthly.

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[Theme music starts]

RUBY:

Also in the news today...

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has announced that he will reveal a roadmap out of lockdown this Sunday, as the state recorded 73 new coronavirus cases.

The Premier said it was critical to see the number of cases over the next week before disclosing further details about how restrictions may ease.

The Chief Health Officer, Brett Sutton, said that he hoped that by the time the roadmap is announced on Sunday, there will be about 40 new cases per day.

And, community groups and homelessness organisations are calling for a multi-billion dollar social housing building program to help address the surging levels of homelessness across the country.

Peak body Homelessness Australia says they have never been inundated with so many people seeking support at the same time as they are now due to surging levels of unemployment.

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am. See ya tomorrow.

[Theme music ends]

For months the prime minister has been projecting a return to normality. But it’s become increasingly clear the world around us has fundamentally changed. What kind of Australia is waiting for us on the other side of the pandemic? Today, Sean Kelly on the type of society Scott Morrison envisions, and what might lie ahead.

Guest: Contributor to The Monthly Sean Kelly.

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Snapback in The Monthly

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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.

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299: Snapback: Scott Morrison's pandemic optimism