This pandemic has plunged us all into whitewater, but there are some certainties.
The first rock solid certainty is 10pm media conferences unveiling fundamental changes to people’s livelihoods and freedom of movement really don’t work. At the risk of being blunt, they need to stop, and stop now, because the chaos risks being counterproductive.
Tuesday night’s cascading instructions from Scott Morrison’s podium were stay home everyone, but if you have a job, you are an essential worker, so make sure you keep working. Go to school, but don’t go to the foodcourt. Five at a wedding, 10 at a funeral, 10 at a bootcamp, but no yoga. No waxing, but a hairdresser for 30 minutes is still OK.
A thread of logic ran through the various delineations – or some of them anyway – but holding onto that thread was really challenging.
The dull thud that could be heard in the distance as Morrison spoke at a fiendish clip was the sound of a million Australian heads exploding in their lounge rooms.
To be fair to the prime minister, these late-night updates have happened for entirely sound reasons. This certainly isn’t blathering incompetence, even if that’s how the process sometimes presents.
It is important for people to understand how the daily coronavirus decision-making sausage gets made. Federal and state health advisers meet in the afternoon because they need to collect data in the morning. The afternoon deliberation of medicos takes time. We need clear heads and good advice, so that shouldn’t be rushed. Morrison then meets the premiers in the evening to determine next steps, and given these are huge decisions, that takes time too.
There has been a view that once big decisions are taken, they need to be announced, even if the communications lacks polish, because people are deeply anxious, and they deserve to know what is happening.
Hence the scramble late at night.
But given people are at saturation point, this process needs to be substantially rethought, and Morrison tacitly acknowledged things needed to be different on Wednesday morning when he told reporters there would not be another late-night press conference at the conclusion of Wednesday night’s national cabinet meeting. Call that on-the-job learning.
The second certainty we can stop and acknowledge is the dynamics of the national cabinet have now shifted substantially. We are now looking at quite a different beast, where the premiers are flexing their muscle.
Best start at the beginning if you’ve missed the national cabinet. Morrison set up the national cabinet process (which is essentially a rolling council of Australian governments meeting) for an entirely valid purpose: to achieve national coordination around the measures that would need to be taken to combat the spread of the coronavirus, and to allow the governments of Australia to speak with one voice.
In political terms, the structure was also supposed to impose an automatic stabiliser on blame-shifting between the jurisdictions.
It was always obvious that we would reach a tipping point in the pandemic where the community panic would start to infect the political class. At that point, it would be every prime minister and premier and chief minister for themselves. Buck-passing, blame-shifting and recriminations. National cabinet was intended to impose a discipline on the animal spirits in politics.
The structure was a good idea, and this process remains a sensible way to proceed. But over the past few days, the whole apparatus has been stretched to breaking point.
The strain is about different parts of the federation wanting and needing different things. To put the problem another way: it is impossible for governments to speak with a single voice when fundamental responsibilities differ and nearly everything is contested.
It is obvious that Victoria and New South Wales (the two most populous states where infection rates are spiralling) want extensive lockdowns. Preferably yesterday. That’s why the whole process fractured on Sunday – the two states wanted to force Morrison to move faster, and they had some success in forcing his hand.
Daniel Andrews and Gladys Berejiklian’s concerns reflect their responsibilities. The states run hospitals and schools. They will deal with the horrendous scenes in intensive care and emergency as the pandemic worsens. They also have to manage the fury of teachers and parents about schools remaining open.
The commonwealth, meanwhile, has primary carriage of the economy, which is now facing a massive pandemic-induced shock. The critique of Morrison is he has been more focused on trying to prevent Depression-era unemployment levels than on the health impacts of the crisis.
Andrews put the competing interests starkly on Wednesday: people can queue for their Centrelink benefits but “what we don’t want is queues for people who need a machine to help them breathe. We cannot have people queuing for intensive care beds.”
Over the past few days, the tiers of government have been experimenting with ways to paper over their increasingly obvious differences. Schools provides a case in point.
Morrison has declared schools are open, because there is an economic need and the medical advice doesn’t preclude it. The premiers in NSW and Victoria have nodded politely and then effectively shut them by declaring pupil-free days ahead of the Easter break.
So schools right now are both open and closed – a bit like the pushmi-pullyu of Dr Dolittle. Pretty ridiculous, that, and the rollout of open while shut was incredibly confusing and frustrating for people. But here we are.
The next round of conflict is already visible, and it involves further shutdowns of businesses and services. The Victorian premier on Wednesday was clear how this was going to be resolved. It would be resolved by his state moving ahead with lockdowns in due course.
The national cabinet has now signed off on two stages of lockdowns. Andrews said there would be a third, and the third stage would likely happen at different times in different places.
So the national cabinet will now preserve a veneer of consensus, and some working architecture of consensus, but when push comes to shove, states will move ahead of other states if they feel that’s what needs to happen.
Andrews didn’t frame this shift as a political death match. He told reporters Victoria and NSW had the biggest problems to solve, so the premiers would set about solving them. “I speak very regularly to Gladys about these issues and we’re in lockstep in doing what has to be done,” Andrews said.
He said all leaders now acknowledged there would be a stage three of lockdowns “and stage three may occur in different parts of the country at different times”. That understanding within the national cabinet “was very important”.
Asked whether there was such an understanding in the group, Morrison clearly wasn’t thrilled. He said it would be complicated to explain to people why there was a lockdown in Melbourne but not in Adelaide.
But the prime minister conceded, albeit in passive, indirect language, that we were now in a different place. If additional measures were required for different parts of the country, Morrison acknowledged “there would be no resistance to that occurring”.
Minute by minute, hour by hour, this pandemic is putting us in a different place.