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Australian politics out of hibernation

  • 20 May 2020
It is not just the Australian economy that has been in enforced hibernation during the COVID-19 pandemic but also our politics. Some of the hibernation of the latter is explicable, either because of social restrictions caused by the demands of the health concerns or because of deference towards the extreme urgency of dealing with the crisis and the consequent pressure on our state and national political leaders. But much of the political hibernation was unnecessary or exaggerated and ultimately harmful to our democratic way of life.

The origins of the hibernation lie in the immediate primacy given to government over parliament during the pandemic. The federal and state parliaments were immediately gutted and replaced in practice, and in the public imagination, by the new National Cabinet, led by the Prime Minister. Other less well-known bodies were also created such as the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission, chaired by former Fortescue Metals CEO, Nev Power.

The whole nation became fixated on the progress of the pandemic in Australia, especially on our progress in flattening the curve. The main public faces were government leaders, their health ministers and health officials. There was little room for critics and and/or opposition. Some debate ensued about the appropriateness of certain health-related measures and about specific controversies, especially in relation to the cruise ship, Ruby Princess, and the aged care facility, Newmarch House, where the worst outbreaks occurred. Belatedly a full independent commission of enquiry was called by the NSW state government into the Ruby Princess fiasco.

When the attention shifted to economic recovery measures the focus initially remained on the roll-out of the federal government’s measures to combat business failure and unemployment through doubling the Job Seeker benefit and then introducing the Job Keeper payment to keep the bulk of employees on the books of their employer and out of the unemployment statistics.

After early bipartisanship, enforced by the circumstances, the Labor Opposition was increasingly emboldened to join in public questioning of aspects of the Job Keeper program, especially the exclusion of many categories of workers, such as casuals and foreigners, from the scheme. The questioning extended to the likely duration of what was an initial six-month government commitment.

Political hibernation extended beyond the parliament and the political parties to the media. The latter depends for much of its political coverage on the operation of parliament. When it shut up shop much of the life blood of political coverage by the