Australia’s leader is winning the argument on the coronavirus

A sign on the side of a road in Rye, Victoria, Australia, on April 19. (Scott Barbour/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
A sign on the side of a road in Rye, Victoria, Australia, on April 19. (Scott Barbour/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

Australians like to see themselves as rebellious people, distrustful of authority — but the coronavirus has changed that.

While small protests against the lockdowns have erupted in the United States, and some in Britain have insisted on their right to party, in Australia we’re mostly doing what we’re told.

In Sydney, public transport use is down to levels not seen for nearly 100 years. Attendance in government schools in Victoria is down to just three percent. In parks, walkers and joggers dutifully arc around each other like passing ships.

Australians have been told to stay at home, apart from a list of designated tasks, including exercise, seeking medical help, buying supplies and performing necessary work. Some have tried the patience of police, such as those who, when asked the reason for their travel, had said they were trying to buy drugs. As the New South Wales police commissioner, Mick Fuller, dryly noted: “Buying illicit drugs is not a reasonable excuse.”

Yet the majority, as the commissioner attested, were obeying the new rules.

The low infection figures indicate a high level of compliance. The number of new covid-19 infections has slowed, with fewer than 50 new cases each day for a country of 25 million. The total number of deaths stands at 71 — compared with the 150,000 deaths predicted by the government’s “worst case” modeling.

Social distancing, combined with extra hand-washing, even seems to have reduced the level of seasonal influenza.

Some in the government are now talking of eradicating the disease within Australia, rather than merely slowing its spread. Similar success in neighboring New Zealand has brought talk of a “bubble” in which the two countries would reopen their borders to each other, while remaining closed to the rest of the world.

Why are Australians — and their Kiwi cousins — being so obedient? It might be a mark of respect for the way their governments are dealing with the pandemic.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison disappointed many Australians with his handling of the bush-fire crisis at the start of the year. The response was slow and confused. Expert advice was ignored. Morrison’s habitual desire to play down the impact of climate change seemed to motivate a strange deafness — as if to admit the savagery of the fires would be to cede a political point.

This time around, though, he’s a different man. The government has placed medical experts at the center of the response. A national cabinet has been formed — chaired by Morrison but including state premiers from both sides of politics. The trade union movement has been given an unexpected role in forming policy, with the industrial relations minister declaring himself a “BFF” — best friends forever — with the head of the unions.

Even the federal opposition is being treated with unaccustomed respect, returning the favor by playing a supportive role. It’s Team Australia in a way that would have seemed impossible just two months ago.

A sense of empathy and leadership, so often absent in Morrison’s appearances during the bush fires, is now a regular feature. “There are no blue teams or red teams,” he said this month. “There are no more unions or bosses. There are just Australians now. That’s all that matters.”

Morrison has also been willing to put on hold his own customary views. He’s pro-business and yet he’s closed down much of the economy. He has increased welfare payments for the unemployed, something he had previously refused to contemplate. He has also abandoned one of his most cherished ambitions — a pledge to return the government’s budget to surplus. With coronavirus-related spending of some 214 billion Australian dollars ($135 billion) now announced, that plan has not so much been put aside, as blasted into the very distant future.

Will Australians remain compliant as the lockdown continues?

Certainly, there are voices attacking the government’s response as excessive. Fittingly — given the topsy-turvy politics of covid-19 — the prime minister’s main critics are populist right-wingers from his own side of politics, such as the radio host Alan Jones and the columnist Andrew Bolt. Australia’s very success in limiting infections is now being presented by Bolt as proof the threat “was wildly exaggerated."

At the moment, the prime minister is winning the argument. The lockdown, however onerous, is working. Listening to experts is working. And working together, across political parties, is working.

Will this new attitude outlive the pandemic? Probably not. But right now, the Australian and New Zealand “bubble” looks like a pretty good place to be.

Richard Glover presents the "Drive" show on ABC Radio Sydney. He’s a former news editor and European correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald and author of 12 books, including the best-selling memoir “Flesh Wounds."

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