Did the Coronavirus Kill Ideology in Australia?

Prime Minister Scott Morrison at a news conference at Parliament House in Canberra, Australia, on April 7. “Today is not about ideologies,” he has said. “We checked those at the door.” Credit Lukas Coch/EPA, via Shutterstock
Prime Minister Scott Morrison at a news conference at Parliament House in Canberra, Australia, on April 7. “Today is not about ideologies,” he has said. “We checked those at the door.” Credit Lukas Coch/EPA, via Shutterstock

Until four months ago few leaders seemed more influenced — even inspired — by President Trump’s worldview than Australia’s prime minister, Scott Morrison.

Mr. Morrison’s government was climate-denying, globalism-bashing and displayed an increasingly authoritarian bent. His rhetoric, even if it lacked the sriracha of Trumpetry, riffed on Trumpian themes.

And given a good crisis, Mr. Morrison’s administration seemed as determined as the White House to miss no opportunity to make matters worse — as it did with its grossly inept response to Australia’s summer of apocalyptic wild fires.

Having seen this almost impossibly low bar set for government action, many Australians have felt relief tinged with astonishment knowing that their country is today among the world’s most successful in dealing with the coronavirus epidemic. By some measures, it nearly rivals South Korea and has done better than Singapore and Germany.

As of Monday morning, Australia, with its 25.5 million people, had recorded a total of 7,054 infections and 99 deaths, according to Worldometers. That’s 277 infections and four deaths for every million people. In the United States, the per capita figures were 4,619 infections and 275 deaths per million by Monday; in Britain, 3,592 infections and 511 deaths per million.

What happened?

According to Mr. Morrison’s treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, the former prime minister John Howard, the eminence grise of Australian conservatism and its many culture wars, counseled Mr. Morrison and Mr. Frydenberg that “there’s no ideological constraints at times like this.” Mr. Frydenberg added, “That’s the advice we have taken.” Mr. Morrison went so far as to declare: “Today is not about ideologies. We checked those at the door.”

Mr. Howard spoke from experience. A fiercely right-wing prime minister, when confronted in 1996 with the horror of 35 people being shot dead at Port Arthur, in Tasmania, he moved decisively to enact strong gun-control laws. No mass shootings occurred in the next 20 years, according to a 2016 report, and the decline in firearm deaths accelerated. There have been only two mass shootings since, one of seven people and one of four.

Following Mr. Morrison’s own Damascene moment, things once deemed fantastical became commonplace. Scientists, whom Mr. Morrison’s party has derided for over a decade, were respectfully asked for their views about the novel coronavirus and, more remarkable still, these views were acted on and amplified. Mr. Morrison dismissed the idea of trying to build herd immunity among the population, calling it a “death sentence.”

A national cabinet was formed in which the states’ premiers (the equivalent of governors) from both the left and the right regularly met by video to plot the course of the nation through the crisis. In this way and others, a government that has been sectarian and divisive became inclusive.

There were, at the outset, missteps, hesitations, sometimes hapless communications and outright blunders. But the epidemic curve was not so much flattened as steamrollered: Australia’s per capita infection rate is now lower than that of New Zealand, which is much more frequently lauded.

The economic response was as extraordinary. Civil servants who had been told they existed to serve politics and politicians also found their expert advice heeded. A huge relief package of direct fiscal stimulus was rolled out, amounting to 10.6 percent of the country’s gross domestic product — second only in the world to Qatar’s (13 percent). Unemployment benefits were doubled, a generous (though not universal) program of wage subsidy was introduced and child care was made free — all measures that only a few months ago Mr. Morrison’s party would have pilloried as dangerous socialism.

The stimulus plan was designed after negotiations with various civil society groups, including the trade unions. “There are no blue teams or red teams,” Mr. Morrison said in early April. “There are no more unions or bosses. There are just Australians now; that’s all that matters.”

He thanked Sally McManus, the first woman to head Australia’s trade union movement — a socialist and feminist, a bête noire of the right and to the left of the Labor Party mainstream, Ms. McManus is an activist who allies her politics with the likes of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn.

It was a moment of grace, and as surreal as if Mr. Trump sought the counsel of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and then praised her.

As a consequence of the stimulus, the Australian economy is not expected to plumb the catastrophic depths foreseen for the United States or Europe. The unemployment rate rose to 6.2 percent in April. The Reserve Bank of Australia has predicted that it will peak at 10 percent in June and slowly decline to 6.5 percent by June 2022. While these sad statistics hide a larger tragedy, they still are preferable to those in the United States, where unemployment hit 14.7 percent last month and, according to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, may have reached 25 percent.

Australians’ trust in their government has soared from record lows in December: Ninety-three percent of respondents in a recent poll by the Lowy Institute said they believed it had “handled Covid-19 very or fairly well.” Peter Doherty, a leading Australian immunologist and Nobel laureate who on Twitter rails against “neoliberal idiocy” and Mr. Trump, spoke for many Australians when he said recently that Mr. Morrison had, in dealing with the pandemic, “basically done the right thing.”

And yet Australia’s success has received little global attention.

New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, struts the world stage, leading in scores of stories about countries that are succeeding against the coronavirus, exuding charisma, but charisma excludes Mr. Morrison, who seems condemned to watch from the wings.

Could it be that Australia’s record somehow embarrasses commentators of both the left and the right? The left, because the Australian government is in every other respect Trumpian in its male-led, climate-denying, nationalist tub-thumping and authoritarian sentiments; the right because a conservative government has succeeded only by very publicly abandoning ideology. And if ideology, and the culture wars, are nothing when everything is at stake, the inevitable question arises: Did they ever mean anything at all?

Now, with the beginning of a return to normalcy, the strange miracle of this Australian consensus already is starting to vanish, with old habits renascent.

The government body overseeing the country’s recovery, the National Covid-19 Coordination Committee, has been criticized as secretive and unaccountable, and for promoting policies to revive the economy that favor the fossil-fuel industry. Sinister new powers for the national spy agency are being rushed through Parliament, and opposition is growing to the government’s plans to end, in the name of financial rectitude, its generous wage and unemployment packages in September.

Even so, these remarkable few months will remain a rebuke to the murderous madness of ruling through division, a testament of hope to all that can be achieved when ideology is ditched.

Presented with growing doubts about democracy’s ability to deal with the pandemic on the one hand, and the seeming ability of a totalitarian China to address the crisis on the other, Australia unexpectedly, if only briefly, returned to its best traditions of communality and fairness.

While the world searches for a vaccine for the virus, the vaccine for its coming crises — not least among them climate change — is perhaps hiding in plain sight: unite, listen and act with all, for all, rather than special interests. Perhaps this is the future, the only future, and not just for Australia, but for any democracy seeking to hold through this new, terrifying age.

Richard Flanagan won the Man Booker Prize for The Narrow Road to the Deep North and is the author, most recently, of the novel First Person.

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