By Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra
The Black Lives Matter demonstrations of last weekend marked a new stage in this strange and unpredictable journey coronavirus has taken us on.
The fallout from the murder of an unarmed black man, George Floyd, in the United States dramatically changed the COVID conversation in this country.
The protests exposed limits to the ability of leaders and health experts to persuade people to modify their behaviour.
They unleashed a backlash on the grounds of double standards, with critics contrasting how police had chased minor infringements. Those who’d always claimed the restrictions were too strict became louder in their demands they be lifted more quickly and comprehensively.
The tone of Morrison changed and sharpened, as the government struggles with its exit strategy.
Morrison says if protesters are on the streets in coming days, they should be charged. But the picture is confusing and potentially volatile.
In the Northern Territory, the demonstrators have an official OK. In NSW the police have been actively resisting more protests and are threatening fines and arrests. On Thursday night they succeeded in having the NSW Supreme Court ban a proposed rally organised by refugee advocates.
On another front, Morrison’s frustration with those premiers who are keeping their borders shut has ramped up.
Having managed the crisis very effectively so far, and received extensive praise for his efforts (this week’s Essential poll had 70% rating the federal government’s response as good), Morrison can see the danger of things going awry, either through fresh outbreaks of the virus or the reopening not proceeding fast enough.
On Thursday he was suggesting the protesters were slowing an increase in the numbers allowed at funerals (a highly emotive issue). Asked on 2GB about the NSW situation on funerals he said “the rally last weekend is the only legitimate real block to this at the moment, because we actually don’t know right now whether those rallies on the weekend may have caused outbreaks”.
But the government is sending conflicting messages, on one hand indicating the protests could hold back action while on the other hand saying action must go ahead.
Thus Morrison is insisting premiers nominate a date in July when their borders would be open (a date is important so tourist arrangements can be made).
Although there are multiple states with closed borders, Queensland is primarily in the sights of the federal government and other critics. Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk, facing an election in October, knows she has to choose the right moment to scrap the border restriction, before her hard line loses favour with her electors. She is now saying July (previously there was talk of later) and declaring she’s on the same page as the PM.
One man who attended the Melbourne rally has tested positive for COVID-19. But it will be more than another week before it becomes clear whether last weekend’s protests have triggered a health problem. And that timeline will be dragged out by protests to come. On the flip side, if there aren’t more cases, this will be a green light to accelerate progress – an unsanctioned large scale trial.
The protests have put new pressures on the opposition.
Knowing there’d be strong support for them among some in Labor’s ranks and base, Anthony Albanese stepped carefully on boggy ground, advising people to listen to the health advice.
Four federal Labor parliamentarians – Graham Perrett and Anika Wells from Queensland, and Warren Snowdon and Malarndirri McCarthy from the Northern Territory – attended rallies. There was a bit of a flurry when they got to parliament so they went for COVID tests (which didn’t mean much given the incubation period).
Despite parliament sitting this week, the opposition is still having a hard time achieving any positive cut-through. It struggles for traction with its attacks on inadequacies it identifies in government’s programs and decisions relating to COVID.
The political climate might change as the months go on; depending on the result, the July 4 Eden-Monaro byelection could affect the atmospherics of the wider debate. But at the moment people still seem turned off by political conflict, or by politics generally.
This week brought updated numbers, from the OECD, on Australia’s way out of the virus crisis. The OECD produced two scenarios, for a “single hit” and a “double hit” of the virus.
It estimated Australia’s GDP would fall 5% in 2020 in the single-hit scenario, which is hopefully the one we remain in.
But the report said: “Should widespread contagion resume, with a return of lockdowns, confidence would suffer and cash-flow would be strained. In that double-hit scenario, GDP could fall by 6.3% in 2020”.
The single hit would see recovery at 4.1% in 2021, but if there were a double hit the growth would be only an estimated 1%.
The OECD also says further policy measures would help the recovery, and notes there is plenty of fiscal room to provide them.
It’s interesting to compare New Zealand, which had a goal of “eliminating” COVID and a draconian lockdown.
The OECD predicts New Zealand GDP will shrink by 8.9% in 2020 under the single-hit scenario – but grow by 6.6% in 2021. If there were a double hit, this year’s GDP fall would be 10% and next year’s growth would be an estimated 3.6%.
New Zealand this week announced it was now COVID-free (while accepting, realistically, there’ll almost certainly be some future cases). Restrictions are now fully lifted, apart from the still-closed border.
The Morrison government from the start rejected “elimination” in favour of containment (although in some areas elimination has effectively been the result of successful containment).
So with the shutdown more limited in Australia than in New Zealand but the reopening more gradual, on the OECD figures the economy’s dive is forecast to be shallower here but the bounce back weaker than across the Tasman.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said she “did a little dance” when her country became COVID-free.
Morrison isn’t dancing just yet. While compared with many countries Australia’s record has been enviable, the way forward carries a new, and unexpected, element of uncertainty, together with those we knew about already.
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