OPINION: As elections knock door, Morrison caught in own Covid web 

Scott Morrison has refused to make quick antigen tests free for a straightforward reason that has nothing to do with the budget or the economy. He simply lacked foresight.

Instead of pitching himself as a fiscal conservative standing up to populists urging he spend more money, he’s selling himself as a fiscal conservative standing up to populists demanding he spend more money immediately.

To criticise Morrison for prioritising the budget’s health over the health of Australians is to unduly compliment him. Since the Covid issue began, the Morrison government has spent significantly more public money subsidising the gas business than it will ever spend on quick antigen tests, having recruited a former gas executive to lead its Covid-19 recovery taskforce.

One of the cornerstones of Australian public discourse is the notion that there is some trade-off between the health of Australians and the health of our economy, although this notion is unfounded in economics. You can’t have a strong economy without a healthy workforce, as my colleague Jim Stanford recently observed.

The restaurateurs and shops that recently demanded that Covid limitations be repealed clearly understand this simple truth. Before Christmas, Morrison should have told them the truth. Instead, he gave them a false sense of hope.

As the election approaches, Morris finds himself in a pickle of his own design. If he compensates firms or workers for the price of the liberties he just gave, he’ll have to say he was the one who caused their suffering. But unless he intervenes quickly, the economy will continue to deteriorate, this time in the run-up to a federal election.

Despite Morrison’s months of drivel about the need to free Australians from the shackles of his government’s oppressive rules, government regulation and spending were what carried the country through the first two years of the crisis.

Australia has one of the lowest death and unemployment rates in the world thanks to border controls, movement limitations, mask laws, QR codes, and free immunisation. Government action that is well-designed is effective.

Josh Frydenberg is well aware of this. “Having performed more strongly than any other advanced country throughout the epidemic, the Australian economy is positioned for a solid expansion,” the treasurer said in a December economic update.

I completely agree, but Morrison isn’t interested in telling that storey.

Regardless of how many taxes or regulations he eliminates, economies cannot function without workers, customers, or supply lines. The Delta and Omicron forms of Covid are freely flowing in our shopping malls, restaurants, warehouses, and hospitals, no matter how upbeat the prime minister appears. Hundreds of thousands of Australians are becoming ill as a result of it, and millions are debating whether or not to go out and spend their money.

Conservatives have claimed for decades that massive tax cuts will “increase labour force participation” and hence help the economy develop. However, those same politicians appear unconcerned by Covid’s weekly layoffs of hundreds of thousands of people.

And that’s before we send millions of unvaccinated children back to school, who will require parents to remain home and care for them even if they “just develop a mild case.” Millions of Australians are still waiting for their booster injection as a result of last year’s strollout and this year’s bad planning, and millions of children will get vaccinated before school starts for reasons that have yet to be addressed.

True, Omicron poses new issues, and Australians are fed up with the pandemic. But, just as Winston Churchill didn’t lose patience as World War II drew on, it’s Morrison’s responsibility to stay focused and plan for what’s likely to happen, not what he’d prefer, and to communicate effectively with the public about the real issues and choices we face.

Instead of distributing free RATs to all Australians, I’m sure he’d rather spend the next few months announcing pricey tax cuts. And I’m sure he’d rather criticise Labor on climate policy than work with the premiers to restore Australia’s testing and tracing capabilities. However, the prime minister’s role is to deal with real problems that come your way, not to respond to manufactured crises.

There is significant evidence that limiting Covid has been beneficial to our economy in recent years; there is no evidence that allowing it to run amok will be beneficial.

From now on, Scott Morrison has challenged Australians to be responsible for their own actions. Many of them are sure to wish he would do the same.

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