Morrison has given up

There is no greater master at spinning defeat into victory than Scott Morrison.

Faced with mounting criticism that vaccine messaging had been contradictory and confusing, Scott Morrison changed tack again last week, declaring the vaccine rollout, previously “not a race”, a “Gold Medal run” to the finish line.

In doing so, he has offered a new path for NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian to follow to get Sydney out of lockdown.

Instead of having to sheepishly mimic the Communist Republic of Victoriastan and its oppressive strategy of actually getting rid of the virus, Morrison is offering an alternative vision for NSW. Vaccinate quickly, then don’t worry about the virus spreading. The Democratic People’s Republic of NSW will be the first state in Australia where people are allowed to roam free, and so is the virus.

It’s an alternative vision, at odds with how Australia has done it so far, and one that Gladys Berejiklian is actively toying with. On Monday, she announced that despite rising case numbers, Sydney’s lockdown could end within four weeks if enough people get vaccinated. “Make August the month we get vaccinated,” she implored, saying that 80% vaccinated was the goal, but that 50% was enough to loosen the lockdown.

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Implicit in this language is a massive concession. That NSW is no longer on a path to zero covid ever again. It’s here to stay. If she follows through with her words, the SARS-CoV-2 virus will become endemic in NSW. That’s a big thing. 

Late on Friday afternoon, to cut through the confusion he’d sewn with all his previous vaccine pronouncements, Scott Morrison unveiled an all-new four-stage plan out of Covid, endorsed by the National Cabinet. This is not to be confused with the three-stage plan that Morrison announced in May. Or the COVID Vaccination Allocations Horizons plan that he unveiled in June. Or the COVID-19 Vaccine And Treatment Strategy plan revealed a year ago when  he proudly announced he’d secured enough vaccine for everyone.

With so many well-laid plans and so little achieved, we now have more than enough evidence to introduce a new Iron Law into the very scientific field of political science. Scott Morrison has been so wrong about every single aspect of the pandemic that his wrongness now has predictive powers. 

If Scott Morrison says that something is going to happen, it is possible to say, with absolute certainty using the Iron Law, that whatever he said is definitely not going to happen. If Scott Morrison thinks something is a good idea, then it definitely is not a good idea. If Scott Morrison says we don’t need purpose-built quarantine facilities, then even if you lack any other data point or expertise, you can be absolutely assured that we fucking need purpose-built quarantine facitilities immediately.

This is the Morrison Certainty Principle.

His latest four-stage plan was presumably better than the three-stage plan because it had an extra step and was laid up with vertical columns. 

The old three-stage plan is worth a click through if you can be bothered. Its three horizontal rows a masterwork of bullet points over substance. A wonderful lesson in how to needlessly repeat the same information (that gatherings should be limited to 10 people), to sufficiently fill up enough space in each column. Colour coded, drop shadows behind each box. It is truly a document  any Year 8 student on a tight deadline for their part in a group assignment would be proud of. It is, to be blunt, the least clear three-step anything I have ever read.

It was also intriguing because the National Cabinet endorsed it. You know, Daniel Andrews, Mark McGowan, the type of people who are not predisposed to going with the flow to help Morrison out of a tight spot. Where’s the harm in letting the dolt have a press conference at 5pm on a Friday afternoon?

Yes, I know. It’s galling that Scott “It’s Not a Race” Morrison would dare to consider wearing the “Mr Vaccines” outfit to the election next year, but it is also depressingly unsurprising. It is now lore in Australia for the Liberal Party to run for re-election campaigns based on their greatest weakness.

Ever since John Howard, a politician widely perceived as untrustworthy by the electorate, ran on trust in 2004, this has become the standard way the Liberal party convinces voters to support the exact thing that they most hate. Morrison in 2021 is attempting the same political jujitsu. 

“Like our Olympians,” he said in an egregious piece of hijack marketing that I hope the Olympic Committee looks into, “we go for gold on getting those vaccination rates where we need to go.” Apparently Morrison believes the more confusing the metaphor becomes the more effective it is. “And the sooner we get there, the sooner we get there,” he added, which is, I suppose, true.

On Friday afternoon, Morrison had the body language of a grifter who’d landed his mark. The fix was in.  With the eagerness of a NSW cop trying to harangue  a South-West Sydney immigrant into helping out with  his daily fines quota, Morisson verballed the National Cabinet into agreeing to open up once the vaccination rate amongst eligible people reaches 70%. (Which means 56% of all people. Not exactly “gold standard”, huh?)

This was on the advice, partly, of the Doherty Institute – not to be confused with the Grattan Institute, who’d earlier in the week said 80% was the bare minimum. But 70% sounds pretty close to 80% and in marketing, perception is reality, so 70% it was. Even though 70% is actually 56%. Got it? 

His strategy from here seems clear. Under Mr Vaccine’s plan, the virus runs through the county, but it doesn’t matter because everyone (ie. 56% of us) has a vaccine. It gets NSW off the hook from having to do the hard work to eliminate it. And all the other states will have to get on board with the idea of letting NSW seed the virus in their states too. But none of that matters “because vaccine”.

Australia becomes the UK of the south. Every day is Freedom Day. Viva La Freedom!

But by masking that plan in a four-stage plan (not to be confused with the three-stage one), it is a message of hope, and it’s one that people across the political spectrum want to believe. I want to believe it. 

It is a plan to get Australians to “live with the virus”, something that has been spoken about since the very beginning of the pandemic, but it’s never been fully articulated what that would look like. I love the idea that we could get on with our lives, with a small amount of coronavirus prevalent, but never a worry. But that’s not how Covid has works. Up until now, it’s been all or nothing.

Morrison’s promise is that vaccines change that equation. That they’re the silver bullet that allow us to live alongside this virus in peace and harmony. But if we take note of the Iron Law, the one thing we can now be sure of, is that vaccines are not going to be a silver bullet. 

(To be clear, I love vaccines. Let’s all take them. Let’s give them to our kids. Hell, let’s put them in the drinking water if that’s a thing (is that a thing?)).

Gladys, having accidentally had a secret affair with a corrupt minister for a few years, has now been entranced by an even greater grifter, promising untold riches of not having to do her fucking job properly, and freedom for all, thrown in for good measure.

It’s a dud vision, but one that Berejiklian wants to believe. Sydney’s Bondi Outbreak, it now seems clear, is just going to drag on. Whether it’s a lack of political will, a lack of ability to clearly communicate, or it’s actually just an impossible task once you’ve let Delta rip for so long, who knows. I don’t.

But it explains why Morrison was in such a jolly mood on Friday. With his four-stage plan (not the three-stage one), he now thinks he’s got a political path out of his mess, no matter which way it crumbles. (And crumble it will).

In the (highly unlikely) event the lockdown works, and Covid disappears, great. Everyone wins. But if it continues to drag on, under this new plan, NSW can at least move down the pathway to stage B.

They hit 50% at the end of August, and start opening things up. Instead of putting in the extra few weeks to get to zero, they take Morrison at his word that it’ll be fine. By mid-November, vaccinations hit 70%. By then, the virus is out of control but they just start opening up anyway. Sure, the hospitals are full, but they’re not collapsing, because the vaccine is working its magic.

The problem is that the UK approach is horrible to live with. It comes with none of the imagined conveniences you’d think “freedom” entails. Indeed, to keep the number of deaths “acceptable” (ie. around 70 a day), all the inconveniences of infection control are still present. If you’re a close contact of an infected person, you still have to self-isolate for 14 days. And because 30,000 people a day are getting it, that means it’s much, much, much more convenient to not go out much. To still work from home. To not go to large public gatherings. Britain may no longer be in government-imposed lockdown, but it’s almost worse: they’re in a constant state of self-imposed lockdown. There’s no freedom, just fear and inconvenience. No hope for a real normal. That’s Morrison’s plan for Australia.

Gladys, devoid of ability to clearly communicate a better plan, probably will end up going along with it, but the rest of Australia won’t. They’ll see the rest of the world, and by the time mid-November comes around and thresholds for vaccination are reached, it doesn’t matter how many stages the plan now has, they’re not going to move away from the short, sharp lockdowns. Why would they? The plan for letting Covid rip may be a great piece of political spin to give us Sydneysiders something to look forward to, but as a concept for the rest of Australia, it’s dead on arrival. Can you seriously imagine Victorians accepting coronavirus into their lives after more than 200 miserable days locked-down, trying to do the exact opposite? 

If NSW follows the “freedom” model and is awash with Delta at the end of the year, but every other state holds the line, the idea that vaccinated people from NSW will be able to pop across the border and hug their elderly relatives in Melbourne is just not going to happen.

And anyone returning from overseas, no matter how vaccinated, will still need to quarantine. A week in Bali is off the table. Australia’s border will remain effectively shut.

There are lots of reasons why the let it rip strategy is such a tragic choice for Berejiklian to be leaning towards, egged on by an ebullient Morrison. She must hold the line. 

Delta is a terrible disease even if you don’t die. A study in the UK suggests that if you get hospitalised from Covid, on average it knocks 7 IQ points off your brain function. Even for those not in ICU, it still shaved 3.5 IQ points off on average. By comparison, lead poisoning knocks 2 points off.

Nobody can be certain about much in any of this. Who knows why Berejiklian didn’t move faster when Delta struck Bondi? A mixture of hubris, ideology, a year of sniping at Victoria, and a tricky Cabinet, I presume. 

What is clear is that NSW is the exception, and the other states are the rule. If you don’t have Delta washing through your population already, it’s definitely a good idea to try and keep it that way.

There’s still an opportunity for Berejiklian to not fall again for the grifter.

Morrison’s tale of false hope,  dangerously peddled to his struggling NSW counterpart, is not designed to help NSW: it’s to give him a hopeful vision to spruik into the next election, allowing him to escape the history of his Prime Ministership: meandering somnolently between incompetence and irrelevance. 

Letting Delta rip in Sydney is a terrible vision that, if played out, will further tear this country apart. Thanks to the Morrison Certainty Principle, I can state that with absolute certainty.



Charles Firth
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twitter: @charlesfirth
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