Since 2018, we have tracked public perceptions of the leadership of various Australian institutions — including government — as part of our Australian Leadership Index.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic worsened in Australia in March, public perceptions of the federal and state governments were consistently poor. Political leaders were seen to be serving themselves and other vested interests, rather than the public interest.
However, since the start of the pandemic and the establishment of the National Cabinet in March, this has begun to change.
We collected data at three points during the pandemic — March, June and September. And for the first time since our data collection began in 2018, a majority of people said they felt the federal and state governments were exhibiting leadership for the greater good.
State government leadership has improved since March
We have also tracked how the public has viewed the leadership of individual state governments.
While all state governments improved in our surveys from March to September, there have been marked differences in their approval ratings.
The government of WA Premier Mark McGowan has consistently been viewed as displaying the most leadership for the public good — topping out at 65% of respondents in September.
Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk’s government, meanwhile, has been at the bottom. Just 30% of our respondents said her government has shown a high degree of leadership for the greater good in September — up from 19% in March.
However, perhaps no other leader in the country has been under greater scrutiny than Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews.
Unlike other states, Victoria’s numbers were relatively static from June to September during the state’s harsh second lockdown. In June, 44% of respondents said they believed the Andrews’s government was displaying a high degree of leadership for the greater good, and this modestly improved to 46% in September.
This could be seen as an unexpectedly good result in the context of the hotel quarantine debacle and the prolonged lockdown.
Andrews’s government was not nearly as popular as McGowan’s in our surveys, but it has tracked quite closely to NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s government from March through September, and ahead of the Queensland government.
Given the markedly different experience of Victoria and NSW residents during the pandemic, it is instructive to compare public perceptions of both governments’ leadership.
According to the model that underpins the Australian Leadership Index, the public regards an institution as leading for the greater good when it creates social, environmental and economic value for the whole of society in a way that is transparent, accountable and ethical. At least, this is how people judge leadership in normal times.
Among NSW residents, there were some changes in the factors that underpinned perceptions of state government leadership through the pandemic. Transparency became increasingly important, for instance, while balancing the interests of different stakeholders became less so.
There was also a shift in what people felt was needed most by society. In March and June, respondents said good leadership involved creating positive social outcomes for people, but in September, this shifted to creating positive economic outcomes.
By contrast, among Victorians, there was a marked shift how people viewed good leadership from the first wave (March-June) to the second wave (June-September).
During the first wave, Victorians thought leadership for the common good was served by balancing the needs of different groups and focusing on the creation of positive social outcomes.
By September, however, far more people were concerned about the ethical standards of the government and its accountability.
Will people continue to rate state governments highly?
Despite the furious debate taking place in the media about personal freedoms and the proportionality of government measures to control the pandemic, at the community level, there appears to have been a more settled attitude to the reality of living in a COVID-19 world.
However, there are signs the public mood is turning and politics-as-usual is returning. State premiers are faltering. Federal and state government solidarity is ebbing away. None of this bodes well for community perceptions of government leadership.
Although leadership for the greater good is a complex, evolving phenomenon, people know it when they see it. Let us hope that political leaders have the moral conviction and imagination to sustain it.
There’s an emerging view that China’s belligerent approach and “torching” of diplomatic relationships with the wider world is a sign of “insecurity and weakness”; that its economic growth is “unsustainable”; and that “everyone in the top ranks of the Chinese Communist Party” knows the day is coming when “China’s entire economic structure and strategic position crumbles”.
He is hardly the first person to say these sorts of things, and I suspect he won’t be the first to be wrong about them, at least for quite a while.
That’s not to say he doesn’t draw on facts. China has been extraordinarily profligate in its use of capital, and has become progressively more so over the last two decades.
Paul Krugman (1994) famously made the same point about the then rapidly-growing smaller East Asian economies a few years before the Asian financial crisis in The Myth of Asia’s Miracle.
China is certainly laden with debt
Nor is there any denying that China has an enormous amount of debt relative to the size of its economy, especially for what is still in many ways a “developing” economy.
Debt as a percentage of GDP
But, and this is an important “but”, most of that debt is owed by state-owned enterprises to state-owned banks – which can be thought of as two entries on opposing sides of the same balance sheet, that of the People’s Republic of China.
If a lot of that were to turn “bad”, which is by no means impossible, then the ensuing “crisis” could be solved by writing it off, and then re-capitalising the state-owned banks by drawing down on the foreign exchange reserves of the People’s Bank of China.
China has actually done this twice before, in the late 1990s as part of the state-owned enterprise reforms pushed through by then-Premier Zhu Rongji, and again between 2003 and 2005, when the big four state-owned banks were “cleaned up” ahead of their very partial privatisation and listing on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.
The “bad assets” were transferred into an entity called Central Huijin which subsequently became the nucleus of China’s sovereign wealth fund, the China Investment Corporation.
An unknown question is whether the People’s Bank of China’s foreign exchange reserves would be sufficient for what would now be a much larger task.
It lost one quarter of its reserves (almost US$1 trillion) defending its currency between June 2014 and December 2016, after which it imposed very strict controls on capital outflows, which have remained in force ever since and are easier to maintain in an authoritarian regime that knows how to deploy modern technology for surveillance purposes than in other countries that have resorted to capital controls such as Argentina.
But it is aware of the risks…
Since that time, the ubiquitous “Chinese authorities”, as they are usually referred to by Western economists, have been acutely aware of the risks to financial stability posed by the growth of so-called shadow banks and the way Chinese banks have become more dependent on wholesale funding and less on deposits; as US and European banks did, to a much greater extent, in the years leading up to the global financial crisis.
That’s in part why China’s economic growth rate has been steadily slowing over the the past decade, from an average of 11.3% in the five years to 2009, to 8.5% in the five years to 2014, and to 6.6% in the five years to 2019.
Another important reason has been that China’s working-age population peaked in 2014 and has since shrunk by almost 1.5%.
It also helps explain why the People’s Bank of China hasn’t done nearly as much monetary stimulus as it did during and after the financial crisis or in 2015-16.
There hasn’t been a significant acceleration in credit growth in recent months nor has there been a surge in property development or prices, as there would have been if the People’s Bank of China had unleashed another wave of credit.
Average annual growth in China’s real GDP over five-year intervals
China’s authorities are doing more fiscal stimulus than they did 12 years ago, although it is in different forms to the construction-intensive programs it implemented then.
The potentially most worrying development – albeit not from the perspective of the next year or so – is the one depicted in this chart, which shows a marked divergence between the level of foreign exchange reserves and the rate of growth in domestic credit.
China’s domestic credit and foreign exchange reserves
For a fixed exchange rate system to be sustainable, the two ordinarily need to maintain a fairly close and stable relationship – which they do under a “currency board” like the one Hong Kong has had since 1984 (or that the Baltic states had before joining the euro, and which Bulgaria still has) where the monetary authority is explicitly precluded from issuing currency unless it is backed by foreign exchange reserves (or, in Hong Kong’s case, reserves plus the Land Fund).
China’s foreign exchange rate is of course no longer completely fixed, but rather is “carefully managed” around a peg to a trade-weighted index (as the Australian dollar used to be between 1976 and 1983).
But the People’s Bank of China’s capacity to maintain that peg is dependent on the credibility of its implicit promise to buy or sell its currency in whatever quantity is required to keep the exchange rate close to the peg.
…and good at limiting capital flight
Obviously China can sell its currency in whatever quantities it likes, since it are the ultimate source of its currency, and so can always prevent it from appreciating more than it wants (as can any country which is prepared to accept the potentially inflationary consequences of a sudden large increase in its domestic money supply).
But China doesn’t own or operate a US dollar factory, so it can only stave off a big depreciation for as long as it has sufficient foreign exchange reserves to satisfy everyone who wants to convert its currency into foreign dollars.
And that’s why the capital controls are so important at the moment: because they limit the demand for foreign currencies enough to ensure that the level of foreign exchange reserves is more than adequate, and widely regarded as such.
If something were to happen that resulted in a tsunami of capital outflows, and the Chinese authorities didn’t have any other ways of stopping it (such as confiscating the assets of or imprisoning or executing people who tried to get their money out of the country, something which I am sure they might not baulk at) there would be a “currency crisis”; the Chinese renminbi fall a lot, and the weakness in the domestic financial system (resulting from the accumulation of so much bad debt) would be fully exposed.
But you have to ask, how likely is that in the foreseeable future?
I can’t see any reason to answer that question with anything other than “not very”.
It’s worth remembering in this context that the lesson which the Chinese Communist Party drew from the collapse of the Soviet empire is that brutal authoritarian regimes can only survive, once they have clearly failed to deliver on the promise of delivering ongoing improvements in people’s well-being, for as long as they are willing to kill their own people in sufficient numbers to quieten resistance, or for as long as there is someone else who is willing and able to do it for them.
China is authoritarian…
The Communist regimes of Eastern Europe, most of which had been demonstrably willing to shoot their own people (or allow the Soviets in to do it for them) at various times in the 1950s, 1960s and early 1980s, collapsed when they lost the will to shoot their own people, and the Soviets under Gorbachev lost the will to do it for them.
And the Soviet Union itself collapsed in 1991 when neither Gorbachev, nor the cabal of drunken fools who briefly tried to overthrow him in August of that year, were willing to shoot their own people.
It is worth noting in passing that Vladimir Putin has repeatedly demonstrated that he has no such scruples about killing his own people – whether they be ordinary Russians in high-rise apartments around Moscow, middle-class Muscovites attending the theatre, school children and their parents in Beslan, troublesome journalists, former KGB agents living in the UK, lawyers for aggrieved hedge fund managers, or prominent opposition figures.
By contrast with their contemporaries in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, Deng Xiaoping and Li Peng demonstrated that they were perfectly relaxed about the idea of shooting, or running over with tanks, large numbers of their own people in order to ensure that they remained in power – and even more competent than Josef Stalin in air-brushing those events out of the collective memory of the people who remained alive.
And I suspect nothing has changed, at least in that regard, since then.
Indeed Xi Jinping has repeatedly shown that he’s prepared to do whatever is required to entrench the Chinese Communist Party as the source of all power in China, to sideline potential rivals and to remain in office for as long as he is capable of drawing breath (not least because he is smart enough to know that he has made a lot of enemies, and that they would take their revenge on him and his family and supporters as soon as he was out of power – as Putin did to Boris Yeltsin’s wealthy supporters).
Far from feeling “weak and insecure”, I think China feels strong and emboldened – not only by its apparent success in stopping the spread of the virus (admittedly after a number of initial serious missteps) but also by the manifest incompetence of the US administration in dealing with COVID-19, and its almost complete abdication of its traditional global leadership role (something that, to be fair, didn’t start under Trump).
That’s why Xi has explicitly discarded Deng Xiaoping’s dictum that China should “hide your capacities and bide your time” – much as, Woodrow Wilson and, more forcefully, Roosevelt and his successors all the way to George W Bush – were prepared to discard George Washington’s advice, in his 1796 farewell address (which was actually written by Alexander Hamilton) to “avoid foreign entanglements”.
And of course China’s economy, notwithstanding its burden of debt, is much stronger than the Soviet Union’s ever was.
Size of Soviet Union and China economies in relation to the United States
The closest the Soviet economy ever got to matching the United States’ was between 1974 and 1976 when it reached 44% of US gross domestic product. By the time Gorbachev took office in 1985 it was down to 38%, and in 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, its GDP was less than a third of the United States.
By contrast, measured in the same way, China’s economy surpassed the US economy in 2017, and this year is likely to be at least 10% bigger than the US (when compared using actual buying power – “purchasing power parity” – rather than the official exchange rate which shows the Chinese economy only about two-thirds of the US economy which is still a lot closer than the Soviet Union got).
…and its least-dependent in decades
It’s perhaps also worth noting that China isn’t really all that dependent on exports any more – in 2019 exports accounted for only 18.4% of China’s economy, down from a peak of 36% in 2006 and less than at any time since 1991.
Big economies, like China’s now is, tend to be relatively “closed”, which is why exports only represent 12% of the US GDP and 18.5% of Japan’s compared to 24% of Australia’s.
So, to summarise, I can’t agree with the proposition that China’s growth model is unsustainable and its leadership weak and insecure.
Of course, in the long run (when, as the economist John Maynard Keynes famously said, we’re all dead), it might turn out to be right. China’s government and its growth model might collapse.
But I’m not going to lie awake at night wondering whether it’s happened.
What does political leadership look like in a pandemic?
Many of us probably carry images in our heads of what good leadership might be in a depression or a war. But before 2020 few of us would have had any conception of what political leadership might look like during a life-threatening public health crisis.
We took from last summer some fairly firm ideas of what leadership in a bushfire crisis should not look like. Political leaders should not leave for luxurious overseas holidays. They should not expect those who fear for their lives and property to find inspiration in the exploits of the Australian cricket team. They should not force themselves onto traumatised people when offering nothing except the chance to participate in a photo opportunity. They should not run party-political advertisements that seek to obscure their own monumental failures.
Above all, they should not announce that it’s not their job to hold the hose. As it happens, we already had a famous model of what a national leader might do in a fire.
In 1666, King Charles II of England was widely regarded as a worthless playboy with nothing much to his credit. In 1665, London lost tens of thousands of people in the Great Plague and there was little that he, or anyone else, had been able to do about it. When a fire broke out in Pudding Lane in the following year, few had any reason to expect Charles would distinguish himself. But his leadership in that fire is famous. It was brave, inspiring and, yes, although he did not hold the hose, he did pass the buckets.
Crises can make leaders but they can also break them – or, as happened over the summer with Morrison, nearly break them. In a recent book, labour historian Liam Byrne explores the early lives and careers of two Labor prime ministers, James Scullin and John Curtin. Each was a product of the Victorian labour movement. Each had regarded himself as a socialist. Each would face a massive national crisis on becoming prime minister that required them to put aside the beliefs of a lifetime.
Scullin faced the Great Depression of the 1930s. He emerged from a brief time in government at the beginning of 1932 damaged and bewildered. The crisis was the breaking and not the making of him. To be fair, it’s hard to imagine how, given the state of the Australian economy and the scale of the problem he faced, anyone could have done much better.
When Australian prime ministers are ranked, Scullin usually occupies a lowly place while Curtin often comes out on top. The success of Curtin’s wartime leadership wasn’t predictable. He was a anti-conscriptionist during the first world war who saw that war as a scheme devised by capitalists to divide and conquer the working class. He was moody, aloof and a worrier. But the crisis of the Pacific War was the making of Curtin as a leader, even if he would not live to see the peace.
We should not exaggerate the extent to which Australians fell in behind Curtin’s urgings. In the present crisis, I’ve occasionally been reminded, during some of Morrison’s occasionally hectoring and patronising performances, of the difficulties Curtin faced.
Morrison called panic-buying “un-Australian”, but it must be sufficiently Australian also to have occurred during the war, when people got wind of the approach of clothing rationing. Morrison’s infantilising “early mark” made some bristle in the same way, inevitably, as grown-ups came to resent petty government restrictions during the second world war. The minister in charge of rationing, John Dedman, was famously lampooned for having banned pink icing on wedding cakes and for killing Santa Claus with his restrictions on Christmas advertising. Even in war, adults expect to be treated as adults.
Morrison could not afford another leadership failure when coronavirus hit. My own view of his leadership by the end of the last summer is that it was badly damaged but unlikely to be terminal. He had already shown himself as an adaptable politician and I expected he would also enjoy the help of a friendly right-wing media in repairing it.
Malcolm Turnbull’s memoir presents a hostile but mainly persuasive account of Morrison as a politician. Turnbull presents him as sneaky and duplicitous. But more importantly, in making sense of his recent leadership, Morrison is painted as a pragmatic political professional unattached to ideology and quite prepared to pick up and drop policies according to his perception of the needs – including his own – in any context.
For Morrison, the science on climate change is negotiable, but the science on coronavirus is the last word. He is the kind of leader who is off to the footy one moment and everyone else should also get out and about, then that he’s not and everyone must stay home. He can dismiss the need for a wage subsidy one week and then announce a A$130 billion package the next. He can double the JobSeeker allowance after having for years staunchly opposed even a minor increase as an affront to self-reliance and an intolerable incentive to the unemployed to stay that way.
Morrison can do all of this with very few backward glances and then – if it suits his purposes and he can get away with it – reverse the lot when that suits him as well.
So there is Morrison’s adaptability. But there is also a helpful conservative media. Here, Morrison is not just a nimble leader with a well-developed survival instinct. He is positively Churchillian.
Greg Sheridan of The Australian was early out of the blocks near the end of March. “Scott Morrison could become Australia’s most important war-time leader,” he declared. “If he succeeds, he will join a pantheon which at the moment consists only of John Curtin, a leader who got us through, who worried us through, our last existential challenge.”
More recently, Sheridan’s colleague, Paul Kelly, has extended this to an attack on state premiers as “laggards”. He asked rhetorically whether they were “free riders on the Morrison government and the banks, who keep the economy alive at such dire cost”.
A prime minister who can rely on such free promotion has good reason to expect a bright political future. And Labor Party figures are entitled to ask if they could have expected such generosity in the context of draconian restrictions on personal freedom and massive spending aimed at propping up the economy and saving lives.
As we return to something like political business as usual, Morrison is likely to be subjected to efforts to make him and his government accountable that he has long shown he regards as onerous. How he deals with those, and with the immense challenges of rebuilding the economy in the context of debt, deficit, global depression and the danger of new outbreaks of disease, may well be a more testing challenge to his leadership than anything so far.
It is understandable why the different measures introduced across Australia to contain COVID-19 have caused confusion. It does seem inexplicable that the rules – and penalties for breaching them – are different depending on where one lives.
It is also understandable that the finger-pointing between the Australian Border Force and the NSW government over the Ruby Princess debacle is regarded as a sign of weak governance arrangements caused by overlapping state and federal responsibilities for the nation’s borders.
But as understandable as these reactions might be, Australia’s response to COVID-19 is a testament to the benefits of federation, with its multiple tiers of government.
A useful division of governmental labour
The two levels of government have responded to this crisis in slightly different ways, especially initially.
It was the premiers and chief ministers who acted decisively to manage the spread of the pandemic when it first emerged. Their primary concern was to minimise further transmission of the virus, and to prevent the health system from becoming overwhelmed by the influx of infected patients.
While some of the premiers were warning that extreme measures would have to be instituted, Prime Minister Scott Morrison was still suggesting it was acceptable for people to attend sporting events ahead of a ban on mass gatherings.
The different focuses of the two levels of government is in constant tension, but this provides a check on each other in managing their particular core (constitutional) responsibilities during the pandemic.
Moreover, it has permitted a useful division of governmental labour during this crisis. The federal government is able to concentrate on managing the economy, while the states and territories are able to prioritise managing the health of their populations and hospital systems.
And through the National Cabinet, the consultative body consisting of the prime minister, premiers and chief ministers, the country’s leaders have been able to coordinate their activities and share vital information.
These differences are on top of the fact some states and territories have natural geographical features that enable them to more easily control who enters the state, for example, Tasmania and Western Australia. This enables these leaders to consider less stringent social distancing and other measures than their counterparts.
It makes good sense, therefore, that national guidelines should be adapted to meet the unique challenges of each state or territory.
Why the Ruby Princess is not a failure of federalism
However, it is far from clear the incident could have been avoided if Australia had only one level of government.
The fiasco resulted from a series of poor decisions involving multiple state agencies and one federal agency. It was likely aggravated by the possibly misleading or inaccurate information provided by the cruise ship operator about the health of those on board.
But the decision-making failure(s) that occurred here are not unique to federations. The challenge of adequately vetting information under pressure, and coordinating the overlapping responsibilities of different administrative agencies, occurs within all governments.
If anything, federations have greater capacity to reduce the intensity, frequency and scale of policy failures.
As a model of government, federations do not prevent bad policies from being implemented. Rather, they can minimise the harm caused by bad policies. A policy failure in one state, for instance, will generally only affect that particular state – not the entire country.
Importantly, leaders can learn from the policy errors made by their counterparts.
Federalism as a salve to poor leadership
Those who need further convincing about the benefits of federalism need look to the United States.
The devastation that is unfolding in the US has been amplified by the absence of competent national leadership. The Trump administration vacillates between dismissing the pandemic and arguing the economic costs of shutting down the country are graver than the loss of lives.
That federations give rise to multiple governmental leaders might seem inefficient. But this pandemic has revealed that not all leaders rise to the challenge during crises. When this occurs, having other leaders who can step into the breach can prove critical.
After the coronavirus nightmare has passed, harsh judgments will be made about which political leaders and health experts were on the right or wrong side in handling this crisis.
Politicians like to cast back to the global financial crisis and play the blame game. The stakes were very high then – this time they are multiplied.
And there are many with futures or reputations (or both) on the line.
This week we’ve seen a high-profile clash of opinions and expertise on display. Given the exponential rise in cases, the calls for everyone to be on the same page must be secondary to the imperative of getting the right strategy.
One school of thought says, put health first and go nuclear now, with a full lockdown. The other school favours a stepped approach, tightening the screws but trying to keep as much economic activity alive for as long as possible.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews (Labor) and New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian (Liberal) are hardliners. Victorian Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton spoke out forcefully this week. The two premiers have given notice their states are set to move to lockdown (where people would be confined to their homes). Jacinda Ardern has already taken New Zealand there.
With the divide crossing partisan lines, Andrews and Berejiklian are working closely together.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison is the prime advocate of the gradual approach. Resisting a full lockdown, he argued strongly this week he didn’t want to throw people out of jobs where it was possible to avoid doing so, and he feared the consequences of the stresses the economic crisis would put on families.
For Morrison, it’s a balancing act, in the face of “a twin crisis, a crisis on a health front, which is also causing a crisis in the economy as well. And both of them can be equally as deadly, both in terms of the lives of Australians and their livelihood.”
Labor has aligned with the position taken by Andrews and Berejiklian. From the start, the opposition has been urging faster action; this week Anthony Albanese sharpened his criticism.
He disputed “there is a tension between dealing with the health issues and dealing with the economic issues. That is a false distinction.
“The government has a responsibility to deal with this health emergency. That is the first priority. Then, it needs to deal with the economic consequences of the health emergency and the appropriate response. It needs to be done in that order.”
Those who argue Labor is just playing politics and should be sticking to the government line are off beam. This is a policy crisis too and policy arguments are legitimate and indeed necessary.
Among federal officials, the secretary of Home Affairs, Mike Pezzullo, is reportedly a hardliner.
Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy (who has been appointed secretary of the Health Department) and his deputy, Paul Kelly, have been strong public defenders of the gradualist path.
Yet in the health world many in academia are advocates of an immediate lockdown.
The prime minister has found his hand being forced by the states (as in Sunday’s argy bargy on shutdowns) or bypassed (on schools).
Morrison has been a firm advocate of keeping the schools open, arguing it’s vital so health workers can continue in their jobs, and also because children shouldn’t lose a year of education.
This week Berejiklian advised parents to keep children home, while Andrews brought forward the school holidays. Western Australia is now encouraging remaining at home as new arrangements are prepared. Next week Queensland schools will be “student free” (apart from children of “frontline workers”). South Australia is likewise planning for the future.
Academic experts are at the centre of the policy battle, and this carries its own politics.
Take a paper, commissioned by the federal government, reporting the advice of 22 experts from Group Of Eight universities. Dated Sunday, it put forward two views.
“One view, influenced by our position on the epidemic curve, the limitations of wide community testing and surveillance and the experience of other countries, argues for a comprehensive, simultaneous ban across Australia.
“The other, influenced by the fact that a large number of our cases are a direct/contacts of importation (which have now been stopped), influenced by the large variation in case density across Australia and the adverse consequences of closure and the sustainability and compliance to an early closure, argued for a more proportionate response”.
The first view was “a dominant position in this group”, the paper said. What it didn’t add was that this was the overwhelming view.
When asked about the paper at a Tuesday news conference, both Morrison and Murphy were noticeably uneasy. Morrison flicked the question to Murphy who said: “Any measures we place, we believe need to be for the long haul. The idea that you can put measures in place for four weeks and suddenly stop them and the virus will be gone is not credible. So we are very keen to put as restrictive measures in place without completely destroying life as we know it.”
Another paper circulating, including to senior business figures, argues “the case for a short, sharp lockdown in Australia”. It has been contributed to by Raina MacIntyre, who heads UNSW’s Biosecurity Program; Louisa Jorm, director of the Centre for Big Data Research in Health, UNSW; Tim Churches, health data scientist at UNSW; and Richard Nunes-Vaz, from Torrens Resilience Institute at Flinders University.
“We are deeply concerned about the prospect of Australia losing control of the epidemic to a degree which would exceed health system capacity and result in far greater numbers of cases, more health and economic losses, and a longer time to societal recovery,” the paper says.
“A short, sharp lockdown of 4-8 weeks will improve control of the epidemic in Australia, reduce case numbers and bring us to a more manageable baseline from which phased lifting of restrictions and economic recovery can occur.
“If we fail to do this, we face continued epidemic growth, potential failure of the health system, and a far longer road to recovery.”
The lockdown would be used to ramp up a massive testing operation to identify and isolate cases, enabling the subsequent ease-off to be done more safely.
On Thursday the federal government’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly suggested challenges to official advice made for public confusion and should be kept behind closed doors.
Not if the challengers turn out to be right.
Morrison received praise in the early days for his handling of the crisis. Now he and his closest health advisers are increasingly finding themselves the odd men out.
Nancy Pelosi is back. Back throwing her weight around. Back in charge.
As the newly-elected Speaker of the US House of Representatives – arguably the most powerful position after the president – the top-ranking Democrat is suddenly the closest thing America has to an incumbent “opposition leader”.
Not before time. Last week, after Pelosi forced President Donald Trump into a humiliating retreat from his partial government shutdown, a former administration official texted Axios reporter Jonathan Swan with the words: “Trump looks pathetic… he just ceded his presidency to Nancy Pelosi”.
For astonished Australians, the mercurial Trump’s adolescent theatrics merely underscore the value of our Westminster parliamentary tradition.
This is the “oppositional” system in which an alternative prime minister, with a fully-formed shadow ministry, is not only appointed in plain view, but also goes about releasing detailed alternative policy. All while holding the government to account.
However, comparisons to the US are not always so kind. Pelosi’s late-career revival at the age of 78 highlights a cultural point of difference somewhat less flattering to Australia.
It’s a difference that hints at a corrosive ageism in Australian public life that is so normal it goes unremarked — a tendency to over-value the new and reward hyper-ambitious individuals while squandering the wisdom amassed through years in service.
It is a mentality that:
short-changes the electorate by failing to extract full value from its investment in seasoned representatives
elevates MPs before they are ready and discards them when they are
works disproportionately against women, by making the early to mid-career years — during which women typically require time away for childbirth — the crucial ones.
Is it merely coincidence that the two most successful women in recent Australian leadership on each side, Julia Gillard and Julie Bishop, did not weather such career absences? Or that some of the bigger names on the rung immediately below them did not either — think Penny Wong, Michaelia Cash, and going back further, Amanda Vanstone?
This unspoken antipathy to experience is not new. Nearly 20 years ago, John Howard purchased an internal truce by flagging his voluntary retirement as early as 63. Sure, it was designed to hold off the rising Peter Costello, but the deal flew because it rang true. Of course the PM would hand over in his mid-60s. Who would credibly seek high office beyond that?
I have said before that if the party wants me to lead it to another election, which will be at the end of next year, I am happy to do so. After that obviously one has to recognise, I’ll then be in my 63rd or 64th year, and you start to ask yourself and that’s fair enough. And nothing is forever.
How odd this seems in light of Pelosi’s game-changing return. Still active in the Liberal Party, Howard is only fractionally older than the American.
How about Paul Keating?
Labor’s Paul Keating, the man Howard succeeded in 1996, is younger than both of them. At 75, this former PM is still a force in business and public policy discussions, despite being officially retired from politics for nearly 23 years.
Yet when Trump lines up for his second term late next year, he’ll be just a year shy of what Keating is now.
His Democratic opponent could conceivably be older.
Among the bigger names frequently mentioned are Hillary Rodham Clinton, who would be 73 at election time – an entry age all but unimaginable in Australian politics.
Another is the former vice president, Joe Biden, who will be 78 in November 2020.
Or the Democrats could turn to the man Clinton bested in the last primaries, Bernie Sanders, knocking on the door of 80 come his inauguration.
Even the new kid on the Democratic left, Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, will be 71 by polling day.
Then there’s the UK’s Jeremy Corbyn
It’s not just in the US that age presents no automatic barrier to high office.
British Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn is mysteriously popular with the party’s younger membership despite his flaccid opposition to Brexit. Odds on to be the next British PM, Corbyn is already 69 and will be seeking to commence his prime ministership (if the beleaguered May government runs to full term), the same month he turns 73.
Again, these numbers simply don’t scan in the Australian context – a country where premiers, prime ministers, and their mandarins are routinely hurried into a post-public twilight between 50 and 60. And where High Court Justices have to retire at 70, regardless of their legal mastery.
Of course, the causes and circumstances of individual retirements are unique. But taken together, we see the outlines of a particularly Australian perspective on age and authority.
How about pollies who ‘retire’ early?
These outlines get even sharper if we consider the early departure of some of the leading lights in Australia in recent times – names that had been pencilled in as future leaders.
It is a long list, but among them is the former attorney-general Nicola Roxon, who upped stumps on a stellar career at just 46.
Craig Emerson is another leading Labor light who still looks young having pulled the pin on a senior ministerial career at 59.
Former Labor minister Kate Ellis (41) will depart at the election, and just days ago it was the turn of Human Services Minister, Michael Keenan (46) to announce the same intention.
And of course, there’s Gillard who rose to the very top but was gone at 52.
Only last week there were calls for the return of Peter Costello with some dubbing the country’s longest serving treasurer, “the best prime minister we never had”.
Costello left Canberra shortly after the 2007 loss to Kevin Rudd’s Labor, and is still just 61.
Yet in Australia at least, that’s old. Indeed, the Liberal former Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett used the recent resignation of Kelly O’Dwyer (at just 41) to call on MPs of Costello’s vintage to make way for new talent.
Among those he identified were Kevin Andrews and Julie Bishop. The two Liberals have little in common besides being fitter than most younger MPs due to daily cycling and running.
But at 63 and 62 respectively, they would be young leaders in some countries.
Pelosi is not infallible but she is vastly experienced, and it has already paid big dividends. As a counterpoint to a vainglorious and dangerously naive president, her election serves an obvious national interest.
At 78, she is just getting started (again). Make that 79 in March.
To find out, I interviewed dozens of politicians and officials from every G20 country about the influence and importance of the annual gathering since its first meeting in 2008.
My analysis shows most G20 promises are kept, and the forum really does exert a positive influence on its member nations.
Cooperation or coincidence?
Before I started my research I had reasons to be sceptical.
For example, at the G20’s second meeting, in London in 2009, the assembled leaders committed to fiscal stimulus packages worth a combined US$5 trillion in response to the 2008 global financial crisis. Central banks, like the Reserve Bank of Australia, also committed to aggressively cut interest rates.
The data shows they did what they promised. But didn’t countries have an incentive to do what they did anyway? What role did the G20 play?
Similarly in 2010, at the G20 meeting in Toronto, spooked by the European debt crisis, leaders promised to halve deficits by 2013 and stabilise debt-to-GDP ratios by 2016.
Many countries achieved this. But weren’t many countries, such as Australia, already on the “back to surplus” bandwagon? Did the G20 have any influence?
More than just a talkfest
Was the G20 a real influence, or were countries just promising to do what they would have done anyway?
To find out, I interviewed a total of 63 senior politicians and officials from every G20 country.
They included former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd, former Australian treasurers Wayne Swan and Joe Hockey, US Federal Reserve chairperson Janet Yellen and her predecessor Ben Bernanke, former US Treasury secretary Jack Lew, Bank of Japan governor Haruhiko Kuroda, and Bank of England governer Mark Carney.
I asked them whether they believed the G20 had influenced their and other countries’ policies.
The answer was yes – sometimes.
It depended on the country, the policy area and other things, like whether there was an international economic crisis. But the influence was definitely there.
According to Kevin Rudd, who oversaw the Australian government’s successful response to the global financial crisis:
The G20 played a positive role in the quantum of Australia’s fiscal stimulus.
Politicians from ten other countries said the same thing – verified with data, where possible.
These banks have domestic mandates. The Reserve Bank of Australia can’t refuse to change interest rates because it annoys New Zealand, for example. It must do what is best for the nation. What room is therefore left for G20 co-operation?
My research suggests the G20 does influence the thinking of central bankers and, through them, central bank policies.
“There is a lot of exchange of views in the G20 which I think is influential,” Ben Bernanke, who chaired the US Federal Reserve from 2006 to 2014, told me.
Mark Carney, who was governor of the Bank of Canada before heading the Bank of England, said the G20 was “a useful forum in which central banks can explain the reasons for their policy decisions”.
What about those 1,000 structural reforms?
According to Joe Hockey, Australia’s treasurer from 2013 to 2015:
The G20 growth strategy process absolutely resulted in countries doing things differently, particularly by learning from one another.
US officials agreed, confirming they got the idea of an asset-recycling initiative – where governments lease existing infrastructure assets to private companies and invest the proceeds in new infrastructure projects – from Australia through the G20.
A place to learn
German officials said because of G20 commitments their government developed a financial literacy and education program to better equip Germany’s citizens, particularly young people, in their engagement with the financial system.
Russian officials said Vladimir Putin embraced their 2017-2020 reform agenda on female economic participation after learning about the benefits through the G20.
The G20 has also prevented nations embracing “beggar-thy-neighbour” policies that improve the country’s relative economic position by harming others. It has pressured members not to devalue their currencies in pursuit of competitive trade advantage. It has helped countries resist resorting to trade protectionism. It has defused tensions around controversial policies such as quantitative easing, and improved the communication of central banks on future policy changes.
Janet Yellen, former chair of the US Federal Reserve, said she “genuinely took to heart” concerns expressed at the G20 about aspects of US policy.
There are exceptions
The G20’s influence is not universal. Large countries are less influenced than smaller ones. Said a former senior US official:
Most Americans, and many in Congress, are proudly indifferent to what the rest of the world thinks.
Jacob Lew, US Treasury Secretary from 2013 to 2017, agreed:
There can be a backlash in the United States if you make the argument that you are doing something to comply with international rules.
The full results have been published by the Brookings Institution (available here).
So if commentators complain about the G20 being a pointless talkfest, just remember there is evidence to the contrary. It might not grab the headlines but the G20 plays an important role behind the scenes. We will be relying on it now, more than ever, to calm global tensions.
Fiji faces a general election on Wednesday, just as Australia’s main political parties devote more attention to the western Pacific, driven by worries about China’s growing influence in the region.
For most Australians, the nation is a handy holiday destination – closer than Bali or Thailand. Last month, its palm-fringed beaches were in the global spotlight when the Duke and Duchess of Sussex took a trip to the former British colony.
Anyone with a longer memory will perhaps associate Fiji with coups – two in 1987 and one in 2006. There was also a putsch – a civilian overthrow of the government – in 2000.
This week’s general election is only the second since Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama, who often goes by the name Frank, appointed himself prime minister after the 2006 coup. He was eventually elected in 2014 and is expected to be re-elected this week.
For Australia, the strategic importance of the western Pacific is coming into sharp focus.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has announced $3 billion in infrastructural spending in the region. He has committed the Australian Defence Force to military training in Pacific nations.
Australia has an abiding interest in a south-west Pacific that is secure strategically, stable economically and sovereign politically.
In a speech to the Lowy Institute last month, Bill Shorten committed a future Labor government to an independent foreign policy with a strong Pacific focus. It would support Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Tonga to develop their military capabilities.
We want to mend the relationship with the RFMF [Republic of Fiji Military Forces], to ensure that the ADF [Australian Defence Force] is best-placed to develop the Fiji military’s professional capabilities and to ensure Fiji’s security needs.
For Fijian voters, the military is never far from politics.
Bainimarama insists the election will be free and fair . However, the electoral system is unnecessarily complicated. Critics argue this is a deliberate strategy to disenfranchise voters.
[Prime Minister Laisenia] Qarase is trying to weaken the army by trying to remove me … if he succeeds there will be no one to monitor them, and imagine how corrupt it is going to be.
The coups and the putsch were ostensibly statements of indigenous nationalism – indigenous Fijians asserting their rights over the generally wealthier and better educated descendants of Indian indentured labourers brought to Fiji by British colonial authorities between 1879 and 1916.
However, Fijian politics is vastly more complicated than an indigenous non-indigenous binary. The contentious point, according to Professor Brij V. Lal of the Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific, “is not really about having a Fijian head of government,” but rather which Fijian leader would be acceptable to a particular group of Fijians at any given time”.
The prime minister’s main rival clears legal hurdle
Bainimarama’s main opponent is an indigenous former prime minister and coup leader, Sitiveni Rabuka. Bainimarama is also an indigenous Fijian.
Rabuka faced electoral fraud charges that could have seen him declared him ineligible to stand at the election. Rabuka’s acquittal in the Magistrate’s Court was appealed by the Fiji Independent Commission Against Corruption, and dismissed by the High Court only on Monday afternoon. At his campaign launch in 2018, Rabuka ominously remarked:
I am here to do what I can for as long as I ever can for the good of the country.
However, indigenous nationalism and how the right to self-determination might be played out is important. It is interwoven with class, religion and an urban/rural divide to add to the fragility and complexity of Fiji’s conditional democracy.
Just as it did in 2014, Bainimarama’s Fiji First is campaigning on a range of issues including the building of a multiracial society. Practical measures to improve access to education and healthcare are also important to Fiji First.
Land ownership and rental returns are key political issues
Rabuka’s Social Democratic Liberal Party (SODELPA) argues for the restoration of distinctive indigenous voice in public life. It seeks the restoration of the Great Council of Chiefs and of chiefly influence over the distribution of rental incomes.
Ultimately, indigenous prosperity depends on the strength of the national economy. This, in turn, depends on political stability. Contemporary Fiji enjoys neither. While there are signs of improving economic growth, the Fijian people face two obstacles in ensuring that the outcome of Wednesday’s election reflects their collective will.
Firstly, registering to vote then casting a valid and informed vote is difficult. Secondly, as Fiji’s history since 1987 shows, and as the 2013 Constitution confirms, the election’s outcome is ultimately subject to military approval. It may not, then, be in Australia’s best interests to support a stronger Fijian military.
Democratic stability serves Australia’s interests. In Fiji, democracy can be strong only when the military is weak.
Is it sufficiently dignified to call a prime minister, as distinct from an immigration minister or treasurer, ScoMo? Is this part of Scott Morrison’s “ordinary bloke” persona? It does sound a bit like Joe Shmoe, which Wikipedia tells me means “no one in particular” and “is one of the most commonly used fictional names in American English”. But it also sounds a bit Hollywood, evoking JLo.
So it may well be the kind of game that virtually every politician with serious leadership aspirations has to play. They need to convince us that they are not so far above us that they are out of touch. (“How much is a litre of milk, Prime Minister?”) Yet when they do present themselves as just like us, we can’t really take them seriously. We do, in the end, expect our leaders to be different.
Minus the shopping trolley, Robert Menzies and Robert Hawke were both Bob, and William Hughes and William McMahon were Billy. Curtin was Jack to his mates but John to the public. Chifley was Ben to all, and the unassuming Lyons was happy enough with Joe. It was hard to do much with Gough or Paul, and Malcolm Fraser only became Mal when he was being ridiculed. Everyone knew he was no Mal, and nor was Turnbull. “Johnny Howard” was almost never complimentary, especially when preceded by “Little”, and Kevin might have been from Queensland and here to help, but he never became Kev – not even when worrying over the shaking of sauce bottles – any more than Julia became Jules.
Politicians have long fretted over these matters. When Stanley Melbourne Bruce became prime minister in 1923, he issued a note to the press:
Mr Bruce would be very glad if the newspapers would not refer to him by his Christian name, as Mr Stanley Bruce, but always as Mr S.M. Bruce.
Today’s journalists, cartoonists and comedians – to say nothing of one’s political opponents – would be in raptures if a newly minted prime minister issued such a notice. And it was clearly unthinkable that the golf-playing, spats-wearing Bruce would be just plain Stan.
Here is a reminder that there is more than one way of performing the role of Australian prime minister. The late political psychologist Graham Little used to give a set-piece lecture on political leadership at Melbourne University, whose major details I can still recall 30 years later – so it must have been good.
Little thought there were broadly three types. Margaret Thatcher was a “strong leader” – the children’s TV program that demonstrated the style was Romper Room. Boys wore boys’ clothes and looked like boys. Girls wore girls’ clothes and looked like girls. Miss Helena dressed conservatively and had a mirror through which she could keep an eye on us at home. Moral codes were strictly defined, with the help of Mr Do Bee (“Do be an asker. Don’t be a help yourself”). Good conduct included being able to walk around with a basket balanced on your head.
“Inspiring leadership” was exemplified by Gough Whitlam – and Play School. Each, in turn, went out of their way to demonstrate good, inclusive citizenship, and creative, inclusive play, yet without pretending to become an ordinary citizen, or an ordinary child.
Like Miss Helena, Play School leaders were grownups. But unlike her – and like Whitlam – they spoke to their audience of children as intelligent equals, dressed a bit like kids (possibly in overalls, not skirts, for women) and played along with them rather than laying down the law. Big Ted was a more gentle soul than Mr Do Bee – who presumably had a sting. Gender differences are more frankly acknowledged, but explored rather than taken for granted.
And then there were “group leaders”, like Bob Hawke – and Humphrey B. Bear. Humphrey, seemingly male yet somewhat ambiguously defined, runs around without trousers (any resemblance here to an Australian prime minister, living or dead, being purely coincidental). He is also a child, not an adult, and to this extent he shares a common identity with his audience. But they are not entirely deceived: Humphrey’s not really the same as the kids watching at home. In short, he’s rather like Hawke, who at his best convinced us that he was one of us even while being unmistakably “special”.
Not all have even attempted this balancing act. Neither Bruce nor Menzies ever pretended to be everyman, although Menzies occasionally pointed to his humble origins as the son of a country storekeeper. Keating barely made the effort; his adoption of Collingwood Football Club when he became prime minister was widely ridiculed for its cynicism, coming as it did from a man whose interests ran more to classical music and French clocks.
Malcolm Turnbull’s leather jacket, never entirely convincing, did not survive his elevation to prime minister. His persona in the job more resembled a Renaissance Florentine merchant-statesman – albeit without the art or culture, which may well have been Turnbull’s major concession to the common folk.
Like Keating, the very Sydney-ish Morrison is looking south for an AFL club, and he has cultivated what journalist Phillip Coorey calls a “daggy ordinariness”. But his everyman act is already running up against his evangelical Christianity. The classic Australian plain man is not an evangelical.
Russel Ward sketched the “the typical Australian” most influentially in The Australian Legend 60 years ago. He is, Ward writes, “sceptical about the value of religion and of intellectual and cultural pursuits generally”. The latter certainly fits Morrison, but not the former.
That said, he leads Shorten as preferred prime minister in Newspoll. It is worth pausing to ask why Shorten, former Australian Workers’ Union leader, has never been able to break through as a personally popular figure. He has clearly modelled aspects of his career on Hawke, but no one would ever accuse him of possessing Hawke’s charisma. He will never approach his stratospheric approval ratings. Perhaps there are too many stories around of his cosy relations with filthy rich businessmen.
He became a national figure on the back of his media profile during the Beaconsfield mine disaster and rescue in Tasmania in 2006, and he campaigned most effectively in the 2016 election. Yet he often seems wooden in front of a camera, as distinct from when talking with ordinary voters. On the couple of occasions I’ve witnessed him deliver prepared speeches, he was engaging if not magnetic, and improved as he warmed to the message he was delivering.
Hawke moved in similar business circles to Shorten, and had his deficiencies as both a public speaker and parliamentary performer. But he was brilliant if unpredictable in a TV interview, before he cut the drinking and learned better to control his temper. His media image in the 1970s, while ACTU president, overwhelmed any popular suspicion that he was in the pockets of the top end of town, although there was a growing chorus of complaints about rich mates during his prime ministership.
Shorten, much more than Hawke, has been damaged by the perception of backroom dealing; with bosses, while a union leader, and over the internecine warfare within the Labor Party. Voters might have a sneaking respect for his doggedness – think John Howard – but they don’t love him and probably never will. Nonetheless, they may well elect him.
High-profile activist Kerryn Phelps, who is considering whether to join the battle in the Wentworth byelection, has condemned federal parliament’s toxic political culture and called on all major party leaders to address it.
As the fallout from Liberal MP Julia Banks’ condemnation of bullying continues, Phelps told The Conversation: “Some of the behaviour in the Australian parliament of late would not be tolerated in any other workplace”, saying it seemed to have gotten worse. This made for an unhealthy workplace which was ill-suited to getting the best performances from MPs.
Phelps, a City of Sydney councillor who was very active in the same-sex marriage debate, practices as a GP in the Wentworth electorate, and could be expected to attract a substantial vote if she ran as an independent.
The seat, formerly held by Malcolm Turnbull, who had a strong personal vote, is on a 17.7% margin but the Liberals are worried about a big protest vote.
The fallout from the leadership coup is already being felt there with Turnbull’s son Alex encouraging people to donate to the campaign of Labor candidate Tim Murray.
The younger Turnbull tweeted: “Best bang for the buck you’ll get in political donations in your life. Tight race, tight margin for government, big incremental effect whatever happens. If you want a federal election now this is the means by which to achieve it.”
While the focus in the bullying debate last week was on women, Phelps said some men suffered equally and “don’t perhaps get recognised in terms of the emotional cost [to them].”
She said the “toxic nature of parliament as a workplace” needed to be addressed, and she rejected the message sent by some Liberal players that people should toughen up or, in the words of backbencher Craig Kelly, “roll with the punches”.
If any business leader said “just toughen up”, they wouldn’t be there for long, Phelps said.
She said that a quantitative improvement in the political culture had to be generated by the leaders of the large parties. “You have to have the leaders of the major parties draw a line in the sand,” and say that bad behaviour would not advance people’s careers. At present, the opposite seemed to be the case, she said.
Earlier on Sunday, Labor frontbencher Clare O’Neil said “there’s a level of aggression, of conflict, of egocentrism that dominate parliament house and I think that that is quite hard to handle”, in particular for women.
O’Neil, spokeswoman on financial services, told the ABC her experience as an MP was “that there’s increasingly a culture in Canberra and in parliament house that feels really toxic”.
Attention is coming on the Minister for Women Kelly O’Dwyer, who issued a general statement last week condemning bullying, to take a stronger stand. O’Dwyer is expected to say more this week.
Some current and even former Liberal MPs women are reluctant to speak out for fear of blowback.
Labor has had its own controversy centred on one of its female MPs: Emma Husar has said she will not run again, after allegations of her bullying staff and other misbehaviour. A Labor inquiry upheld some allegations but not others.
Labor’s spokesperson on women, Tanya Plibersek, said that while the way parliament worked was adversarial, debates should be conducted with decency and respect.
“A positive culture is critical, and each one of us has the duty to help foster that both within parties and across the parliament.
“I believe the closer the parliament reflects our community – a more equal representation of women and men, and a greater diversity of backgrounds – the better that culture will be.
“I actually think something that really helps is more people working on issues in a bipartisan way, for example on committees,” Plibersek said.
Meanwhile, Christine Forster, Tony Abbott’s sister, has dropped out of the race for Liberal pre-selection for the Wentworth byelection.
She said in a statement the commentary about her candidacy “has focused on the suggestion that it was a proxy for division within the Liberal party. That is not the case, but to avoid any such perception, I will be standing aside and giving my full support to the successful candidate.”
Forster had not been regarded a frontrunner in the contest, which is considered to be between a former ambassador to Israel, Dave Sharma, and Andrew Bragg, who was briefly acting Liberal federal director.