News Michael Pascoe: No, the National Cabinet has not worked and is not working

Michael Pascoe: No, the National Cabinet has not worked and is not working

Michael Pascoe says the National Cabinet is not working, despite the efforts of ACTU secretary Sally McManus.
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Remember when the National Cabinet was seen as a great triumph? Happy days, but short lived.

The politicians involved have shrunk back into the mindsets of their forebears – 19th century colonialists with a map, an ink-dipped quill and an eye to empire building – oblivious to the greater good, incapable of overcoming imaginary lines scratched over formerly wide-open spaces.

Yes, there was initial success, most obviously key Premiers’ early stiffening of the Prime Minister’s response to the crisis, ramming home the difference between “I’m off to the footy” Morrison and “the Grand Prix is cancelled” Andrews.

Now petty barbs and blame shifting characterise the show, distracting the audience and critics from the fundamental flaw: The nonsense of trying to manage a national crisis based on where those ancient quills wandered.

At the ever-expanding edge of the information age, we’re stuck on various riverbanks, throwing policy pebbles at the other side and not giving a damn about what is best for people on both.

A young mother from (COVID-free) northern New South Wales has been refused entry into a Queensland hospital where her newborn baby is receiving urgent medical treatment.

We’ve had the stupidity of the Wodonga 100 on their way to Canberra, stranded at the Victoria/NSW border for days, being told they should drive back to hotspot Melbourne and fly instead.

Reportedly, from Friday Victorians living on the South Australian border will essentially only be allowed to cross into South Australia if they are a year 11 or 12 student travelling for school or a farmer with property on both sides of the border.

And then there’s the daily joke of the Tweed border, the single economic entity strangled by the petty powers granted by those 19th century map sketchers. Ditto the Victorian/NSW border regions.

Border controls have become a daily joke for many.

Queensland did suggest temporarily moving the effective border a little south, but that was immediately rejected amid sniping over the border being closed.

(No, Gladys, Annastacia won’t lay claim to more Northern Rivers rugby league players if you allowed travel restrictions to rest where they most logically could.)

Restricting travel based on 19th century borders has been ridiculous from the start.

When Queensland first shut its border, someone from Ballina was stopped from driving their horse and cart the 186 kilometres to Brisbane, but someone from Brisbane was free to ride the 1684 kilometres to Cairns.

Contrary to the Premiers’ behaviour, the virus doesn’t differentiate between a majestic maroon jumper and a sadly washed-out blue one.

The desirability of regional, not state, containment couldn’t get past the red/blue/whatever tape.

Queensland tried differentiating between greater Sydney and the rest of NSW. But without the help of enforcement south of the Tweed, it was quickly abandoned. One Sydneysider allegedly trying to fly north from Canberra was enough to scrub the ACT as well.

Where flights are allowed, logic says checking and policing makes more sense before people board, rather than at the other end. (ACT/Queensland travel would still be possible. Queensland’s infamous young pair of COVID-carrying women could have been caught earlier.)

It’s not just in its inability to get over old borders that the National Cabinet fails.

After the initial understandable scramble to catch up with the virus’ progression, there’s no sign of a united desire to get ahead of the pandemic.

The advice has been available, the longer-term problems have been exposed. Smart politicians wouldn’t waste a good crisis – but this lot has.

In a brief Twitter thread on Monday morning, ACTU secretary Sally McManus laid out a five-point plan of more preventative value than anything produced by the National Cabinet.

  1. Paid pandemic leave. 80 per cent of transmission in Vic was caused in workplaces. One in three workers have no sick leave. Fix it, give all workers sick leave now. The federal government says they will pay for some of it, your Premier has to act to implement it. Don’t wait until it’s too late.
  2. Protect aged-care homes. Give adequate permanent shifts in one house. Stop the use of labour hire. Mandatory infection control training. Ensure adequate staffing numbers and trained staff. Prepare a surge workforce. Over 1200 healthcare workers are infected in Vic.
  3. Make abattoirs safe. Give adequate permanent shifts in one plant to stop people working across sites. Stop the use of labour hire. Put in place social distancing. Set up testing sites. Make sure safe work practices are enforced.
  4. Work from home. If you were working from home in April, you should be now. Limiting the number of times people come in contact with each other limits the virus spreading. Make work from home mandatory for all workers who can while there is community transmission.
  5. Make masks wearing compulsory. Sure we had a whinge at first, but now it’s normal. Wearing a mask slows the virus spreading, so is a small price to pay compared to lockdowns & people dying. It changes also changes how you think and behave. Complacency is the big threat of all. There needs to be strong, clear, enforceable rules in workplaces and the community. Leaving it up to individuals and individual employers “doing the right thing” is not enough. This is the clear lesson from Victoria.

Yes, it was aimed at NSW but the message carries to all states. As New Zealand has demonstrated, the virus remains a threat and can break out anywhere until there is a safe vaccine.

Yes, there is a self-serving edge to it – the ACTU has long fought the casualisation and disengagement of the workforce that labour hire structures allow.

But it also makes sense. You know it. I know it. The National Cabinet? No idea.

Anyone given the chance to restart Australia would not have our present states, yet we are constitutionally stuck with them and it’s an exceedingly rare politician who willingly surrenders any power.

Genuine leadership is hard enough to find on the national stage, let alone off-Broadway, but that’s where the National Cabinet’s strength could lie – if the members had the ticker, the vision and the humility befitting them.