News Paul Bongiorno: Australian pandemic response is mired in contradictions

Paul Bongiorno: Australian pandemic response is mired in contradictions

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has started playing the blame game in the midst of a very deep depression. Photo: Getty
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You don’t have to wonder for very long why Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has become the government’s most strident political attack dog.

On Wednesday, the National Accounts will paint a dire picture of the Australian economy in a very deep recession.

Mr Frydenberg is expecting a contraction of about 7 per cent, with the nation’s second-largest state Victoria a major contributor to the gloom.

Treasury estimates the Stage 4 lockdown is costing the state’s economy $400 million a day; An additional 400,000 people will be unemployed between now and Christmas.

In a series of radio and TV interviews since the weekend, Mr Frydenberg has made Victoria’s Premier Daniel Andrews the sole villain.

Mr Andrews is responsible, according to Mr Frydenberg, for the biggest public policy failure in allowing the virus to escape into the community through hotel quarantine failures and inadequate tracing.

And worse, the Premier has no plan to end the misery, and “in the meantime, hundreds of people have lost their lives and hundreds of thousands will lose their jobs”.

But here’s the rub.

If the Victorian government is at fault for quarantine failures, the Commonwealth is just as seriously to blame for not ensuring that aged-care facilities it funds and regulates were better prepared.

These facilities have accounted for well over half the death toll.

Mr Frydenberg seems to inhabit a parallel universe demanding Victoria “bring forward” an economic plan, but at the same time admitting the expert health advice should always be the guiding principle.

The Premier, for his part, says he hasn’t got the will or the time to engage in arguments with the Treasurer and is promising to unveil a detailed roadmap out on Sunday.

He says 100 cases a day is too high and he is waiting to see more evidence of a decline to double-digit figures.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews on Monday said more detail would be outlined on Sunday. Photo: AAP

But Mr Andrews says opening up too quickly would see the state “lose control of this”.

The Premier said in this situation “the numbers will explode and all the sacrifice and hard work that I’m so proud of Victorians for making and contributing will be worth nothing”.

And at a time when treasury is predicting things will get worse in the economy, the Morrison government is pushing a withdrawal of support and stimulus through Parliament.

The JobKeeper Payments Bill when passed later this week will see a tapering of support over the next six months, actually removing spending power and contributing to the forecast jobless growth.

This is being done in the name of affordability but as ACTU president Michele O’Neill points out, Australia’s stimulus in the pandemic is proportionally much less than numerous other countries including Britain, New Zealand, Canada and even Donald Trump’s USA.

And at a time when there are 13 unemployed for every available job, the Commonwealth’s privatised employment agencies, as The New Daily has revealed are harassing clients when they are looking for bonus outcome payments, fees and other benefits for servicing the unemployed.

At a time when thousands of businesses are crashing the unemployment industry’s “Jobactive providers” have been handed $500 million to date in the pandemic.

The Saturday Paper reported the federal government is spending taxpayer money on the JobKeeper benefit to keep people employed and on the bonuses paid to job agencies for supposedly earning JobKeeeper recipients their jobs.

One Liberal backbencher believes it’s time to bring back the old Commonwealth Employment Service – John Howard’s privatisation obsession in this instance has failed.

Last year the Jobactive system cost the government $1.4 billion, much of it helping to enrich private job entrepreneurs.

There’s no doubt the pandemic has everyone flying by the seat of their pants, but blame-shifting and old ideologies are proving not to be in the national interest.

Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics