News Paul Bongiorno: Glib assurances fail to address Australia’s critical challenges
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Paul Bongiorno: Glib assurances fail to address Australia’s critical challenges

The federal government must act now on climate change and COVID-19 to avoid further voter discontent, Paul Bongiorno writes.
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A Martian or some other extra-terrestrial being who dropped into federal Parliament’s question time on Monday would believe that Australia’s vaccine rollout is world beating and our reduction of greenhouse gas emissions is similarly spectacular.

Sparking the government’s bravado was the need to address growing concerns in the nation over the pandemic.

Concerns that clearly contributed to the continued collapse in support for the government, as shown in the Newspoll and the severe marking down of the Prime Minister Scott Morrison to levels not seen since his tin-eared handling of the Black Summer bushfires.

Coincidentally the poll was released on the eve of the International Panel on Climate Change warning in its latest report, the world is careering to a climate catastrophe a decade earlier than forecast.

Newspoll shows government support wanes
Volunteer firefighters were hailed as heroes in the Black Summer bushfires, but the government’s handling of the crisis was panned. Photo: AAP

The horrible Australian summer of 2019-20 was similar to what we are now seeing in the northern hemisphere, which dramatically highlights the world’s imperative to do much more to reduce emissions.

There is no doubt public opinion at this juncture is being driven by the unravelling of the Commonwealth’s pandemic response, but the parallels between the political management of the crises are stark.

Greetings, and welcome to Earth

On the first count Earth-bound observers would need to look no further than the extensive lockdowns still shuttering our two biggest cities and spreading to regional centres in Queensland and New South Wales to know the claim of exceptional success is spurious.

According to expert advice supplied to the federal, state and territory governments by the Doherty Institute, to avoid lockdowns of this sort, vaccination rates would need to be between 70 and 80 per cent of the population above 16 years of age.

The fact that the nation is nowhere near that – closer to 20 per cent and still at the bottom of the table of developed nations in vaccination is a benchmark of failure on the part of the Morrison government.

Both the PM and Health Minister Greg Hunt, despite their bluster, bear all the responsibility for the rollout being six months behind the government’s timetable.

Greg Hunt addresses Media
Sunday’s comments by Health Minister Greg Hunt on Insiders has added to the government’s woes. Photo: AAP

And on Sunday morning television Mr Hunt claimed that somehow the giant vaccine producer Pfizer last year – when it was making deals with other countries – wasn’t prepared to do one with Australia.

A claim disputed by Pfizer and undermined by sources cited by ABC Health reporter Dr Norman Swan.

Whatever about Pfizer, the Moderna vaccine story is just as deplorable.

In this case Australia simply didn’t bother to join other nations in signing up a timely deal.

Labor’s Mark Butler notes that America started using Moderna in December, nine months ago, the UK and Canada started in April, and Japan in May.

Mr Butler says “by that time Australia had not even sat down to do a deal with Moderna”.

Government makes a brash Newspoll reaction

We are now expecting millions of doses to arrive next month and on the proviso our Therapeutic Goods Administration treats the vaccine with the same urgency the Americans and the British did, it may even join the mix in late September.

A rattled Mr Morrison called a late-afternoon news conference to breathlessly announce the millions of doses of three vaccines “we now have” except we haven’t. Like Christmas, they are coming.

No doubt motivating the panicked presentation was the Newspoll results, showing the PM’s net approval for the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has fallen 72 points since February from plus 71 (where the positives: 85 per cent, swamped the negatives: 14 per cent) to minus one now. (Good 48, bad 49.)

And not to be missed, for the second poll running Labor leads the Coalition two-party-preferred 53 to 47 per cent, a clear election-winning margin should it persist to polling day … whenever that is.

Liberals console themselves with the thought John Howard in the lead up to three elections looked a loser only to emerge a winner.

Scott Morrison's government is slipping in favour
Prime Minister Scott Morrison is facing flak for his handling of the pandemic. Photo: AAP

Prompting their optimism is the hope that by March or May at the latest, lockdowns will be a thing of the past and the Delta threat – or whatever variant the virus throws up – will be contained.

The other pandemic

Australians, understandably at the moment are more exercised surviving the pandemic than they might be about the latest dire assessment from the world’s climate scientists, but that will change rapidly should catastrophic summer firestorms return.

Greens leader Adam Bandt describes the government’s 2030 emissions targets as a “death sentence” for our country and he called for a doubling of ambitions in line with the US and Britain.

Mr Morrison claimed Australia’s emissions have fallen 20 per cent since 2005, faster than the G20 and average of developed nations.

This is at odds with a new report from The Australia Institute, which finds Australia’s fossil fuel emissions have risen in that period putting us at the back end of performance compared to 24 other countries.

Richard Merzian from the institute says the explanation is simple: An accounting trick using a contentious land use measurement explains the rosy number.

Whatever the case, the planet like the virus will not be fooled by political sophistry, nor will the voters.

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