News National Michael Pascoe: Yes, they are making it up as they go along

Michael Pascoe: Yes, they are making it up as they go along

Lindt Cafe seige
A hostage runs to safety during the Sydney Lindt Cafe siege in 2014. Photo: AAP
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As the Lindt Cafe siege was unfolding in Sydney on December 14, 2014, political leaders were quick to tell the public we had the best police and security agencies to deal with it.

“We have police and security organisations of the utmost professionalism that are ready and able to respond to a whole range of situations and contingencies including this situation that we are now seeing in Sydney,” said Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

New South Wales Premier Mike Baird and federal Opposition Leader Bill Shorten chimed in with similar statements.

“I have full confidence in the skill and professionalism of our police and security agencies,” Mr Shorten said.

Mr Baird said: “NSW police are trained to deal with these events.”

And I remember thinking, no, our security agencies are largely untested. NSW police have rarely if ever dealt with anything like this, there’s little reason to think they should be particularly good at it.

Tragically, that proved to be the case.

There’s been a sense of déjà vu with both the COVID-19 health and economic crisis as the current Prime Minister has rushed to tell us there was a plan, that we were ahead of the crisis, that we had the best experts, that we just had to remain Australians, that no country could do better.

It’s that confidence and trust thing. Again.

Such statements further undermine trust when the government is making it up as it goes along.

The reality on the health front is that, like the bushfire crisis, we were not prepared for the pandemic that every expert knew would turn up one of these years.

Oh, there was a plan in a drawer that was taken out and dusted off, but we weren’t prepared.

We don’t have enough respirators.

We don’t have the temperature-screening equipment commonplace in other airports. We’re not capable of large-scale rapid screening. We’re still working on developing a public information program.

The messages have been mixed and at times confusing, not helped by politicians wanting to get in front of the experts who are supposed to be calling the shots.

The political history is that pollies can get a lift in the opinion polls by displaying “leadership” in a crisis.

But when they are muddying (footy/no footy) and inane (“keep being Australians”) and merely sloganeering (“get ahead, stay ahead, keep our heads”), already damaged confidence ebbs.

The reality at this stage is that we would be better off being Taiwanese, Singaporean or Hong Kongers rather than Australians as they are the three places that were prepared and are best dealing with the crisis.

That’s the payoff from having a corporate memory of SARS.

As knowledge of COVID-19 is still evolving, it is understandable that our medical authorities seem to be making it up as they go along to a degree.

Full and frank honesty about our shortcomings though would help.

And then there’s the economic crisis.

Again, we were unprepared.

Policies that should have already been in place had been ignored and consequently the Reserve Bank’s interest rate firepower had been largely used up.

The Prime Minister told us it would be fine, there was “a plan”.

But as time went on, it looked more like there was a plan to develop a plan, a process that took weeks.

Treasury had a 14-year-old study on the economic impact of such a pandemic, a study that indicated very substantial monetary and fiscal stimulus would be required to stave off a severe recession.

But when the ideologically-tinkered-with plan was unveiled last week, it was already inadequate – a plan mainly aimed at the June quarter and politically inspired to deliver three-quarters of the $17.6 billion directly to businesses rather than indirectly to them via consumption.

Consequently, it is taken for granted that last week’s grand plan will only be a first instalment, that the government is continuing to make it up as it goes along, that it has underestimated the size of the task, that it’s started behind and is determined to stay there.

The tourism industry in this country has been smashed, the international side killed, the domestic deeply wounded.

Large parts of the hospitality industry are already sinking, some sunk.

There’s an element of understanding that halting sporting events will hurt but unnoticed so far is that the business events industry, estimated to generate some $30 billion a year in economic activity, has been frozen.

The arts and live music industries are similarly imploding.

As more companies advise staff to work from home, watch the pain for city coffee shops and cafes trying to make the rent with fewer customers.

Hospitality and entertainment, in all their forms, are major employers of workers easily let go.

And still to really land is the supply side of the crisis.

An unimportant example: Phone companies have been hit by an iPhone shortage.

Not so unimportant: Construction materials not landing in our ports will hurt a building industry that is already down.

Yes, Blind Freddy can see the federal government will be dragged, belatedly, into offering more support if we are to avoid unemployment hitting recessionary levels.

But when specifically asked on the weekend if there would need to be more stimulus spending in the May budget, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg predictably went into a talking points trance about last week’s effort, ending up with only: “We will obviously watch how it is implemented and the effect that it has throughout the community.”

Hardly confidence building while the RBA not only announced it was doing what it had to do to maintain liquidity but also foreshadowed there would be much more coming.

“The bank will announce further policy measures to support the Australian economy on Thursday,” Governor Lowe said.

There’s the RBA doing what the government won’t, trying to instil confidence that it is on the job and will continue to do what needs to be done.

The central bankers are making it up as they go along, too.

Like our health authorities and federal government, they haven’t faced a crisis like this pandemic before, but they are signalling they’re aware of just how serious it is and how uncompromised the effort will have to be.

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