The corona wars: Australia’s three new policy contests - Grattan Institute

Published in The Australian Financial Review, April 30 2020

For 10 years, Australia has been riven by the climate wars. For 10 weeks, we have played host to the corona wars, as debate about how to respond to the coronavirus pandemic has revealed deep divisions about policy choices.

Three key divisions are shaping national policy on the COVID-19 health and economic crisis.

The first is the tension between the “slow the spreaders” and the “stop the spreaders”.

Advocates of a slow-the-spread strategy say their chief concern is to protect the healthcare system, and especially to manage demand on our hospitals to ensure no one will be denied an intensive care bed if and when they need one.

The slow the spreaders are armed with the ubiquitous graphical prop showing an alarming, spiky, leptokurtic curve, and a calmer, lower, flatter, platykurtic curve. They reject the on-the-face-of-it more attractive goal of eliminating infections altogether in this country.

Implicit in the slow the spreaders’ case is that lots of Australians – probably many millions – will still be infected. The policy recognises this but aims to spread out the incidence of infections so our hospitals aren’t overwhelmed.

This was the starting position of the Morrison government, influenced by its aversion to interventionist policies. This policy school supports weaker lockdowns.

In contrast, the stop the spreaders urge more aggressive lockdowns, which they argue would be shorter than the alternative, and for elimination rather than suppression of coronavirus. This position was adopted in New Zealand, and advocated most prominently in Australia by the Victorian government and Grattan Institute.

At first some argued that elimination was impossible, but now the balance of policy opinion seems to have shifted closer to a stop-the-spread strategy, at least to test whether zero can be achieved and sustained. To keep its options open, the Commonwealth government has shifted its rhetoric to refer to suppression/elimination.

As Australia succeeded in controlling the spread of the virus and it became clear the health system was not going to be overwhelmed, a new contest came to the fore. This was between those wanting to lift the restrictions sooner (“lift the liders”) and those who wanted to maintain restrictions until new local cases each day were effectively zero (“leave the liders”).

This second conflict mirrored the stop v slow contest.

The Commonwealth sought to lift some – but not all – restrictions sooner rather than later, prompting an unedifying public spat with Victoria about reopening schools.

Some business leaders are voluble lift the liders, arguing the benefits to the economy of a quicker restart. But leave the liders warn of a second wave of infection, which would require reintroduction of restrictions.

At present, the leave the liders appear to be winning, although there is increasing criticism of states such as Victoria, which has rigorously enforced a lockdown and, for example, initially fined an L-plater doing some driving practice with her mother. There’s also been a brief outburst of partisanship in Victoria, with some Liberal opposition frontbenchers arcing up about the ban on golfing.

The hard choice facing the Commonwealth is whether border controls will be relaxed. Pre-pandemic, this government made much political capital from its ability to control the borders. It will be hoist with its own petard if it loses control of the borders and causes a second wave of infections from international transmissions.

The third contest is just beginning to emerge and is about the nature of the post-pandemic world. Here the contest is between those who advocate a “snap back” to the pre-pandemic status quo, versus those who argue the genie is out of the bottle and that some pandemic-prompted changes should stay. The “lessons learned” advocates say, for example, that retaining telehealth is a no-brainer, and that the boost to Newstart should not be wound back, or at least not completely.

The corona wars are sometimes being played out in public, with competing and confusing messages, but are often fought behind the closed doors of the national cabinet. Australia’s federal system means some key decisions rest with the states, such as the extent of lockdowns and school reopenings, but others are the Commonwealth’s responsibility, such as the extent of income support for households and businesses.

The post-pandemic economic recovery will be a joint responsibility, although the states have less money to invest. Expect new corona wars to emerge in the months ahead over investment options, including about which places (aka electorates) are favoured for stimulus.

If you thought the pandemic would end policy wars in Australia, think again.