OPINION | Lessons from virus and fires


Crispin Hull


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Coronavirus, COVID-19.
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During the bushfires and now the Covid-19 crisis did you notice that when it came to delivering bad news, it was the paid public servants, not the elected politicians, who were put before the cameras?

When there was a macho announcement – calling out the troops or imposing a travel ban – the Prime Minister was in front of the cameras.

Politicians want to be seen to be doing something. They do not want to be seen as purveyors of bad news. But they also want to be seen in the face of a crisis to be dealing with it professionally and competently.

Maybe something can come of these crises. More people will see the importance of several things that we have been losing in our democracy in the past 30 years.

  • Government receiving frank and fearless advice.
  • The delivery of accurate, unspun and full information to the public.
  • A robust and fair public-health system.
  • Properly funded and respect for science and research.

In China, the doctor who first alerted people about the disease was initially punished by the regime. In totalitarian regimes, anyone suggesting that anything might be wrong is treated as a subversive traitor. Valuable time was lost.

Similarly in Iran, there was initial cover-up, on political and religious grounds. The regime did not want to spoil the celebration of the 40 th anniversary of the revolution and did not want to prevent religious pilgrims from entering or leaving the city of Qom. As a consequence, Iran has the third-highest number of deaths from Covid-19 in the world.

In Australia, Britain and the US we have seen intimidation and subjugation of public servants so they are cowed into only delivering what the Minister, Prime Minister, Cabinet Secretary or President wants to hear.

But without a culture of frank and fearless advice, the whole country is put at risk.

Even with frank and fearless advice (as has been given on fires and Covid-19), we had some elements of spin and politicisation. The slow federal response to the fires can be partly explained by a reluctance to admit that climate change obviously made them worse than usual. The quick and big response to the Covid-19 can be partly explained by the Government’s comfort with tough border control.

The importance of accurate, unspun and full information going to the public has also become more obvious. Alas, it did not happen in Australia with the fires nor in the US with Covid-19.

The idea, promoted by climate-change-denying politicians that the Greens stopped the off-season hazard reduction off took off like – well – wildfire. This is despite fire chiefs having warned governments that climate change had narrowed the window for safe burning off and would make fires worse and despite the fact that the Greens do not hold power in any local government (the level that directs burning off).

In the US, the Administration has put Vice-President Mike Pence in charge of the Covid-19 taskforce and ordered that no government scientist talk to the public. President Donald Trump used the word “hoax” and “virus” in the same sentence and accused Democrats of wanting more deaths.

Pence was responsible as Governor of Indiana of running down the public health system so that in 2015 it was unable to cope with a major HIV outbreak and he once said that smoking did not cause cancer or heart disease. The appointment was not the way to build the necessary public trust needed to counter the outbreak of disease.

People would rather get information from an impartial scientist than an ignorant fool who doesn’t know what he is talking about.

Under-playing or over-playing a disease outbreak for political purposes – “there’s nothing wrong on our watch” or “look how tough we are” – breeds complacency and destroys trust so that important true messages are not believed. Look what has happened with the ani-vaccine nonsense; people died.

Maybe this outbreak will finally silence these deluded idiots. Maybe in the face of this danger more people might give science the respect it deserves.

We must restore and bolster public health systems and increase basic research. The market is valuable a lot of the time. But often it fails. The privatisation of the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories in 1994 looks pretty sick now. It was set up in 1916 when World War I isolated Australia from supplies of vaccines, serums and antitoxins.

And like big Pharma everywhere else it looked to maximise profit for shareholders rather than delivering best health outcomes. On its first day in 1994 it traded at $2.48 a share. This week it was at $306.14 a share.

Yes, CSL and others are now working on a vaccine. Nothing like a big scare for big pharma to sense a profit. But they will lose interest once the scare dies down. Big pharma is generally not interested in the long-term basic research into viruses, diseases of the Third World, vaccines and public health generally when they can turn a bigger profit delivering marginally useful drugs to the oversupplied top end of the market.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison talks about the “Canberra bubble” as if government decision-making is wrapped up and not delivering to wider Australia. But it is in his hands to pop that bubble and he shows no sign of doing it because he does not understand its true nature.

The federal bureaucracy is not the problem it is the solution.

The Canberra bubble is not the federal bureaucracy. Rather it is the secretive corporate donors; the armies of unaccountable ministerial advisers who are only interested in political survival not the public good; and the corrupt and wasteful misallocation of public money for short-term political advantage.

Corporate, cash and anonymous donations should be banded. All donations and donors should be notified on a website in real time and capped at say $1000.

Let’s cull ministerial staffs and encourage the Public Service to give impartial policy advice. In 2017 the Prime Minister had 58 staff averaging $233,000 and the Opposition Leader had 39 staff averaging $193,000. It is now more. And every frontbencher also has a bevy of staffers.

Worse, about half of the members of federal parliament are former staffers. This is the true Canberra bubble.

They pander to their corporate donors and direct money to marginal seats. We need a strong anti-corruption body to inoculate us against the spread of this anti-democratic virus.

Maybe the fire and virus crises will cause people to demand these changes. Their lives might depend on it.

Crispin Hull is a current columnist and former Editor of the Canberra Times.

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