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If We Steer Clear Of Delusions, Australia Has A Chance To Rewrite Itself

The Morrison government is radically reframing post-Thatcher conservative thinking. In the final analysis, a nation is not its economy; it is its people.

Scott Morrison and Josh Frydenberg, acting apparently with little argument between them, are pouring hundreds of billions of borrowed dollars into the money-pit now called Australia.

And most people are cheering.

There is only one justification for the spending. They want to keep Australians alive. Yes, even the frail elderly and those, much younger, whose health is in some way compromised.

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The Green Left rallying cry has long been 'People before Profits.' In this age of wonders, the Coalition has now taken that as an unspoken slogan. Or perhaps it is simply acknowledging that without people there are no profits.

Josh Frydenberg and Scott Morrison have announced billions in coronavirus spend. Image: AAP

Of course, there are doubters.

The Institute of Public Affairs is a significant political player. It champions free markets. It keeps its donor list secret but known funders in the past have included Gina Rinehart, Rupert Murdoch and big tobacco.

In earlier times, former Labor leader Mark Latham derided the IPA as the “Institute for Paid Advocacy.” He wasn’t wrong.

At the weekend, IPA policy director Gideon Rozner fronted a social media video complaining Scott Morrison’s policies were depriving Australians of a “thriving economy” and a “vibrant society.”

Worse, he was leaving us all with an “absence of hope.”

Without quoting disease experts, a pandemic model, or any supporting evidence at all, Rozner declared “the time to start ending this lockdown is now... it is time to start returning to normal.”

But normal is no longer available. Unless it is the normal that descended on the hospitals of Italy -- more than 60 doctors dead at the last count -- and which is now descending on the United States.

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The IPA is an employment waiting room for a certain kind of Liberal bound for federal Parliament. The boyish Mr Rozner does not appear to lack self-belief. He evidently thinks he knows more about pandemic management than the country’s chief medical officers, the federal cabinet or the recently-instituted national cabinet.

University of Sydney modelling indicates the social distancing, 'stay-at-home' message will succeed but only if we’re determined to stick with it.

Australians are following social distancing, but more needs to be done. Image: AAP

Acknowledging there is still much that isn’t known about this novel coronavirus, including its true infection rate, the USYD team reckons 70 percent compliance with social distancing rules will fail to stop the spread of the disease. At 80 percent, the arithmetic changes in our favour.

Indeed, if we can achieve 90 percent compliance, the virus will be stopped in its tracks within about 13 weeks. We will still need vigilance against a resurgence as normal life creeps back, but the modelling suggests it is beatable.

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The Devil In The Detail Of The JobKeeper Package

The A$130 billion payment will benefit six million of Australia’s 13 million employees through their employers.

Melbourne and Sydney road traffic data indicates it is down about 87 percent on the pre-virus normal. So the message is getting through. And the all-important infection “curve” is showing early signs of flattening.

The modelling available to the national cabinet has still not been made public, but we know it must be somewhat similar. Otherwise, the government would not be acting as it is.

Let’s be fair. No-one likes where we are.

Shops are closing down. Image: Hugh Riminton

Shops on my high street are shutting down. Most of us are working from home, if we’re lucky enough to be working at all. Businesses that aren’t closing are shortening hours and making arrangements to shorten pay. Many workers are accepting new terms to stay employed.

No-one knows when a vaccine may come. The optimists, led by the U.S. President, speak of four to five months. The optimists among scientists speak of 18 months. The pessimists among scientists warn of many years.

The $130B Job Keeper payments that are sustaining tendrils of hope through shattered sectors of our economy will be exhausted within six months. That, says the Prime Minister, is the design. Will we be back to full employment in six months? Will businesses be back and humming?

You would be optimistic to think so.

Bondi Beach is closed until further notice. Image: AAP.

COVID-19 is already taking hold in the slums of India. Parts of Mumbai have a population density of more than 250,000 per square kilometre. No social distancing there.

Australia, with a slight head start and now a broadly unified national system of management, is better placed than most to still have an economy at the end of it all. We start from an almost-balanced budget — no disadvantage at a time like this.

But we will emerge into a world where manufacturing supply chains have broken down or are being remade. Numerous weak states may be bankrupt and failed. New wars are probable, and the global power balance will have shifted in ways that are difficult to predict.

The United States, with its health system proven demonstrably not to be the best in the world, will enter election season with a president who appears unfit for the task and a challenger who appears simply unfit. The state of the union looks unusually precarious.

For Australia, the choices are unpleasant but relatively simple.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Image: AAP

Shut down to squeeze the rate of spread. Find the best in ourselves to support each other. Recognise governments are breaking the habits of generations to keep some blood flow in the arteries.

We can do this. The signs are that most Australians are doing it.

For all the grim tidings, there is something invigorating about the challenge. This is a time for strong spirits and generous instincts.

It is a time for self-discipline. It is not a time for delusions.

Listen to Hugh Riminton and Peter Van Onselen on the latest episode of The Professor and The Hack

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