Daniel Lopez: Australia’s incoherent, myopic government and Covid-19 (video)

As part of No Borders News ongoing Covid-19 coverage, we asked Daniel Lopez in Melbourne, Australia to respond to questions about the pandemic. Daniel is member of the Victorian Socialists and a commissioning editor for Jacobin magazine. His first book, Lukács: Praxis and the Absolute, was published by Brill in 2019 and he was part of organizing the inaugural Historical Materialism Melbourne.

To set the stage for Daniel’s analysis, see the video below where Liberal Party (conservative) Prime Minister Scott Morrison scolds Australians as fear mounts and Covid-19 infection rates increase, claiming there is no need to be in “fear of a lockdown or anything like that…” and that stockpiling food is “ridiculous and un-Australian.”

Video credit – Guardian news

No Borders News: Briefly describe the state of the pandemic in your country or city. How many people are infected? How many have died? What do experts expect in the coming weeks in terms of how fast the contagion will spread. 

Daniel Lopez: As I write, the death count is low (in the tens) and the rate of infection is in the hundreds and rising exponentially. So far no one has died for a want of treatment, although there is every reason to expect this will happen very soon. If you combine public and private hospital beds that can function as Intensive Care Units, the total is a little over 2000. Even at the lowest estimate of 20% infection, a potential 250,000 people will need intensive care. This low estimate is almost certainly totally unrealistic, given the weak and contradictory response. Doctors are already discussing triage arrangements and are likely to exclude those over 65 or with serious pre-existing conditions from treatment. (Reference.)

The social and economic impact is being felt as social isolation is kicking in. There have been job losses, especially in hospitality and other service industries and in the tertiary sector. There are shortages of staples in major supermarkets, but this is more the result of panic buying than disruptions to production or supply chains. Experts universally agree that things will get far worse. Australia may resemble Italy. If our public health system is swamped (as it is likely to be), the mortality rate could well rise over 1%.

NBN: What practical measures has your national government taken to respond to the crisis? Have they acted responsibly or were they unprepared? Briefly describe measures your government is taking now to contain the virus and treat people infected with Covid-19. Is there a state of emergency, are schools closed, etc.?

DL: The response has been incoherent, myopic and governed by narrow political prejudice. We presently have a conservative government (Liberal Party-led) with Scott Morrison as Prime Minister. Initially, Morrison introduced a travel ban on China. This was ineffective and motivated largely by xenophobia. Following this, he took no meaningful action for weeks. The federal opposition, the Australian Labor Party, is among the most hollowed out and neoliberal labour/social democratic parties in the world. It has mounted no criticism of Morrison’s actions. It now emphasizes bipartisanship and trust in the authorities.

When it became clear how serious the pandemic would be, Morrison continued to drag his feet. He imposed more travel bans – but these, too, were informed more by xenophobia than by public health concerns.

State governments (often ALP led) have been slow to cancel the largest events (i.e., sporting events). The Federal government was also slow to do this. Schools are still open. Universities only closed haphazardly. Large hospitality venues (i.e., casinos) are still open. No measures were taken to prevent transmission on public transport. There is a state of emergency, but very few effective emergency measures. There was virtually no public education campaign; the instructions to the public are often incoherent and dangerous. There are very few test kits available and no plans to increase the nation’s stock of respirators. Massive queues have formed outside hospitals, which are self-evidently vectors of infection.

It is apparent that the Federal government is more interested in protecting large businesses than the public. Their approach resembles that of Boris Johnson in the UK, to some extent, although they have not justified it publicly in terms of herd immunity.

NBN: How has your health care system responded to the crisis? What are your health care system’s greatest weaknesses? What are its greatest strengths?

DL: We are fortunate to have a reasonably well funded public health system with a public healthcare provider, Medicare. The system, proportionate to population, has been defunded for decades. Compared to the UK’s NHS, our system is inferior. But compared to most equivalent nations, it is reasonable. There is a parallel private system that is often financially unviable and whose efficacy is sometimes questioned. Over the last few decades, the principle of free healthcare has been eroded. For many (especially those without concession entitlements) there is a “gap” to be paid – i.e., a difference between out of pocket expenses and rebates. This means that in practice, healthcare is often not free. Further, many vital areas (such as dental care) are not covered at all.

Even so, if an average person requires hospitalization, they would not expect to leave hospital burdened with debt. They would also expect a relatively high standard of care. The Australian health research sector is robust so treatment, precluding financial barriers (i.e., very expensive technology) tends to be world standard.

NBN: Describe the official political response to Covid-19 in your country from the far-right and conservative parties, to liberal and social democrat parties, and the parties of the left if applicable. 

The Australian far right has not attracted headlines, at least not that I’ve noticed, over the pandemic. One Nation is the most important party. It’s a right-wing, racist populist party, but it isn’t fascist. The fascist far right exists, but hasn’t developed to a point where they have a national political presence. They also haven’t organized many actions for a while.

The Liberal-National Coalition (two parties that traditionally share government, with the Nationals as distant junior partner) is the main right-wing party. Their position is essentially: “we are following the advice of the experts while being reasonable and measured”. They have encouraged Australians to be Australian. There is some evidence they have stepped things up in the last day or two, but their response (described above) is incoherent and likely to lead to thousands of avoidable deaths. They’ve given everyone on welfare $750. It won’t go far.

The ALP’s response can be summed up as: “bipartisanship is very important and we agree with the Coalition, as should you”. I’m not exaggerating.

State ALP governments have taken a little more action; they’ve started to talk about payments for businesses and workers who lose income.

The main left party is The Australian Greens. It is among the most left-wing of the Green parties internationally. It has a number of senators and one lower-house MP. It also has a presence in every state parliament. The Greens also have a new leader, Adam Bandt, who has shifted the party’s positioning well to the left. He has copied Sanders’ and Corbyn’s positioning, but without the democratic socialist label and without the same talent for going after a class enemy. He has, for example, called for paid leave for casual workers or a moratorium on rents. He’s also positioning in a quite consciously pro-working class way. This is all well and good and seems to be reasonably effective at engaging sympathizers – but it has no real impact on national politics. The Greens are limited by a their lack of a working class base of support, a lack of activists under 35 and their disinclination to identify with socialism in even the most moderate way. They also have a significant “Tories on bikes” wing. It’s hard to see how Bandt will transform this.

There is no significant party further to the left. Victorian Socialists is very small and has been somewhat inactive for the last year (although there are those of us who are trying to change this). The various socialist sects, most important of which is Socialist Alternative, have reacted sharply and loudly, in their limited omain. Socialist Alternative has cancelled their annual conference, divided their branches in half, moved away from face-to-face activism and demonstrations and seems to be bunkering down. I suspect they will be very shaken: this will disrupt the activity that keeps them alive.

NBN: How have trade unions responded to the crisis? Especially public sector, education, and health care unions? 

Some have put out statements to the left of the ALP, but haven’t taken any meaningful action. Others have pushed mildly for paid leave for casuals, occasionally extracting an agreement from this or that business, but only on a moral basis – not after struggle. If this were important, I could research further. The tameness of the unions’ reaction is unsurprising, however. Australian unions are in a very weak position historically and their leadership is almost universally deeply reluctant to fight.

NBN: How have social movements (student, feminist, ecological, immigrant, indigenous, etc.) responded to the crisis? 

These movements don’t meaningfully exist. Insofar as there are a handful of NGOs or barely existent campaign groups, they haven’t done much. There is a general sentiment that demonstrations should not be called for health reasons. Spokespeople for Indigenous Australians have highlighted the specific impact on Aboriginal people. The Unemployed Workers Union (funded by the trade unions, but essentially a halfway house between a union of unemployed people and a NGO with a very activist ethos) is an exception: they’ve been quite visible and audible in arguing for the unemployed. Specifically, they are calling on unemployment benefits to be raised, and for onerous obligations on unemployed people to be cancelled. This has received media attention. There is talk of a rent strike, but I see little evidence that it is anything other than a hashtag.

NBN: Are there any efforts to make demands for social justice, national health care, emergency economic measures for unemployment pay, stopping rent and debt payments, etc.?

The Greens have raised these demands. They are very central to Adam Bandt’s positioning. But there is no clear pathway to achieving them, especially given that The Greens have very little influence over the trade union movement.

NBN: Any final comments about the impact of the Covid-19 crisis and how you think it will impact national politics in the coming weeks and months? 

Australia has been hit by two enormous crises in the space of a few months: the Christmas bushfires and now this. If I were going to prophesise, I would say that nothing will be the same after this year. Yet, it’s hard to see where political change will come from, given the profound impasse I describe above. But there will be rage, incomprehension, rapidly worsening inequality and crisis, leading to severe social dislocation. Everyone will know someone who has been directly impacted. It’s conceivable this will lead to various forms of struggle (wildcat strikes, demonstrations, etc.). But this is hard to predict. There will be a very immediate and gripping need for deep state intervention to restart the economy.

There is already a degree of bitterness among under 35s (among over 35s, there’s a spectrum ranging between self-satisfied complacency and a growing, yet still dim, awareness that everything is going very badly). I think it inevitable that the percentage of the population desiring a sharp shift to the left will increase and become more radical. I remain convinced there is a huge audience for a DSA-type project in Australia, but at present, there is no one there to fill that market. As I said above, there are a few of us who are trying.

I think at some point, there will be a push back by certain unions. They are approaching a state where their existence will be at stake. The United Workers’ Union is the most important union to watch.

On the other side, it’s most likely that the far-right will grow. There is already a deep current of authoritarianism in the center-right’s approach; civil liberties have been eroded for a long time and racism has gained ground. I also believe that the current hegemonic arrangements are deeply unstable. It’s anyone’s guess how the ALP will go. Probably they will change leader before the next election, choosing someone more decisive but with the same policies.