Scott Morrison responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by announcing the creation of a national cabinet composed of the leaders of commonwealth, state and territory governments.
It’s not a national cabinet of the kind that was presided over by Neville Chamberlain and later Winston Churchill in Britain during World War II, which consisted of Conservative, Liberal and Labour ministers.
But it’s the only national cabinet Australia has ever had — despite a prevailing myth to the contrary. During the early years of World War II, prime minister Robert Menzies was interested in forming a national government comprising the Coalition and Labor Party. But Labor leader John Curtin rejected the offer. An Advisory War Council was formed with bipartisan membership, but it was only an advisory body and had no power.
When Curtin became prime minister in October 1941, he declined to form a national government. The issue is well covered in Paul Hasluck’s two-part official war history.
Morrison’s initiative has led to a clear chain of command. The Australian Protection Principal Committee is the key decision-making body for health emergencies. It is comprised of state and territory chief health officers and is chaired by Australia’s Chief Medical Officer — Professor Brendan Murphy. The CMO reports to the Prime Minister and the Prime Minister presides over the national cabinet.
As John M. Barry points out in his book, The Great Influenza (Viking Penguin, 2004), in Australia the death rates in 1918-19 of what was called the Spanish flu (H1N1 virus) “were far less than in any other Westernised nation on Earth”. However, Barry added “it was lethal enough” — with some 15,000 deaths in a population of around 5 million.
Australia’s relative success in handling H1N1 in 1918-19 turned on the nation’s physical isolation and the implementation of strict quarantine measures with respect to ship arrivals. It appears, however, that Australia’s leaders a century ago were not as united as today in how to handle the health crisis. In her entry in The Oxford Companion to Australian History, Anthea Hyslop referred to “tensions between federal and state governments” as to the proper responses to the pandemic.
The formation of Scott Morrison’s national cabinet has led to a situation whereby the various governments are broadly united concerning the proper response to COVID-19. This was evident in the Prime Minister’s announcement on Wednesday. At times, some states and territories will adopt some individual responses — as with Tasmania’s decision to effectively close its borders.
Australia has a clear line of advice as to how to respond to COVID-19, from the AHPC to the CMO to the national cabinet, which acts in accordance with expert advice. Or do we?
It seems that early this week Dr Norman Swan, the producer and presenter of The Health Report on ABC Radio National, put in a claim to provide alternative medical advice to Australians on the public broadcaster.
Now Swan is a medically qualified journalist. He graduated from the University of Aberdeen and obtained postgraduate qualifications in paediatrics. But, despite how he is presented by the ABC, Swan is not an expert in infection control. On Monday, Swan was interviewed by Michael Rowland on the ABC TV News Breakfast program.
He proceeded to give the nation a lecture about what Australia’s response to COVID-19 should be, including the advice that “we’ve got to shut down schools”.
This was soon embraced by Rowland, who tweeted out Swan’s advice that “state governments should stop dicking around and close all schools immediately”.
Pretty clear, then? Not really.
On Tuesday, Rowland interviewed Professor Marylouise McLaws, a researcher in infection prevention and control in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of NSW. She told Rowland that “we can possibly keep schools open” but need to keep a “really close eye” on the situation.
Then on Wednesday, RN Breakfast presenter Fran Kelly, who clearly believes that schools should close immediately, interviewed Professor Tania Sorrell (director of the Marie Bashir Institute for Infectious Diseases and Biosecurity at Sydney University). In response to a question, Sorrell said that “medically speaking, or epidemiologically speaking, it’s hard to make this case” that children should be kept “away from school at this point in time”.
It so happened that on Monday, shortly after Swan’s rant over the lack of school closures, ABC chair Ita Buttrose criticised commonwealth and state leaders for not delivering “a more consistent public health message”.
It’s not clear that this is the proper role for an ABC chair.
In any event, Buttrose overlooked the fact that the public broadcaster itself is giving out inconsistent advice about the proper response to the pandemic. For example, on schools, do you follow the advice of the non-expert Swan or the experts McLaws and Sorrell? — all three of whom spoke to ABC audiences.
The situation was made all the more confusing on Wednesday when Swan indicated to ABC 7.30 viewers a certain degree of doubt that was not present two days earlier. He now acknowledged the proposal to close schools “doesn’t take account of parents who are health workers not showing up to work because they have childcare responsibilities”.
He added “so it’s not all or nothing”. But it was on Monday.
ABC TV’s Q&A program did not even cover the emerging COVID-19 crisis in its first three programs for the year. On Monday, however, its program, titled “The Corona Challenge”, was a pile-on against the Coalition minister Richard Colbeck, who received scant protection from presenter Hamish Macdonald.
One panellist suggested that Swan had become “a single source of truth … for many people” on COVID-19. She later went on to state that schools should stay open in order to protect grandparents from the virus — despite the fact that Swan had a different “source of truth” on this issue.
At times of pandemic, which has immediate effects on life and death, it makes sense to listen to the medical experts. The evidence suggests Australia’s first national cabinet is doing just fine at a time of great difficulty and fluidity.
Gerard Henderson is executive director of the Sydney Institute.
His Media Watch Dog blog can be found at www.theaustralian.com.au