A certain rhythm is starting to emerge in the way we deal with the coronavirus at an official level, and that’s going to change the way we see our politicians.
There are the daily updates from state leaders about the numbers of people infected and dying (though as numbers soar there sometimes seems to be less immediate detail about the wheres and whens of these cases).
At the federal level, the political cycle will work around the two meetings of the national cabinet — the combined federal and state leaders — on Tuesday nights and Friday mornings.
“We think that is a good rhythm of meetings to ensure we can consider all of the recommendations that are coming up to our various agencies,” the Prime Minister said on Friday afternoon.
So press conferences on Wednesday mornings and Friday afternoons will become the place where the latest moves in the rolling attempt to deal with this crisis — both health and economic — will mostly emerge.
What we are now seeing, as the process settles into more of a rhythm, is a combination of announcements of decisions and the foreshadowing of ones that are likely to be confirmed at the next national cabinet meeting.
On Friday, for example, it was foreshadowed that the states were working on questions of how to provide some relief for tenants while acknowledging that this posed problems for landlords.
The chief medical officer foreshadowed an expansion in the groups that would be tested. And, in what sounds like it could be a final blow for domestic tourism, the foreshadowing “ahead of the school holidays” of advice to avoid non-essential domestic travel.
Then there were the actual decisions that would be regarded as extraordinary in normal times — like putting off the federal budget until October, and increasing the distance between people at “indoor, non-essential gatherings” of less than 100 people.
All these things require some time to absorb and, obviously, a gradual step-up in restrictions.
Frightened people want definitive information
There are breakouts from this rhythm, of course.
This week saw the staged announcements from the Reserve Bank on providing a guaranteed pool of cheap money for small business on Thursday, then the announcement from the banks about interest rate relief for small business — and mortgage holders in some cases — on Friday.
More announcements are expected on Sunday about measures to help support people over the next six months too, ahead of the brief glimpse of an historically unprecedented sitting of Parliament with fewer numbers on Monday.
The supply and demand for politicians providing gratuitous commentary on anything that moves, which has become such a staple of the news cycle in recent years, is possibly drying up just now.
Frightened people want definitive information, which is not something there is an abundance of right now, and even less trust in what they do hear.
The Prime Minister also had a lot of policy decisions to announce on Wednesday: declaring a biosecurity emergency, a rescue package for the airlines, bans on indoor gatherings of more than 100 people, restrictions on visits to remote communities and aged-care facilities.
Once again, each of them on a normal day would be a huge story.
Large queues have become a fixture at supermarkets as the pandemic has led to bare shelves. (Antonette Collins)
But what seemed to cut through most were Morrison’s remarks about Australians’ unseemly panic buying of recent weeks.
“I am seeking Australians’ common sense cooperation with these very clear advisory positions,” Morrison said. “Stop doing it. It’s ridiculous. It’s un-Australian, and it must stop.”
It might have cut through in a headline sense, but based on the anecdotal evidence from most local shopping centres the number of people who heeded the Prime Minister was zero.
People don’t believe or trust politicians
You can speculate about whether anyone could cut through when a crowd becomes so irrational.
But there has been plenty of reason to reflect amid this crisis on whether we are reaping the outcome of a degeneration in the standard of politics in recent decades: as so many polls have shown, people just don’t believe or trust politicians.
That raises questions of how well-equipped we are to deal with the crisis that confronts us.
What is the leadership and organisational capacity of our political leaders in a national emergency? What is the capacity of our public infrastructure after years of being ground down by funding cuts? And how might this crisis change the way politics operates for the better or worse?
It’s not just voters who think politicians see politics just as a game. There are certainly politicians who have seen it that way in the past.
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Long before the current crisis, there’s been plenty of commentary about form rather than substance, about imagery.
As someone observed this week, the thing that seemed to sting the Prime Minister the most out of the summer bushfire disaster were the images of him sitting on a beach in Hawaii and of people refusing to shake his hand.
But extraordinary times like these have a tendency to strip out much of the normal in politics.
Leaders are forced to do things differently. And they do. Whether they do it well or not is a separate question.
Former Treasury head Ken Henry saw multiple governments go through various forms of crisis between the 1980s and the noughties.
He told 7.30 this week that “there’s something in the Australian character that is distrustful of — even perhaps cynical of — people in positions of power and authority”.
“This is probably particularly true of political leaders and that’s understandable. After all, most of the time, our political leaders seem to be playing politics rather than leading in the national interest,” Dr Henry said.
“But in times of crisis, things are very different,” he continued. “I can tell you from three decades of advising successive governments in how to deal with a multiple of crises that in times of crisis, our politicians do tend to focus on the national interest.”
It’s not a game anymore
Dr Andrew Charlton, who was an adviser to Kevin Rudd during the GFC, said policymakers are now having to repeatedly play catch-up with a crisis that is evolving extremely quickly.
“It’s only been a week since the last stimulus and it already feels out of date given how quickly events are moving,” he notes.
The Opposition has continually called for faster action. And the government and authorities are under intense pressure to follow other jurisdictions on issues like school closures and lockdowns.
On top of the judgements that must be made about what is the best thing to do are judgements about trying to stage a response, not in the sense of waiting for a good news cycle as our politicians have wanted to do in the past, but in terms of trying to ensure people get the message, but, alternatively don’t see the changing message as a sign of indecision.
Charlton says “it’s a challenging dilemma for the government, because it does have a lot of information and probably more information than the public on many issues”.
“And it has to plan for the worst-case scenario, but needs to be careful not to broadcast that worst-case scenario too widely, lest it creates panic.”
This time around, too, it has been every country for itself in response to this virus, so the messages from around are adding to the uncertainty.
It’s certainly not a game anymore.
Laura Tingle is 7.30’s chief political correspondent.