We know how this story ends. The story ends with Labor passing the Morrison government’s multibillion-dollar stimulus measures sometime on Monday, 23 March 2020. But the journey to that end is worth recording.
The Australian parliament, the people’s house, is so sparse today it echoes. The wide corridors, normally teeming with life during a sitting fortnight, are empty, save the odd solo journey to another office, or the chambers, or the press gallery. The clocks tick, and there are few human voices in competition with that relentless meter.
The MPs representing us in the scaled-back session are splayed across the benches, like hyper-extended chain links. Reporters are confined behind glass. There is hand sanitiser on the tables, near the hansard volumes, and at the entrances to the chambers, the cafeteria, the cabinet suite.
Politicians are, by disposition, creatures of certainty. They are destiny people. This pandemic has stolen their certainty, and yet they must lead. They are called to make decisions, weighing life and death, guided by expertise that is contested minute by minute in the roiling court of public opinion.
Politicians are anxious, like the rest of us. They are deeply flawed, like the rest of us. They are tired. The times feel desperate, and the most honest and self-reflective among our elected representatives must wonder right now whether we have the capacity, either institutionally, and societally, to rise to the demands of this moment.
This nagging doubt hangs over this strange parliamentary sitting, but it is cloaked, masked, by cliches. The Anzac spirit. Team Australia.
There is almost constant motion in Canberra, as a crisis demands, but in the fleeting moments of stillness, emotions brim, and are checked. Scott Morrison asked the nation to pray on Monday. Partisans will mock him for it, but prayer is a deeply ingrained reflex for the prime minister. It is a golden thread through his life.
Morrison, the political product, is oversized, and ubiquitous, but he holds his private self close. When he invokes prayer, he is inviting a glimpse into his private self.
For non-believers, this spiritualism is symptomatic of the prime minister’s fundamental failure of reason. But for Morrison, invoking prayer is an intimate act rather than a crude political calculation – although the signal, the pulse of devotional affirmation, binds him of course to fellow believers, and those believers vote, and he holds those voters close.
On Monday, Morrison looked like a man who wanted to summon the power of prayer to steel his personal resolve, and the national resolve, to buttress himself and the country, because our open, trading nation, has now closed the door to the world.
Parts of the federation are also closing their doors to visitors – restrictions on freedom of movement not seen in this nation for more than a century. Locking down neighbourhoods will be the next logical step.
To protect ourselves, we are shrinking.
Australia, one of the most gregarious nations on earth, is folding in on itself.
Australia has looked to the world throughout recent history as the bedrock of our prosperity. The vast majority of us are not afraid of each other, or the world beyond our continent. We are endlessly curious. We look out.
But now we must look to each other, to the ingenuity and humanity of our fellow countrymen and women; looking but not touching. If we are so inclined, we can also look to a higher power.
Morrison, the miracle prime minister, the believer, has shut the churches. But he urged fellow believers to maintain their rituals. “While you may not be able to go to church, the synagogue, the temple or the mosque, I most certainly call on all people of faith for you to pray. I can assure you, my prayer knees are getting a good workout.”
The Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, understands the decisions he is making now, in this 24 hours, are definitional ones for his still new Labor leadership, even if they don’t net a single vote.
In the chamber on Monday, the Labor leader felt the “silence” of job losses, cascading outside, as the social distancing measures gradually lock down the country.
Those queues outside Centrelink on Monday morning, stretching down city blocks. The gig economy, an amoral byproduct of our current cultural obsession with cut-price convenience, lies in ruins. Big companies quiver on the brink. Thousands of small businesses stand silent as of midday Monday, and some will never reopen their doors.
Anchored in that materialism, Albanese said his overwhelming duty was to be a Labor leader, not an opposition leader. Politicians often create distinctions without a difference for sport, for superficial combat. But Albanese’s separation of his roles was meaningful. It defined the contours of a response.
Labor will try to amend the stimulus package on Monday, but it will not insist on the various suggestions. Albanese is strongly of the view that Morrison has, throughout this coronavirus crisis, been a day late and a dollar short.
But those arguments, or at least the full-throated version of them, can wait for a safer place in the future. Question time on Monday was emblematic of that conversation, that interrogation, that rebuttal, both present and deferred.
“Today we feel the weight of our nation’s need,” Albanese told the chamber on Monday. “Never has our duty been so urgent.
“I lead a Labor team determined to be constructive and Labor stands ready to play our role. We want to help the government to get it right and this parliament to get it right.”