Given the seriousness of the times, it seems ridiculous for the Morrison government to be mired in whether or not Australia’s coronavirus vaccination rollout either is, or is not a race.
But here we are. Mired.
Just for the record, the vaccination rollout clearly is a race. A race to save lives and livelihoods. A race with real world consequences.
But over the weekend, we were told it was not a race by Michael McCormack and Dan Tehan – not because it wasn’t a race, but because that wasn’t the official language.
“Is this rollout a race or not” persisted on Tuesday, when the aged care minister, Richard Colbeck, professed himself very comfortable with the current pace of proceedings even though he wasn’t sure how many workers in aged care had actually been vaccinated.
Colbeck’s level of comfort seemed rash given he is the minister responsible for safeguarding wellbeing in residential aged care; hundreds of elderly people died during outbreaks last year; there is currently an outbreak in Victoria serious enough to have locked down the state. His evidence base for the comfort was incredibly thin. In Colbeck’s shoes, I’d be pretty anxious.
Given Colbeck’s comfort level was easily, unfavourably, contrasted with the less comforting reality of a rollout running stubbornly behind schedule, and facts that kept changing, and being corrected – over in the House of Representatives, Scott Morrison (recently back from New Zealand) was asked whether it remained his view that vaccinating Australians was “not a race”.
Morrison faced this question because the reason half the government is out saying Australia’s coronavirus vaccination program “isn’t a race” is because the prime minister made this observation several times. So if ministers said something different, then they would be contradicting him.
The prime minister told the chamber he had made this particular observation because that’s what Brendan Murphy said (Murphy being the former chief medical officer and currently the secretary of the Department of Health).
“I affirm the remarks of the secretary of health,” the prime minister said.
Given this commanding “I said it because Brendan said it” performance possessed some of the hallmarks of a crafty child crouching behind a larger stationary object during a game of hide and seek – and given some heckling ensued – Morrison crept from affirming Murphy’s view to eventually sharing it.
Morrison declared he was all for expertise. The prime minister noted Labor might want to be churlish about Murphy’s deep knowledge but he didn’t intend to be churlish about it. He was fully on board with it.
Murphy, meanwhile, was in front of a Senate estimates committee. Naturally, the prime minister’s abiding respect for expertise bounced straight from question time to the committee room in which Murphy was pinned to a chair.
The Labor senator Murray Watt asked Murphy whether he was aware that Morrison “has blamed you as the source” of the vaccination program is not a race statement.
Murphy told Watt he had said something to that effect “way back in January” when Australia was at the point of going through the various vaccine approvals from the Therapeutic Goods Administration.
“I think I did say it is not a race at that time,” Murphy said.
But he noted things were quite different now because “we’re going … we’re fired up and doing it as quickly as possible”. Murphy explained he hadn’t persisted with the usage because times were different.
Watt pointed out that Morrison had blamed him “six times” during question time. “How does it feel to be thrown under the bus by the prime minister,” Watt asked.
Murphy didn’t accept the premise of Watt’s question. He had said it, in January, but “it’s not a term I use any more, we’ve moved on, I’ve moved on”.
Murphy noted he did not tell the prime minister how to communicate with the public; that would be an overstep. “So that’s all his own work?” Watt wondered.
Murphy insisted that the official message, right now, was to encourage Australians to turn up and be vaccinated. He contended that declaring that the rollout was “not a race” was not inconsistent with telling people to turn up and be vaccinated.
With due deference to Murphy and his expertise, those two lines of reasoning – hurry up, chop chop, but don’t rush – are, on the face of it, not all that consistent.
For good measure, Watt pointed out the message about whether or not to get vaccinated now or later wasn’t all that consistent either.
Now all this rhetorical nonsense is, on its face, two-fifths of bugger all.
You would waste no time on this in ordinary circumstances.
But truth is messaging matters in the middle of a public health emergency.
What leaders say informs community behaviour.
This whole stupid episode has become emblematic because it neatly expresses where we find ourselves. The silly “not a race” locution, and the perverse digging in behind it, tells us a lot about what’s gone wrong with the vaccine rollout.
Murphy saying in January the rollout wasn’t a race was reasonable in context. He was saying it’s important to make sure the vaccines are safe – a proposition that no reasonable person would disagree with.
But at every point, Australia’s vaccination program has lacked the requisite urgency.
Australia did not lock up supply fast enough.
The states should have been part of the rollout earlier, but they weren’t, for political reasons.
Morrison put the national cabinet on a “war footing” to undo his mistake, then he seemed to lose interest.
Now, with winter upon us, we’ve hit another serious outbreak, and the Victorian government is correct to say it would be a lot easier to manage if the targets the Morrison government set for the vaccination program had been met.
But, instead, the Morrison government finds itself constantly a few beats behind, with its story not quite straight.