For everyone The lowdown: So, what is government for?

With a prime minister like Morrison, you could well be forgiven for asking, writes MYKE BARTLETT.

As COVID cases skyrocketed across the East Coast, pushing essential services to breaking point and emptying supermarket shelves, many Australians felt abandoned. Getting tested – the most important step in controlling an outbreak – became impossible.

Rather than expanding the provision of PCR testing – which is heavily reliant on private pathology services – the federal Morrison government changed the conditions under which people would need to get tested, meaning almost no one was now eligible for a COVID test.

Being denied access to PCR tests meant that the tens of thousands of people at risk of COVID (or already infected) were forced to rely on Rapid Antigen Tests (RATs) – a cheap self-testing kit that, unlike the more definitive PCR test, had to be paid for by the patient.

Governments around the world have been sourcing large numbers of these tests and supplying them free to households, to make it easier for anyone worried they might have COVID to find out before they infect others. Australia’s did not. We have had to buy our own – if we can find them. As numbers surged, RATs ran out. Horrendous price gouging saw Australians paying up to $70 per test. (The wholesale price is generally around $4.)

Morrison’s position is the conservative standard: big on individual responsibility, small on government interference.

When pushed on what his government would do to ease the crisis, the Prime Minister shrugged. “You can’t just make everything free,” Morrison told Channel 7’s Sunrise program. “When someone tells you they want to make something free, someone’s always going to pay for it, and [in this case] it’s going to be you.”

It was a throwaway remark that spoke volumes about Morrison’s view of government. It’s all about the economy, just not your economy.

On the most simplistic level, the Australian government provides many essential services, largely funded by taxpayers. In this way, we help ensure universal access. This means that if you get sick, you can go to hospital, even if you’re poor. You are guaranteed a quality education, whether or not you can afford to spend thousands on school fees.

Yes, if you’re wealthy (and don’t have a canny accountant), you may pay more in tax, which may fund some services you personally don’t use. But most reasonable Australians still agree that government has a duty to keep all of its citizens safe, not merely pave the way for those who can afford to look after themselves.

Providing universal access to RATs would have been an easy win for the Coalition government; one that would have made a profound difference to the lives of potential voters. Yet, he refused. His position was the conservative standard: big on individual responsibility, small on government interference. Except he’s landed the top job at a time when, more than ever, we have needed a government that recognises its responsibilities and finds a way to properly care for its citizens.

Morrison is less interested in looking after everyday Australians, and more concerned with clearing the way for business to make a tidy profit.

As the RATs crisis made clear, Morrison is less interested in looking after everyday Australians, and more concerned with clearing the way for business to make a tidy profit. The inevitable price gouging was the market working as it should – greater scarcity means higher prices. Good for business, if not for the customer.

The problem for Morrison is that his hands-off approach (remember when he didn’t stick around to help out with the bushfires because he doesn’t “hold a hose, mate”) is that it only works while everything is basically fine. When faced with the worst global health crisis in living memory, different principles surely apply. 

The chaos experienced in the first months of 2022 is a taster of what we could have experienced two years ago had state government leaders not over-ruled the federal response and enforced their own restrictions. While case numbers remain high, and people continue to die (no matter what Barnaby Joyce thinks), arguably the only thing saving Morrison’s bacon has been the prevalence of the milder Omicron strain.

Despite constant trash-talking from Morrison about Victoria’s response, we did succeed in eradicating COVID back in 2020. The relatively low number of deaths Australia experienced up until this year demonstrates the effectiveness of a government that actually does things – the type Morrison explicitly doesn’t believe in.

Imagine if the Morrison government had spent the past two years preparing for a serious COVID outbreak – planning for disrupted supply lines and ensuring Australians would have access to essential medications, tests and care. How different would the start of 2022 have looked? Especially for the most vulnerable in our society, including those in aged care, and their families.

With a government that is against intervention, against regulation, against preparation, against taking responsibility – basically, against policy, except those that allow market forces to flourish (no matter the circumstances) – you could well ask what government is for. Or, more specifically, what this government is for.

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