Plagued: Australian’s Two Years Of Hell – The Inside Story
3 March 2023
By: John Roskam
By John Roskam
In April 2022, a month before the federal election Gideon Rozner, the Director of Policy at the Institute of Public Affairs, was a guest on the ABC’s Q+A program. When asked about the legacy of Scott Morrison as Prime Minister, Rozner stated:
My concern is what Scott Morrison has done to the Liberal Party and to liberalism, to the values that I subscribe to. My concern is the fact that the Morrison government has embroiled Australia in a $1 trillion debt, that it’s ramped up online censorship, that it made it a criminal offence for Australian citizens, during the pandemic, to re-enter their own country, rendering them stateless.
And I have to say, Scott Morrison would have to be, in my opinion, the worst prime minister the Liberal Party has put up since Billy McMahon, except Billy McMahon had principles.
No doubt some would disagree with Rozner. It was said of another prime minister, Edmund Barton, that he ‘may be seen as a great statesman, or as one of those lightweights who occasionally float to the top’. Which, if either description fits Morrison, will be debated in the years ahead.
‘Plagued’ by Simon Benson and Geoff Chambers, journalists at The Australian newspaper, recounts two years of the federal government’s response to Covid from January 2020 to Morrison’s election defeat in May 2022. ‘Plagued’ is engrossing and painful. Not because it isn’t well-written – it is. Benson and Chambers have a deep understanding of politics and Canberra, and they succeed at putting the process of government at the time into both a global and domestic context.
What makes ‘Plagued’ difficult is reading about Scott Morrison, someone who was completely ill suited to the prime minister during a crisis. He demonstrated regard only for his own political fortunes. Morrison was so forthcoming with Benson and Chambers that some in the Labor Party wanted the former prime minister investigated on whether he unlawfully revealed classified information. It’s interesting to speculate whether Morrison has regretted his participation. He emerges from the book a diminished figure.
The access to the machinations of government at the country’s highest levels includes details of discussions in cabinet meetings, what Morrison said to his wife Jenny, the brand of whisky he and the Victorian premier Daniel Andrews drank together, and the television programs he and the federal treasurer Josh Frydenberg enjoyed.
Shortly after the national plan was agreed on 30 July 2021, Frydenberg moved into Morrison’s Covid war bunker at The Lodge. ACT health restrictions dictated that he could travel only between The Lodge and his Parliament House office. Frydenberg was concerned that he would be stranded in Victoria. So the two decided to become flatmates as they plotted the economic response to the second crisis.
The day of Frydenberg’s arrival at The Lodge, Morrison sent all the staff home early. He made a fire in the lounge room and went into the kitchen to make a curry for the two of them…
In their downtime as temporary flatmates, they would watch action films and re-runs of Yes Minister, or play pool in a small room off the main dining room adorned with sporting memorabilia including a small table pasted with images of the Cronulla Sharks, handcrafted by one of Morrison’s constituents.
Clearly a curry with Scott Morrison only goes so far.
Morrison didn’t tell Frydenberg that three months earlier Morrison had made himself co-treasurer. When Frydenberg delivered his May 2021 budget, he didn’t know he was job-sharing with the PM. When, subsequent to the publication of ‘Plagued’, Frydenberg discovered what happened, quite understandably he was reported to be ‘furious’. The book’s revelation that Morrison had secretly made himself health minister and then finance minister was front page news. Subsequently it was discovered that Morrison had given himself other portfolios too.
The former PM’s justification, in a nearly 1,300 words on Facebook, was he ‘considered it necessary to put in place safeguards, redundancies and contingencies’ during the ‘crisis period’. Nowhere did Morrison explain why any of what he did needed to be done in secret and no apology was offered. The tone of Morrison’s Facebook post is the same as he adopts in ‘Plagued’. He was the only person who could have steered the nation through the Covid crisis and he did anything and everything he thought was necessary to do so. More than one person has stated that Morrison possesses a ‘Messiah Complex’ – and not all of those applying that description have been of the left. Morrison believed the Coalition’s federal election victory in 2019 was due almost entirely to his, and no-one else’s efforts. And he was right. From being the only person who could save the Coalition in 2019, Morrison thought he was the only person who could save the country in 2020.
‘Plagued’ is presented as ‘the inside story of Australia’s two years of hell’, when the country was besieged by crisis after crisis, and a rolling series of challenges and setbacks. Much of what took place behind the scenes will astonish the public’. Some readers will be astonished by Morrison’s cavalier approach to democracy and his brazen disregard for human rights, while others will simply take the book to be confirmation of what they had long suspected about the former prime minister.
After all, it was Morrison as treasurer in 2017 who explained his lack of interest in freedom of speech by claiming ‘this issue doesn’t create one job, doesn’t open one business, doesn’t give anyone one extra hour. It doesn’t make housing more affordable or energy more affordable’. Morrison’s desire to ‘make energy more affordable’ is noteworthy given a few years later he committed the Coalition to implement ‘net zero’.
The claim that Morrison was willing to sacrifice civil liberties only because of the extraordinary circumstances of Covid doesn’t withstand scrutiny. Morrison had never demonstrated even the barest commitment to the basic principles of political liberalism.
A few months before the federal election, he announced a re-elected Coalition government would give the Australian Communications and Media Authority the power to censor social media to control ‘misinformation’ and ‘disinformation’ – in other words a government organisation would adjudicate ‘the truth’. Naturally it was a policy the Labor Party supported.
‘Plagued’ helps solve the mystery of the relationship between Morrison and Daniel Andrews. As Victoria endured the world’s longest lockdown, as the state Labor government presided over catastrophic administrative failures, and the Victoria Police became world famous for their brutality, Morrison refused to utter a word of criticism against Andrews. In August 2020, when in her home in Ballarat, Zoe Buhler was arrested and handcuffed in her living room, in her pyjamas, in front of her children, because of a social media post she’d made advertising an anti-lockdown protest, Morrison made no comment. Now we know why.
In early 2020, as panic buying swept the nation, Morrison claimed ‘Our country’s story is not going to be written in the aisles of shopping centres having tiffs over toilet paper’. No. Instead the enduring image of Australia during Covid is a pregnant mother handcuffed by black-clad Victorian police, closed playgrounds wrapped in red and white striped plastic tape, and the government stopping Australian citizens from leaving the country.
Friendship might be too strong a term to describe what developed between Morrison and Andrews, but it was an affinity built on a form of admiration for each other. According to Benson and Chambers, ‘Morrison had a high regard for Andrews’ political skill and the two had built an agreeable relationship since Morrison had become PM. Not all Morrison’s colleagues shared his positivity about the fiercely tribal Labor leader.’
In July 2020, even as the residents of aged care homes were feeling the full brunt of the Andrews government’s multiple failures, as health authorities ordered staff in homes to leave and refused to transfer infected patients to hospitals, Morrison remained eager to placate the Victorian premier. After Andrews held a press conference attempting to shift the blame to the Commonwealth government and claiming ‘I would not let my mum be in some of these places, I just wouldn’t’, Morrison sent a text (which presumably he provided to the authors) to Andrews:
Am standing up shortly, I assure you my tone will be very supportive, you’ll note Greg’s [Greg Hunt, the health minister] tone his morning was very supportive, let’s speak later today/this evening. All good. There is nothing to be gained by personalising the challenges we both face.
Andrews replied: Agreed.
On another occasion, after Andrews had imposed on Melbourne one of his six lockdowns, ‘Morrison sent Andrews a friendly text: ‘Hang in there Dan.’ Morrison’s sympathy was for ‘Dan’, not Victorians.
The Victorian government’s management of Covid was the worst in the nation, but Morrison was always ready to make excuses for Andrews. Rather than acknowledging what was happening in Victoria was the direct outcome of Andrews’ style of government, ‘Morrison believed that Andrews was being let down badly by his officials.’ This was despite the fact that many of those officials had been appointed by Andrews and Andrews had himself been Victoria’s minister for health for three years. As of the middle of November 2022 Victoria had reported 5,936 deaths from Covid out of its population of 6.7 million, 0.089 deaths per 100 people. New South Wales with a population of 8.2 million had 5,476 deaths, 0.067 deaths per 100 people.
It’s not clear what Morrison gained from the special connection he cultivated with Andrews. The result of the 2022 federal election proved the electoral benefit to the Coalition was zero. For reasons unfathomable, Andrews was popular with Victorians, and Morrison would have been keenly aware who would win a slanging match between the two. For Victorians though, with parliament suspended, public protest outlawed, and with Melbourne media enthusiastically supporting the state government, Morrison was the last best hope at tempering the excesses of Andrews. But Morrison stayed silent, appeased Andrews and tacitly endorsed the Victorian premier’s authoritarianism.
In May 2020, Victoria’s ‘second wave’ had begun following outbreaks at two hotels in Melbourne used as quarantine facilities. This ‘second wave’ would, by December 2020, be determined as responsible for more than 20,000 cases and 820 deaths. Yet somehow, ‘[I]n spite of the acrimony that would play out publicly through the course of the second wave and beyond, Morrison and Andrews privately maintained a deep level of cooperation. In fact, they were in contact almost daily and often several times a day.’
That Morrison and Andrews got on well together is not surprising given their political personalities are so similar and their professional backgrounds nearly identical. Every job Morrison had before becoming prime minister was either for the Liberal Party, the government or as a lobbyist, while Andrews has only ever worked in politics.
Morrison and Andrews each ran their cabinet and their government the same way through systems of command and control that centred all power to the leader’s office. Morrison’s secret ministries should not be a surprise. Their creation was a natural extension of his style of government.
As the minister for immigration from September 2013 to December 2014, Morrison implemented the border protection policies championed by Tony Abbott. As minister for social services from December 2014 to September 2015 Morrison had no policy achievements to speak of, while as treasurer, until August 2018 when he replaced Malcolm Turnbull as prime minister, Morrison’s two signature domestic policies were the imposition of higher taxes on banks through a bank levy, and the introduction of retrospective changes to the taxation of superannuation.
After reading Anne Henderson’s biography of Joseph Lyons, Morrison very deliberately modelled himself on the one-time Labor premier of Tasmania, federal treasurer in an ALP government, and then prime minister and leader of the conservative United Australia Party.
Lyons’ plan to deal with the Depression was based on returning the budget to balance, cutting government spending and lowering wages, among other things including price control… Morrison saw himself governing in a similar fashion, a leader unchained from orthodoxy, ideologically uninhibited and politically licensed to employ dramatic intervention as leader of a conservative party.
Lyons’ legacy bequeathed Morrison a set of guiding political principles to steer Australia out of economic despair once again, including his central theme of leveraging private enterprise rather than government.
Some would observe Morrison was ‘uninhibited’ by an ideology because he didn’t have one. If he had a commitment to private enterprise it was loosely held. For example, he had no qualms about the federal government interfering in the contracts of commercial tenants and their landlords.
Morrison was hearing – from friends, MPs and well as the premiers – about landlords maltreating tenants who had lost business due to the lockdown.
Morrison and the premiers kicked the issue back to their Treasurers but when only weak proposals came back from them Morrison started having private and very heated conversations with some of the larger commercial landlords. He left them in no doubt as to what he thought of their behaviour.
Then, having given up on the Treasurers, he sat down and wrote the policy himself, on an issue over which the Commonwealth had no jurisdiction. The principles included a system of waivers and deferrals on rent, which would see landlords share a proportion of reductions in turnovers of their tenants. There would be a moratorium on evictions. It didn’t mean landlords couldn’t demand rent; they just couldn’t throw their tenants out for not paying it.
There’s three points to make about all of this. First, most likely the reason why the state treasurers could only offer ‘weak proposals’ was because they had a stronger grasp of the principles of contract law in a free enterprise economy than Morrison. Second, it was Morrison who took it upon himself personally to rewrite the terms of commercial tenancies, and only someone like Morrison could have imagined this was the job of the prime minister. Third, the fact that the federal government had no constitutional authority over landlord and tenant relations was no obstacle to Morrison.
There’s a revealing passage at the beginning of the book describing a dinner at the prime minister’s Sydney residence, Kirribilli House, in early March 2020 with Morrison, Frydenberg and ‘a select group of CEOs’.
Guests mingled over pre-dinner drinks on the lawns, enjoying the sweeping views across to the city and up Sydney Harbour. It was a who’s who of Australia’s business community, a corporate cross-section of virtually every crucial industry sector: retail, tourism, manufacturing, resources, food, finance and communications. Among them were Solomon Lew, Qantas CEO Alan Joyce, CSL chairman Brian McNamee, BHP CEO Mike Henry, Wesfarmers’ Rob Scott, Coca-Cola Amatil group managing director Alison Watkins, JB Hi-Fi CEO Richard Murray, Macquarie Group CEO Shemara Wikramanayake and Telstra boss Andy Penn. The big four bank CEOs, including Comyn, were also there.
To Morrison, this group represented the future of Australian business. They were a new breed of leaders, less aloof, less formal than their predecessors and more inclined to build personal relationships. That was particularly so with those now at the helm of the big four banks.
If Morrison is correct and that group is indeed ‘the future of Australian business’ then Australia is in trouble. The experience of that group during the Covid crisis is many times removed from that of a small business owner. No-one at that dinner lost their job or their family business during the lockdowns. None of them had to worry about making payroll. Most of that group are corporate bureaucrats who spend their time virtue signalling about climate change. All four of the bank CEOs support the Voice to Parliament. And while we can never know, there’s every likelihood those CEOs would be more inclined to vote Teal than either Liberal or Labor. Such is the ‘new breed of leader’ of big business in Australia.
Morrison as treasurer and then prime minister made the mistake Liberal MPs so often make. He assumed business leaders have some sort of natural sympathy to the Liberal Party. They don’t. The CEO’s who turned up at that dinner in 2020 would have been no less comfortable having dinner with Anthony Albanese. Indeed, Benson and Chambers in an article for The Australian listed a range of business leaders close to the new federal Labor government, including Alan Joyce of Qantas, Mike Henry of BHP, Matt Comyn of the Commonwealth Bank, and Ross McEwan of NAB. All of them had dinner with Morrison and Fydenberg.
As Coalition politicians continue to be enamoured with big business, the rate of creation of new small businesses in Australia has fallen to a decades-low level. When Morrison announced a ‘National COVID-19 Coordination Commission’ to plan for the economic recovery from the pandemic, the list of members was entirely predictable. Nev Power, the chief executive of Fortescue Metals Group; David Thodey, former chief executive of Telstra; Greg Combet, former ACTU secretary and minister in the Rudd and Gillard governments; Jane Halton, a career public servant; Paul Little, former managing director of Toll Holdings; and Catherine Tanna, manager of EnergyAustralia. Four people from big business, one from the public service, and one from the ACTU and the Labor Party. Missing was a voice from the sector that comprises one-third of the economy and provides 40 per cent of private sector jobs – small business.
One of the great Covid myths is that throughout the crisis politicians were implementing measures that ‘followed the science’. That’s a myth demolished by ‘Plagued’. For one thing, when it came to Covid there was (and is) no such thing as ‘the science’. We now know that throughout the crisis politicians cherry-picked ‘the science’ they’d follow according to politics and their own feelings. All of this is confirmed in ‘Plagued’.
[Morrison] was of the firm belief that Australians should be wearing masks. To him it was an obvious measure. But he was having a hard time convincing health officials.‘I would go in to meeting after meeting and talk about masks…the AHPPC would push back,’ Morrison recalls.
‘I said, ‘Know at some point you will change your mind.’
That’s the exact opposite of what the public were told about how policy was being made.
The Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC) was the principal source of health advice to the federal government during the crisis. It comprised the chief health officers of the federal and state governments. Those Australians who believed the AHPPC was inventing the rules as it went along were not wrong – that’s what Morrison and the state premiers thought too at times. When it came to limits on the number of people at events, the PM and state leaders were astonished when seemingly, out of nowhere, the AHPPC recommended restrictions based on surprisingly round numbers – ‘Despite reservations that the AHPPC was making things up on the run, all the leaders agreed to the 500-person limit [on outdoor gatherings]’.
Politicians followed the recommendations they agreed with and ignored those that didn’t suit them. ‘Despite health advice that children had low susceptibility to Covid-19 and that closing schools and childcare centres would negatively impact economic productivity, the South Australian government on 13 March announced it would shut schools for a minimum of 24 hours in the event of a positive case, and that health advice would guide them when they would reopen.’ And, ‘The AHPPC had never recommended state and territory border closures but no amount of arguing budged the state leaders.’
Mantras such as ‘flatten the curve’, ‘zero Covid’, and ‘lockdowns work’ came and went, as did measures like the ‘COVIDSafe’ app. Politicians believed if they didn’t dwell on the failed policies of the past, the public would force itself to forget what had happened and would move on to the next government narrative of the pandemic – which is exactly what happened. For two years, federal and state governments appeared to operate on the assumption they had a binary choice – impose lockdowns or do nothing, and let the virus run its course. ‘Herd immunity was not something Morrison ever considered as a serious option for Australia.’ The possibility of a course between these two positions seems never to have been contemplated by Morrison.
There’s no evidence that Morrison or any of the state premiers ever seriously questioned the shifting opinions of their health officials. To this day, no satisfactory answer has been provided as to why all the pre-2020 pandemic planning of the federal and state governments, none of which envisaged lockdowns, were abandoned. So far the best explanation has come from Britain. In December 2020 the architect of the UK’s lockdown strategy, Neil Ferguson gave a now infamous interview with The Times:
There was a time in a different world, a world that shook hands, met relatives and commuted to work, when none of this was obvious. When it wasn’t clear that the way to stop an infectious disease was to stop a society and the very idea was horrifying and unimaginable.
Back in 2019, about the time someone was getting infected by a bat, no European country’s pandemic plans [nor Australia’s] seriously entertained the prospect of putting a country on pause. Then, that’s what China did. ‘I think people’s sense of what is possible in terms of control changed quite dramatically between January and March,’ Professor Ferguson says.
In January , members of Sage [Strategic Advisory Group for Emergencies], the government’s scientific advisory group, had watched as China enacted this innovative intervention in pandemic control that was also a medieval intervention.
‘They claimed to have flattened the curve. I was sceptical at first. I thought it was a massive cover-up by the Chinese. But as the data accrued it became clear it was an effective policy.’
Then, as infections seeded across the world, springing up like angry boils on the map, Sage debated whether, nevertheless it would be effective here. ‘It’s a communist one party state, we said. We couldn’t get away with it in Europe, we thought.’ In February one of those boils raged just below the Alps. ‘And then Italy did it. And we realised we could.’
Because China implemented its ‘medieval intervention’, Australia, the UK, and (most of) America did it too.
British politicians are starting to realise that lockdowns were an error, and are attempting to gain political leverage through this realisation, as British politician and author Dan Hannan predicted:
I have no doubt [what] will happen over the lockdowns. As the dreadful health and economic costs bite, few will recall having supported the closures. Just as most Frenchmen over a certain age remember backing the Resistance, so most Brits will remember being lockdown sceptics. Psychologists call it ‘hindsight bias’.
We are not there yet. Many cling, with a tinge of desperation, to the notion that their sacrifices were worthwhile. Admitting that the cancelled weddings, the ruined businesses, the lost education, the NHS waiting lists and the national debt were incurred in error, that we narrowed our children’s lives for nothing, is not easy.
In August 2022, the now British PM, Rishi Sunak, as part of his first failed campaign for the Conservative Party leadership in the UK, said it had been wrong to empower scientists with control over people’s lives and that there had not been any discussion about the costs of lockdowns. Asked why opinion polls showed that the public was eager for the country to be in lockdown, Sunak said: ‘We helped shape that: with the fear messaging’. It’s significant that Sunak thought it was politically advantageous to declare he’d been opposed to lockdowns. Liz Truss, who won the Tory leadership (and lasted in the role for 44 days) admitted she regretted lockdowns and promised they would never be imposed again. Words after the event are cheap. Neither Sunak or Truss made public their concerns at the time.
It’s in America though that history is being brazenly rewritten. Adam Creighton, a journalist at The Australian, who wrote about the consequences of public panic during the Covid crisis for the first edition of Essays for Australia, recently reported this:
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre made the most incredible comment early this month [September 2022]
during a press briefing, after a US government report found American primary school students’ test scores had dropped dramatically since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in early 2020, wiping out, in effect, more than 20 years of steady improvement in reading and maths.
Opening schools, she said, ‘was the work of Democrats, despite Republicans’ as if determined to win the prize for the greatest furphy in the history of the briefing room.
Jean-Pierre’s comment came a week after Democrat New York Governor Kathy Hochul conceded shutting schools, something her Democrat predecessor Andrew Cuomo did repeatedly throughout 2020 and last year, was a disaster. ‘Wow, what a mistake that was…’ Hochul said.
Even Anthony Fauci, who perhaps had more influence in pushing authoritarian health policies than any other individual, is washing his hands of them. ‘I think we need to make sure that your listeners understand I didn’t shut down anything,’ he told Fox News last month.
The internet can be a right pain, can’t it? ‘When it became clear that we had community in the country, with a few cases of community spread…I recommended to the president that we shut the country down,’ Fauci said in October 2020.
As Creighton goes on to explain, if the most destructive and far-reaching controls on society in peacetime history had costs greater than the benefits, or more shockingly didn’t work at all, ‘it’s best we don’t repeat them’.
One of the most fervent public advocates for lockdowns was the American economist, Emily Oster. In October 2022 in The Atlantic in a now infamous article, ‘Let’s Declare a Pandemic Amnesty’ she argued the public should ‘move on’ from the pandemic and ‘learn from our mistakes and then let them go.’
The standard saying is that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. But dwelling on the mistakes of history can lead to a repetitive doom loop as well. Let’s acknowledge that we made complicated choices in the face of deep uncertainty, and then try to work together to build back and move forward.
The almost universal response to Oster has been ‘No Way!’ Of the numerous replies to her, Jack Elbaum at the Foundation for Economic Freedom put it well.