A COVID Postcard from Australia


Australia’s response to Covid-19 has quickly turned from laudable to laughable. For a nation which only a few months ago seemed to be the toast of world leaders for having so effectively limited the spread of the virus and still growing its economy, to a nation now lagging on vaccination and struggling with lockdowns, the turnaround has been dramatic.

The Australian Prime Minister’s recent handling of the virus – in particular access to sufficient volumes of the preferred Pfizer vaccine – has seen his popularity slump. This wasn’t the case early in the virus when Federal business welfare and job protection measures buoyed the economy and insulated it from the initial rounds of lockdowns and restraints. Those measures are now less generous. He now also has a feisty group of State Premiers who are gleefully exploiting the “blame the federal Government” line while readily accepting Federal grants and demanding more vaccines and more support.

Some of these Premiers have a keen eye on their popularity. “Keeping us safe” has become a mantra that relates only to Covid, not to other risks (health, economic or other). Some, like Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk, have commissioned polling (using tax payer funds) to monitor attitudes to their handling of the virus and related restrictions. Taxpayers are also funding a personal team of between 18 and 30 media minders and spin doctors to ensure that she is kept safe from public opinion. Other Premiers are similarly obsessed. Meanwhile, rising annual road fatalities are largely ignored. In the State of Queensland, the road toll of deaths increased by 30% on the previous year. This alarming reality gets little attention from a political and media class so consumed by daily virus numbers that there is little time or interest for other content.

State Premiers and their Chief Health Officers are behaving like a new form of Government. A dog and pony show with one as the autocrat, the other a senior bureaucrat, together wielding supreme power. Neither seem accountable for anything other than the daily Covid numbers. City wide lockdowns are mandated with little or no notice, upending businesses who are banned from opening. Hospitality and tourism are especially hard hit. Businesses are closing and workers – many who are lower skilled and lower income earning – are being laid off. At one stage in early August, half the population of Australia was under lockdown orders. This means “do not leave home” unless for essential groceries, medical or other approved reasons. Police patrol public parks and beaches, issuing fines for breaches. Mandated mask wearing is in place across the three largest capitals – Brisbane, Sydney, and Melbourne. In New South Wales – the state of which Sydney is the capital – even the Army have been called in to assist policing lockdown orders. State borders are closed, then reopened, then closed again – often trapping unwilling travellers who on returning to their home state are forced to hotel quarantine for two weeks - at their own expense. Victoria (state capital of which is Melbourne) has done this six times now. Citizens are prohibited from visiting dying relative’s interstate, even if they are vaccinated and test negative for Covid. International borders are closed and Australians overseas are effectively banned from returning home, even if they could afford the exorbitant airfares.

The rules however are frequently bent. Hollywood celebrities visiting for movie making are welcomed. Queensland’s Chief Health Officer infamously explained “these people bring in a lot of money” when challenged on the ruling, showing her limited economic ability at the same time. The fact that the State spends more on grants and incentives bringing them here escaped her attention. This was also a clear case of economic and political decisions being made by a health officer. It remains the case that 20,000 can visit a football stadium to watch commercial teams play, but community or school sport is banned.

Health advice on vaccines has been inconsistent. The readily available Astra Zeneca vaccine has been subject to overly cautious government health officers warning of very rare blood clot risks for under 40s. This theme was picked up and magnified by mainstream media always searching for new alarm bells to ring, and then the megaphone of social media took over. Despite an abundance of AZ vaccine, many Australians are simply waiting for more stocks of Pfizer to become available – despite heightened risks of ill-health from Covid. Health officials have now realised their errors and amended their advice, but an understandably confused and weary public don’t seem to be buying it.

The economic and social toll of ongoing lockdowns may not be known for years to come. The impact however is barely felt by the professional class, particularly government employees. Other than some inconveniences around work from home (which many appear to now prefer over journey to work), public servants have continued to be paid their regular wage, with some also receiving annual index increases. Professionals who can work from home have been able to do so with little financial impact, but the impact on industries that cannot work from home will be profound. In Sydney, the latest lockdown orders included the construction industry – a first in Australia.

CBDs have emptied out, partially refilled, then emptied out again. The office workers left with their laptops under their arms but the remaining businesses – coffee shops, retail stores, restaurants have been devastated. Office occupancies have plummeted in repeatedly locked down Melbourne, to just 12% (down from 26% in June). In Sydney, occupancies had recovered to 70% but have since collapsed to 7% in July under latest lockdowns. The extent to which this on-again, off-again approach will permanently deter businesses and workers is unknown.

Meanwhile, public transport networks continue to operate the same schedules, even though patronage in lockdowns has fallen by 80% compared with pre-pandemic levels. Even outside of city-wide lockdowns, rail patronage is down by around 20%. This has meant per traveller subsidies are now at Aud$40 per person (USD$30), per trip, or $80 per return, or $400 (USD$300) per traveller per week. The taxpayer is haemorrhaging cash. One recent study revealed 8.4% of Queensland public transport users will not use PT again in the foreseeable future.

You might think tumbleweeds blowing down CBD streets would shatter confidence, but not in our housing markets. Suburban housing is rising at eye watering rates, with prices increasing in one month by more than the average annual wage. Inner city high density apartments are not selling well but larger suburban homes are, and interest in regional cities is also pushing prices up. The professional and managerial class who once flocked to high density inner cities have now turned their attention to suburban and regional centres, whose lower earning workers and residents are now being priced out.

Nothing could be more emblematic in Australia of the widening divide between Covid beneficiaries and its victims. The beneficiaries are the tenured and highly paid public servants, the bankers reporting record profits, IT titans splashing excessive amounts on housing (and even buying US NBA teams), and others whose professions or industry allows them to continue operating with no adverse personal financial impact. The victims are those lower paid, often casualised workers in industries such as retail, hospitality or tourism, and their bosses – many of whom have literally bet their house and lost.

For a country that once prided itself on egalitarian ideals – of a ‘fair go’ for all – and which was suspicious of higher authorities and anyone with pretentions of being ‘ruling class’, this has been a worrying thing to observe.

“We’re all in this together” is a phrase used often in Australia by politicians and their highly renumerated health advisors, in exhorting us to bear the pain of yet another lockdown and police patrols of our beaches. For many though, “we’re all in this together” has become a rather sick joke.

Please, we’re in trouble down under. Send help.

Ross Elliott has more than thirty years’ experience in urban development, property and public policy. In addition to his consulting work he is Chair of the Lord Mayor of Brisbane’s Better Suburbs Initiative, a director of The Suburban Alliance, and District Chair of the ULI in Brisbane, Australia. His past roles have included a number of industry leadership positions. He has written and spoken extensively on a range of public policy issues centering around urban issues, and maintains his interest in public policy through ongoing contributions such as this or via his monthly blog, The Pulse.

Photo credit: Pedro Szekely via Flickr under CC 2.0 License.