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Lowering the bar: Do we no longer expect the government do big things?

In one way it makes sense, in another it’s an enormous paradox: governments in the United States and the United Kingdom, having botched the fight against COVID-19 so badly, are doing a great job of vaccinating their people. Australia has got it the other way around. Australian governments at the state and federal level fought the coronavirus better than just about any other country, helped considerably by a diligent public and our geographic isolation.

But so far, we’ve stuffed up the vaccination part. Having responded resolutely to the challenge of the pandemic last year, Australia is officially adopting a laconic attitude to the important business of inoculating its citizens.

Australia successfully managed the spread of the virus, but the rollout of vaccines has been a disaster.

Australia successfully managed the spread of the virus, but the rollout of vaccines has been a disaster.Credit:AP

The international contrasts can be explained – but only in part – by desperation. America and the UK continue to be ravaged by the virus. When the fatalities are as high as they’ve endured, the impetus to do what it takes to drive the numbers down is enormous. It also helps that the US has a new leader keen to tackle the spread.

We don’t have that same desperation because, apart from the big outbreak in Victoria in mid-2020, Australia has largely kept the virus under control. When I say “we”, I’m referring directly to the Morrison government, which has made it clear it feels no pressure to speed up its vaccine rollout.

It’s not just that the rollout is slow, it’s that the government’s early targets have been abandoned. Initially, four million Australians were to have been vaccinated by the end of March, but the actual number was less than one million. In terms of vaccinating the total population, Australia is nearing 4 per cent. The US is above 30 per cent and the UK, with more than 31 million people vaccinated, is nearing the 50 per cent mark.

Even allowing for the remnant halo effect enjoyed by all governments in this pandemic era and the higher profile of states and territories in the past year, it might have been expected that the federal government would have copped some blowback from the public for its tardiness on vaccinations. I don’t see any widespread clamour for the government to do better.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson carries doses of the COVID-19 vaccine.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson carries doses of the COVID-19 vaccine. Credit:Getty

Do we no longer expect our national governments to aim high and do big things? The idea of governments at a national level setting out to transform society and the economy has been in various forms of retreat for most of this century.

Progressively, governments have lowered their ambitions. On the Coalition side, the last big reform was the GST. John Howard in 1998 sought and won endorsement for a new tax system built around a GST, a policy implemented in 2000. In 2005, he went large again and rewrote the nation’s workplace laws. Voters didn’t like it and threw him out in 2007.

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