Support welcome but Morrison government’s credibility takes a hit

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Is Sydney the city that, like a favoured child, can do no wrong? This week, the Andrews government was not shy about airing its view. After welcoming the joint NSW-federal financial package for Sydney businesses and workers suffering under lockdown, a spokesperson for Premier Daniel Andrews let rip: “Victorians are rightly sick and tired of having to beg for every scrap of support from the federal government.”

There was nothing subtle in this. Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, who have vocally backed NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian for her attitude to lockdowns, were playing favourites, according to Victoria. Mr Morrison had become the Prime Minister of Sydney.

There is no shortage of bickering between Scott Morrison and Daniel Andrews.Credit:Getty Images, Luis Enrique Ascui

“Nonsense,” Mr Morrison shot back next day. Mr Frydenberg, the most senior Victorian in the government, also took aim, describing the Andrews government as “petulant, childish, and playing politics”.

This type of political stone throwing makes good headlines, and breathing new life into the Sydney-Melbourne rivalry is also sure to attract attention. But now is not the time for theatre.

The Delta variant’s spread to more than 110 countries is leaving a trail of devastation. It was to blame for those horrific scenes of public cremation in India, and is now wreaking havoc in Indonesia. Even in Israel and America, where vaccination levels lead the world, Delta is putting the brakes on opening up as the variant spreads through pockets of unvaccinated people.

In several nations on par with Australia in having previously contained the virus – Japan being the most obvious example – it is proving capable of breaking down the best of defences. With breaches of hotel quarantine in Australia a regular occurrence, it was only a matter of time before Delta found its way into the community.

Now, for the first time since Christmas, Sydney has become the centre of an outbreak. While there is much debate over the level of restrictions needed to contain it, there is no hiding the challenge the NSW government faces. At last count, Greater Sydney had more than 330 exposure sites, and there is little sign that the number of infected people who have spent time in the community is declining. Despite new border restrictions, it was sadly predictable that it would spread to Melbourne, which will be holding its breath during the next few days lest it faces its fifth lockdown in less than 18 months.

With the vaccination rollout not expected to hit high enough numbers to avoid lockdowns for at least another six months, every week that is relatively free of restrictions has become a good one.

This raises a serious question: why was the Morrison government rendered so flat-footed by this year’s longer lockdowns? Did it genuinely believe its own rhetoric that NSW had the solution and the Victorian government was inept, not just unlucky? If so, Delta has shown it up.

Now, finally, the nation has a settled system for compensating both individuals and businesses for the ruin they confront when lockdowns become necessary. This is a welcome development, and The Age congratulates all those involved.

But it was forged in the heat of a Delta outbreak, not in a calm policy environment, and then became the subject of a political battle. It has probably cost the Morrison government credibility in Victoria (notwithstanding Mr Frydenberg’s claim that when walking through his electorate he is greeted with gratitude). Those who govern us should heed the lesson: the virus is a sinuous and dangerous foe, and we need to be prepared better and earlier for the challenges it presents.

Gay Alcorn sends an exclusive newsletter to subscribers each week. Sign up to receive her Note from the Editor.

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