Despotism Down Under

Everything I am about to assert in this paragraph is factually true. Normally one would not waste a sentence reinforcing his bona fides, but many readers of this piece in the United States, Canada, Britain and across Europe probably would not otherwise believe what they are about to read. So let me assure them it is true. A sign of a despotic, idiotic and floundering political class? Yes. But also true.

As I am writing this in my adopted country of Australia, roughly half of its 25 million people are in lockdown. My State of Queensland ordered its more than five million people into a three-day lockdown a few days ago and the morning I wrote this, extended that lockdown. You might ask, what Covid disaster could warrant this response? In the last seven months, Australia has had one, yes one, Covid death (and even that was someone who had contracted the disease abroad). Indeed, as of last Friday, Australia has fewer than 339 active Covid cases (for comparison purposes the United Kingdom has over 370,000); it has 67 Covid hospitalizations nationwide (the UK almost 1,600); it has three ICU admissions (some 260 odd in the UK); and as I said there has been just one Covid death in the entire country halfway into 2021 (for the UK it’s just shy of 55,000). Since the start of the pandemic, Australia has seen just over 900 Covid deaths, most of those in just one of our six States, and most of those in turn in old age facilities.

Today, the only thing that apparently matters to Australia’s political and public health classes are cases. Should the State authorities uncover just a couple dozen odd cases, then boom—your State will be in lockdown. Queensland’s extension of lockdown a few days ago was attributed to three new cases. More than five million people forced to remain in lockdown because of only that! For this native born Canadian it is all madness. Well, madness, wrapped up in the name of “saving lives,” inside a heavy-handed despotism.

I will pass over in silence the now multiplying peer-reviewed studies based on actual data rather than modelling that cast doubts on the efficacy of lockdowns worldwide, even though many Australians have been conditioned to believe that their extremely low Covid death numbers have been solely caused by the many lockdowns here (and in the State of Victoria, the lockdowns were up there with the world’s longest and harshest). Instead, I will note that Australia was one of the first countries to close its international borders.

Of course, we are an island. We not only closed our international borders to incomers, we closed them to citizens trying to get out. (Citizens can apply for bureaucratic permission to leave on compassionate grounds but about 11 of 12 requests are rejected, no appeals allowed.) When other democracies, with an eye on China, opted to dabble in lockdowns, we did that too. And like elsewhere it was first sold as a temporary measure to “flatten the curve” and to allow the hospital system to prepare for big numbers.

Sixteen months later, we are still at it, still addicted to lockdowns, no curve ever having existed to flatten. The ABC (our national broadcaster) and nearly all of the commercial press seem to revel in hourly updates of case numbers and what might be described as “fear porn.” (Only one publication, Spectator Australia, has been skeptical of the heavy-handed lockdowns from the start.) Mask mandates have been myriad, and worse many Australians now wear them whether mandated or not. And still to this day, barring bureaucratic dispensation for which you need to beg, citizens cannot leave. Anyone managing to find a rare flight into the country must hotel quarantine for two weeks at his own expense—without leaving the room. Covid policy has turned Australia into a sort of modern day 17th century Japan.

Adding insult to injury, the federal government that has overseen all this is of the centre-right. Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his Liberal Party/National Party Coalition won an election in May of 2019. It was something of a surprise win as the supposedly right-leaning Coalition has been in office since 2013. Longstanding Coalition voters thought they were voting for a political party on the side of comparatively small government and freedom. Boy has that proven to be wrong!

Because of all the lockdowns and their brutal effects on small business, this government has spent per capita money like no other on earth. In 2007 Australia’s federal government under John Howard had effectively zero debt. Today it is 40 percent of GDP and on a terrible trajectory. The deficit is about 10 percent of GDP.

My own view is that the Covid response worldwide—and I mean the policies adopted not the virus—has amounted to the most egregious inter-generational theft in at least a half-millennium. All the stimulatory fiscal policy has effected a huge wealth transfer from the future to the present, from our children and grandchildren to us oldies. Meanwhile the stimulatory monetary policy has brought about a massive wealth transfer from non-asset holders to asset holders. And I say all this as a traditional conservative, Lord knows what a good old-fashioned socialist must be thinking. We’ve taken from the poor to give to the rich and we’ve taken from young to give to the old.

A supposedly conservative Australian government has inflicted this on its people; that same government has outrageously refused to release the Treasury Department’s cost-benefit analysis of these border closures, lockdowns, endless school closures measures; it is one that now has no idea how to get out of the situation into which its own short-sightedness has landed it.

This is what happens when a government focuses solely on Covid deaths. Of course, the deaths caused by lockdowns themselves get next to no attention. This is what transpires when you sideline virtually all concerns about freedom-related issues, about giving individuals the information they need and trusting them to do what is best; and when you turn the country into a giant, affable sort of Supermax prison whose citizens cannot leave, even to see dying relatives abroad; and when those with no skin in the game, like the political and bureaucratic classes, impose rules that hurt themselves not at all but that ravage and ruin the entrepreneurial and small business classes.

First off, you mangle the economy. The Australian government likes to reply by pointing to a recovered GDP growth rate, but it has spent so much, on so many, that GDP is simply reflecting all that massive government spending. In per capita terms, GDP growth in Australia is abysmal. Productivity growth has cratered. The government’s share of GDP has gone up noticeably. And barring wildly optimistic assumptions it is hard to see how the deficit can be reined in.

If you care even a fig for freedom concerns, well, Australia’s political class has been the worst in the country’s history.

Secondly, you will find that Australia has one of the lowest rates of vaccination uptake going. It is under five percent of the population, making it the lowest of the 38 richest democracies in the world. And that is only to be expected when most every incentive is against being vaccinated. Australians may wear masks like sheep to the slaughter, but they know that no one is dying. If we can’t get out and no one can get in, why get vaccinated? Meanwhile even those fully vaccinated are having to comply with every single petty bureaucratic lockdown regulation—so it’s a world with no vaccine benefits and all the usual costs.

Thirdly, Australia is paying for its highly dysfunctional version of federalism. It wasn’t dysfunctional at the start of federation, 120 years ago. But since then, our top judges have adopted the world’s most pro-centre interpretive approach to heads-of-power constitutional adjudication. As a result, besides the federal government winning near on all important cases, Australia’s States today are pretty much the only ones in the federalist world without income tax power. That was taken away. So, the States are mendicants. We have the federalist world’s worst vertical fiscal imbalance. What that means in practice is that the States are not fiscally accountable to their voters for their laws, the Feds are. If the States impose despotic lockdowns with punitive financial implications, they don’t have to pay the costs. Canberra does.

Early on, our Prime Minister could have threatened any State locking down with a loss of significant monies, since he controls most of it. But he did not. In fact, Prime Minister Morrison burbled platitudes about “we’re all in this together” (a flat out lie, see above) while not summoning up the courage to criticize any State Premier over any lockdown ever. As a result, the imposers of lockdowns do not pay any costs. In fact, they’ve been winning State elections because of their heavy-handedness. Not a great recipe for getting us out of this, is it?

How does the Prime Minister break this cycle of stupid, heavy-handed lockdowns imposed due to a dozen cases—cases, not deaths—here or there? It’s a diabolical dilemma for him and the Coalition government. Should he say “look, other things matter too beside Covid deaths and we’re going to have to learn to live with this” then all the people whose lives have been ruined this past year and a quarter are not going to be happy. Why wasn’t that the attitude from the start? But if he doesn’t do that the State Premiers, many of whom are on the other side of the political divide and want very much to cause the PM as much political pain as possible, have no incentive to change whatsoever. Witness Queensland’s lockdown extension over three cases. It would be laughable if it weren’t so depressing.

For a government that was supposedly freedom-supporting and against the big bureaucratic state, and that has jettisoned both of those, it at last became obvious that they needed a plan. They needed some road map for opening up the international borders and for letting people out to see elderly parents or children. So earlier this week the Prime Minister, for the first time, provided a road map out of this public policy disaster. Alas, his government’s “four stage plan” is devoid of specific dates. It is big on aspirational waffle. My bet is it could be another year or year and a half before the country is back to anywhere near normal.

The next time you hear that Australia has had an exemplary Covid response, try not to bust a gut laughing. If you care even a fig for freedom concerns, well, Australia’s political class has been the worst in the country’s history.