Thanks to my old friend and former Treasury colleague Joe Branigan for this guest post on the Queensland Government’s response to COVID-19. Views expressed are Joe’s and should not necessarily be attributed to me. GT
The Triumvirate’s Stratagem cannot stand
by Joe Branigan
The Queensland Premier thinks she can’t lose. On the one hand, the enormous fiscal costs of lessening the catastrophic economic and social impacts of her COVID policy overreach are borne by the Federal Government (via JobSeeker and JobKeeper payments). On the other hand, the benefits of scaring the living daylights out of Queenslanders accrue solely to her government’s re-election chances.
The real trouble with Palaszczuk’s approach is that she’s relinquished her role as head of government and cabinet chair. The Premier, and her deputy, hide behind the political full-face shield that is the Chief Health Officer of Queensland Dr Jeanette Young. A Triumvirate, but effectively of one.
The Palaszczuk Government must be held accountable for the breathtakingly consequential decisions it says are based on Dr Young’s advice. From the ubiquitous use of the singular first-person pronoun by Dr Young in the Triumvirate’s daily press conferences, it appears as if the Government is uncritically and reflexively following Dr Young’s advice, giving her unprecedented power, by default.
But this is grossly inappropriate given that Dr Young is an unelected official. This is not to criticise Dr Young personally. She is doing her job and providing advice consistent with what she believes the very narrowly-based evidence on COVID19 tells her, although even here there are questions about the academic evidence she is relying on, much of it modelled rather than based on actual empirical experience – but that is a tale for another day. The point is that the Palaszczuk Government should not be solely deferring to the opinion of the CHO unreservedly.
Media outlets, including The Courier Mail, have thus far refused to be critical of the Government’s approach, preferring to be “united against COVID” no matter what the economic and social cost of the Government’s social distancing and other measures to Queensland. While the Queensland Media blindingly cheer on the Triumvirate, in the absence of critical journalistic scrutiny it will be up to Queenslanders themselves to seriously question the ‘official advice’. This scrutiny is even more important in Queensland, which unfortunately retains a powerful executive government aided and abetted by a unicameral parliament and now 4-year fixed terms between politician’s performance appraisals.
The CHO derives her authority from a newly written Section 362 of the Public Health Act 2005, which confers unchecked powers that exceed any other elected official, and more akin to the ancient royal prerogative than the delegated powers of a modern liberal democracy (see extract from the Public Health Act below).
Yet, the stated object of the Public Health Act is to “…protect and promote the health of the Queensland public.” Presumably Parliament was referring to the overall health and wellbeing of the entire citizenry, not just eliminating the risk of catching a single virus.
This unprecedented power bestowed upon a narrowly-focussed public health official, even in public emergencies, should be always curbed by deliberative cabinet processes that properly consider the multitude of factors involved in balancing society’s endless economic, health, social and cultural requirements with limited resources.
Cabinets and their subcommittees are often called on to make life and death decisions, whether explicitly or implicitly, when allocating scarce public resources between competing needs, especially in health. There are limits to how much we (the community) can sacrifice to save or extend a life, especially the lives of those very elderly and frail citizens who require significant resources to stay alive an extra day let alone live with some independence and dignity. Health departments allocate resources based on metrics that favour younger and healthier citizens with more tomorrows than yesterdays. And Australia’s Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee often rejects clinically effective cancer treatments based on cost.
As confronting as all that sounds, those decisions are rooted in a public policy goal that has served Queenslanders well for decades, which is essentially to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number and consequently to seek an efficient and fair allocation of public resources as determined (ultimately) by the Queensland Parliament.
But now we have moved to rule-by-diktat based on a new moral imperative. The 11th Commandment: ‘Thou Shalt have no other policy goal but me (being COVID)’. In effect, the whole of public policy in Queensland has been reduced to a single stratagem.
Given her powerful position, Dr Young should be completely transparent about the information she is relying on to make her decisions, what the objective of her decisions are, and the value judgements underlying those decisions. Is it really true that her sole focus is the complete elimination of community transmission in Queensland no matter what the economic and social cost? Why does she think that an extreme ‘corner solution’ objective is in the best interests of the Queensland community? We need to debate these issues and, preferably, the value judgments supporting those decisions should be determined by elected officials who are accountable to the public.
Meanwhile, the academic work is piling up against the complete elimination stratagem. Dozens of new studies in recent weeks have provided evidence of the short-run and long-term economic and social costs of the elimination stratagem relative to a counter-factual situation of managed suppression, from increased domestic violence, loneliness and despair to collapses in productivity and school learning, not to mention mass unemployment.
Importantly, it has long been established that the total welfare loss from catastrophic economic shocks is far greater than the contemporaneous loss in measured GDP. In other words, the policy reactions of governments to COVID will be felt for years, and possibly decades, to come.
And the latest epidemiological studies indicate that the true infection fatality rate is likely to be closer to 0.1-0.3% rather than the 1.0% originally feared, especially in a relatively young and healthy country with lower rates of morbidity and with an excellent health care system such as Australia, meaning the benefits of avoided deaths are a magnitude lower than first assumed.
This reckless form of government cannot go on for the next 12 months. Professor Whitty, the UK CMO, recently warned: “I think it is unlikely we will have a vaccine that is highly effective and ready to deploy at scale this (northern hemisphere) winter. I think there is a reasonable chance that we will have vaccines, not a certainty, in the period before the following northern hemisphere winter of 2021-22.”
Will public sentiment turn harshly against the Triumvirate before the 31 October election? Even with focus-group driven parochialism masquerading as mature political leadership it is hard to see their stratagem holding up for another 70 days.
Joe Branigan is an economist and co-author of the recent report COVID19: Getting Australia Safely Back to Work.
The Queensland Parliament has granted “unprecedented power” to the Chief Health Officer during the COVID-crisis.
Extract from the Public Health Act 2005
Division 2 Chief health officer
362B Power to give directions
(1) This section applies if the chief health officer reasonably believes it is necessary to give a direction under this section (a public health direction) to assist in containing, or to respond to, the spread of COVID-19 within the community.
(2) The chief health officer may, by notice published on the department’s website or in the gazette, give any of the following public health directions—
(a) a direction restricting the movement of persons;
(b) a direction requiring persons to stay at or in a stated place;
(c) a direction requiring persons not to enter or stay at or in a stated place;
(d) a direction restricting contact between persons;
(e) any other direction the chief health officer considers necessary to protect public health.