To political leaders, it often seems easier and less risky to stick with current restrictions, and a lesson from history is that government restrictions often last much longer than is justifiable. Hence, four years after the end of the War, petrol rationing was still imposed in Australia, and Bob Menzies’s message of Free Enterprise was all the more appealing at the 1949 election (see Issues that swung elections: Petrol shortages and the dawn of the Menzies era).
The persistence of restrictions is one of the reasons I’ve been critical of these so-called circuit breaker lockdowns that have been imposed in Victoria, Queensland, and WA. They can so easily be extended unnecessarily, and I’m concerned that, despite all the hopeful messages coming from Victorian authorities, the latest lockdown will be extended and the economic costs will continue to mount.
There is also the risk that Fortress Australia will be maintained much longer than is desirable. The head of public emergencies at the WHO, Dr Mike Ryan, has rightly identified the “genuine dilemma” Australia now faces regarding when and how to reopen, as reported by the Brisbane Times. We need to have the vast bulk of the population vaccinated to achieve herd immunity, but we’ve had a dreadfully slow vaccination program so far.
The downside of Australia’s isolation strategy was nicely summarised by Canadian Professor Douglas Allen of Simon Fraser University in my conversation with him on the costs and benefits of lockdowns (Lockdown CBA podcast discussion):
With isolation, your population always remains vulnerable. And so with isolation, you must permanently remain isolated until you can become vaccinated. And you’re actually lucky that the vaccine came as quickly as it did…in sort of world record time, because if it had taken the normal rate of time of five years, can you imagine being isolated for five years in Australia, or part of those 40,000 Australians that are out of the country and can’t return? …So it’s not clear that isolation was even a smart policy last March. It may look like it turned out maybe to be a good policy, but again…you would not have experienced the apocalyptic deaths that were predicted last March, either.
I suspect a lot of Australians will get really angry if our Premier and reportedly the Brisbane Lord Mayor and the PM actually attend the Tokyo Olympics next month, which was Premier Palaszczuk’s defence for getting the Pfizer jab yesterday even though she is over fifty and should have got AstraZeneca. While our political leaders have often lived by different rules than the rest of the country, this would be an especially egregious case. Alas, Andrew Cooper of LibertyWorks lost his challenge to Australia’s “draconian” international travel restrictions (see Australian court upholds ban on most international travel). It will be up to our political leaders to remove these restrictions, but history suggests our leaders will leave them in place far too long.
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