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When grief meets politics, it is sad and ugly

Written by Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra


It’s been welcome to see governments taking expert health advice during the pandemic. But on the issue of ultimate responsibility, situations can become tricky, as Annastacia Palaszczuk and Daniel Andrews found this week.

When an agitated Palaszczuk said on Thursday she had told Scott Morrison it was up to the chief health officer to rule on whether to allow a woman out of quarantine to attend her father’s funeral, it was a case of the adviser being “on top” rather than “on tap”.

Palaszczuk said she’d made it “very clear” to Morrison “it is not my decision. It is the chief health officer’s decision to make”.

CHO Jeannette Young later allowed Sarah Caisip to view her father’s body but not go to the funeral.

Young explained this by saying funerals – which can be attended by 100 people in Brisbane – are “very, very high risk for transmission of the virus”.

On a common sense view and the facts as we know them, it was an excessively cautious weighing of danger versus compassion.

Caisip – whose battle with the Queensland bureaucracy began before her father’s death – had travelled from Canberra.

The ACT hasn’t had any new cases for a couple of months and shouldn’t even be classified as a “hotspot”. It’s only so defined because it sits within NSW. The chance of Caisip being a COVID carrier appears minimal.

It was taking things to an extreme to refuse to allow her to be with her mother and 11-year-old sister at the funeral. Some requirement for distancing and subsequent testing of attendees surely would have been adequate.

Did the premier use the health guru as a convenient shield behind whom to hide? Or was she (rather than the prime minister) right about who had the power? And if so, is that how things should work?

Graeme Orr, professor of law at the University of Queensland, says it’s clear the law provides that only a public health officer can let someone out of quarantine to go to a funeral. “Also, under the crime and corruption law it would be highly inappropriate for a minister to intervene.”

Regardless of where the formal power rested, the affair has been damaging for the premier and the CHO, and showed that if Queensland is to keep its border closed, more flexibility is needed in the system to deal better with compassionate cases.

With the state election looming next month, it is a bad time to get constructive dealings between the Morrison and Palaszczuk governments.

After their phone conversation, Palaszczuk accused Morrison of trying to bully her, a claim rejected by his office.

Queensland government sources said the PM was belligerent, yelled and said “you will do this”; the premier had reminded him it was R U OK? day.

Prime Ministerial sources said Palaszczuk flew off the handle when the PM said “you can do this, you are the premier, it’s within your power”.

Whether or not Morrison adopted a bullying tone – or the premier heard it that way – is beside the point. Palaszczuk is a tough, experienced politician, quite able to stand up for herself.

Indeed there is not even much of a power imbalance between the PM and premier here – as premiers have been showing, the states hold many of the cards in this pandemic.

While Palaszczuk was deferring to her health official, Victorian premier Daniel Andrews was defending himself after the revelation Victoria’s curfew had not been driven by the advice of Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton.

Questioned on radio this week about the curfew, both Sutton and Police Chief Commissioner Shane Patton said recommendations for it hadn’t come from them.

Dealing with a barrage of questions Andrews, who has leaned heavily on the health advice throughout COVID, declared: “The chief health officer is not the government”. Who’d have thought?

Andrews couldn’t provide clarity on the precise origin of the curfew. But it is there, it seems, because it makes things simpler. If citizens are required to lock themselves in at night, the authorities have fewer people to chase up to determine whether they have a legitimate reason to be out. It’s a stretch.

Like Palaszczuk, Andrews is coming under mounting pressure for taking things to extremes.

Ironically, a Victorian roadmap based on expertise is being undermined by argument among experts.

Many of those with specialist knowledge are suggesting Victoria could move more quickly to ease restrictions.

Tony Blakely, an epidemiologist from Melbourne University who had a hand in the modelling, thinks Victoria could open “a bit faster” and “maybe the curfew could be dropped”.

Blakely gives the roadmap near full marks but believes it falls short on the proposed October transition by being too stringent.

A number of other experts have questioned aspects of the Andrews’ plan. Increasingly as the week went by, the state government started emphasising there was room for tweaking if the advice allowed it.

The pandemic has brought into focus the role of experts, but as it goes on we see a more complicated picture emerging than the initial “isn’t it great the politicians are following those who know what they’re talking about.”

The months have shown not just the value of experts but also how experts in a fast-moving crisis can know a lot less than they appear to. Some of the propositions the federal health advisers advanced at COVID’s start turned out to be wrong (people with COVID are not infectious when they don’t have symptoms). Experts can and do change their advice as they learn more or for other reasons (federal advisers’ views on masks evolved).

Those with credentials will differ (about “suppression” versus “elimination”, or the likely arrival or effectiveness of a vaccine).

Experts will be heroes to their admirers and villains to their critics (Sutton is the case study).

In some instances, the experts will have an eye to the politics as they give their advice.

The politicians draw on experts’ authority to fill the yawning gaps in their own, quoting them, parading them at news conferences. Then, on occasion, the decisions and comments of the experts, by now well known public figures, come back to bite the leaders.

But the longer this pandemic lasts, the harder it is becoming for politicians to just say “we’re doing what the experts tell us”, because the trade offs are increasingly so complex.

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