Michael Pascoe: ‘Stunt’ Morrison’s Novax serve aces his RATs disaster, for now

Novak Djokovic has taken the RAT crisis and testing failures out of the headlines for the Prime Minister, Michael Pascoe writes.

Novak Djokovic has taken the RAT crisis and testing failures out of the headlines for the Prime Minister, Michael Pascoe writes. Photo: TND

You don’t have to be cynical to suspect the Prime Minister jumping on the “Novax Djokovid” bandwagon is more about creating a distraction than upholding border security.

Scott Morrison’s track record will do that for you.

And there is indeed an urgent need for a distraction:

  • The COVID testing system has been blown up
  • The Prime Minister’s monumental clanger of preferencing “the private market” for RATs over public health advice is hurting badly, with even the Australian Financial Review running multiple negative stories
  • The overall RATs debacle is being sheeted home to the federal government for delaying the tests’ approval for use here and then failing to move on supply until there was already a shortage
  • Businesses and individuals are increasingly suffering from a spreading voluntary lockdown as Omicron runs riot under the “let it rip” policy championed by Mr Morrison
  • Stories are leaking out of hospitals failing their own care standards as cases jump and staff contract the virus
  • About 2000 aged-care homes are short staffed, existing somewhere between a permanent state of fear of imminent disaster and the actual disaster of solitary confinement lockdowns
  • Governments changing definitions to obtain less embarrassing outcomes are not fooling many
  • And there is that ongoing problem of Mr Morrison “being economical with the truth”, to put it mildly.

(Such is his credibility that I’m not the only one who won’t believe “Jen” has been popping out to the chemist to buy RATs until I see verified CCTV footage.)

close contact scott morrison

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has a track record of spin and deflections. Photo: AAP

When a Prime Minister’s main focus has been on photo opps, spin and image for 41 months, he leaves a record of “Look over there – a puppy!” moments.

For example, in October 2020 the government was under pressure from the “Leppington triangle deal”, paying $30 million for land that was worth $3 million.

The then Australia Post CEO, Christine Holgate, became that week’s puppy, or sacrificial lamb.

Mr Morrison latched onto the Cartier watches story, his outrage soaring in question time. “Disgraceful and not on” Mr Speaker, “she can go”, “appalled” he was.

Like the current attack on the tennis player, it was the Trumpian populist trick of seeming to attack the elite, riding under the focus groups’ instructions.

And he has never apologised to Ms Holgate.

Remember the pressure he was under over the alleged rape of Brittany Higgins down the hall from his office?

When he said his wife had to explain to him that maybe the Parliament House situation wasn’t good?

The Prime Ministerial instinct to deflect kicked in – and backfired – when he tried the one about journalists in glass houses. (He did apologise on that occasion – News Corp was involved.)

And now Novak Djokovic is an attempt at a poor man’s Tampa.

As Peter Dutton showed with au pairs when he was Immigration Minister in 2015, there is infinite ministerial discretion that can be applied, if the government wishes to.

The Djokovic saga reeks of political involvement after the social media reaction to the Tennis Australia decision to allow him to play.

Visa exemptions for the unvaccinated with a “critical skill” for a temporary visitor activity happen often enough for sports people, acting types, religious personnel and their families.

But there is indeed much to be distracted from.

I’ve suggested, only partly in jest, that Niki Savva deserves the Walkley Award for commentary for a single phrase: “Morrison, who has a habit of allowing problems to become crises before mishandling them…”

That is what has happened with RATs.

In that “being economical with the truth” way of his, the Prime Minister claimed to have been “in the market” for RATs since August.

Rapid antigen tests

Many Australians are unsuccessfully attempting to buy rapid antigen tests as Omicron cases rise.

Turns out that meant his government had put maybe a half a toe in the water to test the temperature.

The government had been warned it needed plenty of RATs before opening up to COVID. The government took no heed.

A government that manages to make both the Pharmacy Guild and the Australian Medical Association critics is not doing well. The chemists’ and doctors’ unions, their individual members, have clout with the public.

The Therapeutic Goods Administration spilt the beans on the RATs clusterfumble back in September:

Part of the issue has been the slow pace of approvals with the TGA. In September the TGA boss John Skerritt admitted that had been deliberate, as the regulator waited for a “signal” from the federal government.

“We’re saying to companies, submit your data, show us, but we can’t formally make an approval decision until we get a signal from the government,” Mr Skerritt said at the time.

TGA chief John Skerritt.

“It’s a decision for the government. Firstly, when they feel an appropriate time is to commit to such tests. But then secondly, we’ve got to have the tests that are actually ready to go and designed so they can be used by non-professional people.”

That’s the Morrison government, pushing “let it rip” but not doing what was required to make it possible.

Someone on Twitter suggested RATs are to COVID what condoms were to HIV/AIDS. If condoms had only been available for $60 a pack from Harvey Norman, our world would be tragically different.

Having gone with promoting the interests of retailers rather than the nation’s health, promising not to “undercut” the market, the government worked hard to find a way to recover.

Limiting the retail markup on RATs to 120 per cent hardly seems like being tough on gouging. Fail.

Enter the national cabinet agreement – and what a mess that is.

Instead of buying wholesale and distributing freely, the federal government is building in extra costs while limiting its 10-free-tests-per-three-months to a select group of the less-well-off, those with welfare cards of one sort or another.

That repeats a mistake of the first round of COVID welfare – ignoring the poor who aren’t citizens.

The foreign students and backpackers who didn’t go home, who deliver your Uber Eats and serve drinks, and the foreigners who work in aged care and other service industries, who have been the front line in much of the battle with the virus – nothing for them.

For all our sakes, such people have greater need of RATs than the average pensioner or gold card holder.

It simply doesn’t wash that Australia suddenly can’t afford freely available RATs after the Morrison government blew $40 billion on JobKeeper payments to businesses that didn’t need it, after making much more expensive PCR tests “free”, after throwing money at airlines for half-price tickets, and funding a gas power plant the market doesn’t want, among other things.

Meanwhile, the suspicion grows that the extent of the current health crisis is being fudged.

Dr Henry Madison wisely observes that focusing on the daily movement in numbers leads to normalisation of dreadful figures.

Forget the daily movement, hospitalisations nearly tripled in a week, ICU cases doubled. This is serious.

NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard tried a little redefining the problem when suggesting half the COVID hospitalisations were people going to hospital for other reasons.

That was allegedly based on a single hospital snapshot of admissions.

Data journalist Juliette O’Brien had both the healthy suspicion and contacts to check the spin, finding another snapshot of only 10 to 15 per cent of admissions being with rather than because of COVID.

O’Brien’s work, like Dr Madison’s perspective, doesn’t fudge the extent of this still-rising surge.


The end result of combining “let it rip” with the Omicron variant, Christmas holidays and the Queensland government’s disastrous pre- and post-arrival PCR testing is a break down in testing systems.

Example: A 25-year-old of my knowledge in a share house with someone having tested positive develops symptoms and tests positive with a rare RAT – he quite reasonably sees no point lining up for hours to maybe get a PCR, probably spreading virus in the process.

His case doesn’t get counted. The case numbers are no longer reliable.

Scott Morrison has achieved a Donald Trump aim: If you don’t test, you don’t get cases.

But, hey, look over there – Novax Djokovid!

It worked, at least for one or two news cycles. The tennis player stunt did all the trending on Twitter. RATs disappeared for a while.

The tennis thing will fade. The testing debacle won’t.

And that’s why there will be plenty more stunts.

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