Dennis Atkins: From COVID to Trump, 2020 is the year of ‘what if’ questions

From Morrison and Ardern to Obama and Trump, 2020 has delivered the greatest opportunity for “what if” questions any of us have seen.

From Morrison and Ardern to Obama and Trump, 2020 has delivered the greatest opportunity for “what if” questions any of us have seen.

What if Australia’s responses to the COVID-19 pandemic had hit the marks seen in New Zealand, where things were very different. What if the US was watching a traditional, smooth and magnanimous handover of presidential power.

We have just lived through a year with the greatest opportunity for “what if” questions any of us have seen.

Counterfactuals always work overtime in political and international relations but during a pandemic the possibilities are on steroids.

Two new publications, very far apart in origin, subject and content, provide keen insights into a couple of very pertinent “what if” questions for 2020.

The latest Quarterly Essay, The High Road, by ABC political journalist Laura Tingle is a self-styled “political and policy nerd’s Cook’s Tour” of recent New Zealand history and provides, among other things, a side-by-side comparison to how Australia and our cross-Tasman neighbour have navigated the year.

Meanwhile, Barack Obama’s outsized first volume of his presidential memoir, A Promised Land, recalls a United States which just a decade and a bit later seems a distant foreign country.


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While Tingle’s essay is a thorough and crisp walk through the shared history of Australia and New Zealand, the sharpest edge in this comparison of nations is when the performance and achievements of Jacinda Ardern and Morrison in handling the COVID-19 pandemic is under the microscope.

Tingle takes a seemingly small difference between Australia and NZ – transparency in policy making – and uses it to highlight the divergent ways the two southern-hemisphere countries handled the pandemic.

In Australia, federal and state governments have had an erratic record when it comes to transparency and keeping us informed of their thinking,” writes Tingle.

“By comparison, the Ardern government began a habit of voluntarily and preemptively releasing massive dumps of official cabinet papers and briefing notes through 2020, documenting the briefings it was receiving as COVID-19 first emerged, and various options it considered in dealing with it.”

This is a stark contrast to Australia, where everything associated with the Morrison’s government’s pandemic response – and the newly minted national cabinet’s deliberations – has been smothered by “Cabinet-in-Confidence” secrecy, including the advisory bodies established to guide deliberations.

Tingle outlines the difference in approach – a harder lockdown in New Zealand, a larger stimulus/protection spend as a percentage of GDP – but also examines how the countries treated these responses. Whereas in Australia things were temporary and targeted, a boast still repeated by Morrison and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, across the Tasman the measures were designed, announced and implemented as permanent features of the social fabric.


Australia’s PM and Treasurer chose temporary and targeted support, while New Zealand opted for a larger stimulus and safetynet.

“And so the discussion did not immediately become focused on when the support would stop, which undermined confidence and certainty in Australia,” observes Tingle.

In NZ it looked like this: “There was permanent increase in social spending on protecting vulnerable people, including the disabled, worth 0.8 percent of GDP, as well as income relief payments for people who had lost their jobs (amounting to 0.2 percent of GDP). There were also permanent changes in business taxes to help cash flow, costing around 1 percent of GDP.”

Other stark contrasts with what happened in Australia were an increase in the base funding for the national public broadcaster, Radio New Zealand (“to support the current levels of service, including essential journalism, news and media”) and assistance for international students in the country, noting it would help NZ’s reputation as a provider of global education.

Two PMs, one pandemic: Morrison and Ardern have handled COVID very differently.

Tingle says the way New Zealand treated students was markedly different to “Australia’s appalling, and extraordinarily unremarked-upon, decision to abandon around one million temporary visa holders, including not just international students and refugees, but long term residents who had been invited to Australia to fill skills shortages on temporary visas”.

The pandemic performance comparison of what happened in Australia and New Zealand is an up-to-the-minute example of Tingle’s overall thesis that what happens here is often overshadowed and outshone by what’s going on a few thousand kilometres to our east.

Also, Tingle suggests New Zealand’s history prompts consideration of issues left for too long in Australia’s ‘too hard basket’ such as Indigenous recognition and reconciliation and inequality.

As we chart a still uneasy course into the second year of this pandemic, there are plenty of “what if” questions posed and left hanging by what our much smaller neighbour has dared to attempt and, mostly, achieve.

In his new memoir, Barack Obama discusses his relationship with George W. Bush.

Meanwhile, Obama’s book is a majestic tale of an historic journey in American politics – the rise of a mixed-race man of African-American heritage aiming for the most powerful job in the world, president of the United States.

There is one note that Obama strikes which tells us just how much the world has changed since he won in late 2008 – the smooth, good-natured and magnanimous handover of power from Republican George W. Bush to Barack Obama from the moment they met just days after polling day.

“(For a number of possible reasons) President Bush would end up doing all he could to make the 11 weeks between my election and his departure go smoothly,” writes Obama.

Barack Obama stands in stark contrast to his presidential successor Donald Trump.

“Every office in the White House provided my team with detailed ‘how to’ manuals. His staffers made themselves available to meet with their successors, answer questions and even be shadowed as they carried out their duties.”

The generous handover extended to the Obama family, with the Bush children spending time with the daughters of the new president and showing them how to have fun in this strangest of new homes.

It’s such a whiplash contrast with what’s occurring in Washington as sulking, belligerent sore loser Donald Trump is setting new lows in presidential behaviour. This is surely a massive “what if” for historians to ponder and analyse.

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