Scott Morrison’s military defence doesn’t stand a chance against Delta

Scott Morrison is lucky his national cabinet spill went largely unnoticed, Michael Pascoe writes.

Scott Morrison is lucky his national cabinet spill went largely unnoticed, Michael Pascoe writes. Photo: TND

The most extraordinary newspaper story over the weekend disappeared with little trace, swamped by broader, more immediate COVID issues, the Olympics and journalism’s frequent failure to follow up another paper’s exclusive – the “not invented here” syndrome.

For mine, a general launching “a savage broadside” in national cabinet against a state premier is important news.

For the Prime Minister to be unconcerned and immediately back up his military man makes it serious business, a marker in the militarisation of government, what the Australia Institute’s Allan Behm calls “Operation Khaki Creep”.

“Lieutenant-General John Frewen, an unelected public servant, had just listened to a desperate plea from the premier about redirecting Commonwealth-controlled vaccines from GP clinics into the most affected Sydney local government areas,” Rick Morton reported in The Saturday Paper.

“Frewen was apoplectic. According to those present in the virtual meeting, he spoke with such derision that it left other premiers and chief ministers stunned. At least one state leader told colleagues: ‘I would have stopped the meeting if he had spoken to me like that’.”

Morton also reported Scott Morrison handballed much of the negotiating in the virtual meeting to General Frewen and periodically stood up from his desk “turned his back to the camera and bent down to literally stoke a fire with a poker”.

OK, maybe poking the fire is not important, whatever it says about the Prime Ministerial attitude to national cabinet, but leaking of such detail from the meeting also says something about the low ebb of federal relations.

The reported performance of the military at that level is important, used by the Prime Minister to conduct national cabinet affairs, tackling a premier, rather than the supposed role of being a public servant of the federation in running the vaccination program.

Alas, The Saturday Paper has a relatively small circulation. It was someone else’s exclusive. It wasn’t mentioned on Insiders or anywhere else that I’ve noticed.

And knocking the military, questioning Operation Khaki Creep, has been turned into something a Committee for Un-Australian Activities might investigate.

That’s been both the aim and result of politicians increasingly wrapping themselves in the flag and surrounding themselves with people in military uniform, none more so than Scott Morrison.

The use of the military for props is a natural extension of the flag lapel pin – “it reminds me every single day whose side I’m on” – and the flag face mask and whenever possible, multi-flag backgrounds for announcements and photo ops.

scott morrison vaccine

A flag as a mask can help one remember which country one has been stuck in for 18 months.

By implication, if you’re not on Mr Morrison’s side, if you’re not waving the flag and saluting the military, adopting the cheesy American “thanks for your service” to begin every speech, you’re not on the side of the Australian people – you exclude yourself from consideration.

Judging by Morton’s report, that goes for state premiers as well.

Mr Behm, the head of the Australia Institute’s international and security affairs program, suggests Mr Morrison is picking up when John Howard left off in militarisation of civilian roles.

The Howard government deployed the SAS to swoop on the Tampa to prevent refugees being disembarked, appointed two generals to senior public service roles in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet and appointed a major general to command the Northern Territory Emergency Response to Aboriginal child sexual abuse.

Scott Morrison kept uniforms close during Operation Sovereign Borders and when his polling dived during the bushfire crisis.

Now there’s Operation COVID Shield with a Royal Australian Navy commodore appointed in April to manage the logistics of the vaccine rollout.

And now we have the military not just providing service backup to civilian roles, but on the street creeping closer to policing.

It’s the military, the flag – we must be in good hands.

But the evidence suggests we’re not. Whatever happened in national cabinet on Friday, there was nothing of substance to show for it at the end.

As Alan Kohler has explained, there was nothing really new in the Prime Minister’s post-Cabinet media conference.

The vaunted “four-phase exit plan” is pretty standard and waffly enough for politicians to wave it about in hope of no more lockdowns in our time.

It’s more of a “back-of-the-napkin” thought bubble, according to the Grattan Institute.

At the grittier end of reality, ICU specialist Dr Greg Kelly spelt out in a Twitter thread how it’s the case load of ICU teams that is likely to end up deciding when lockdowns end, not a vaccination yardstick that fudges its numbers by excluding children.

ICU teams care for the sickest patients from all areas of medicine, ICU is “the centre of gravity” of high-intensity hospital health care, Dr Kelly wrote.

Most ICU patients are in and out relatively quickly – 85 per cent in less than three days – but the remaining 15 per cent represent two-thirds of ICU bed capacity.

It doesn’t take many extra long-stay patients to use up ICU capacity.

And COVID ICU patients tend to be long stay.

One severe COVID patient is the equivalent of 20 heart or major cancer surgery ICU patients.

Dr Kelly said ICU capacity is finely tuned – the 50-plus COVID patients in NSW ICU didn’t come with a reduction in other types of admissions.

It’s the threatened case load that will decide lockdowns and there’s no sign the threat disappears around 50 per cent of the total population being vaccinated once the Delta variant has taken hold.

All the flags and uniforms and four-phase plans and buck-passing and political sniping won’t change the ICU reality.

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