OPINION

JobKeeper and JobSeeker are old news. What the PM needs is JabMaker

Last week, the US inoculated the equivalent of the entire population of Australia. Picture: Shutterstock
Last week, the US inoculated the equivalent of the entire population of Australia. Picture: Shutterstock

Forget last week's surprisingly healthy 5.6 per cent unemployment rate, even if it was "comfortably below 6 per cent".

This of course was the government's own trigger for commencing fiscal repair - another term for spending cuts, program removals, and so on. Unpopular stuff.

A government under unforeseen political pressure is probably feeling anything but comfortable.

In any event, this 5.6 per cent figure was from March, which is an important detail because it pre-dated the wind-up of the JobKeeper wage subsidy.

Who knows what that means?

It could mean nothing much, or we might see an uptick in jobs lost - employees shed from debt-addled "zombie" firms which survived the crisis only to perish in the recovery.

At $90-plus billion, the low-doc JobKeeper wage subsidy scheme was the biggest single program in Australian history.

And by any metric, it was a shining success. Any metric, that is, if you exclude the country's fourth-biggest pre-pandemic export sector, education.

Universities suffered a triple COVID hit - denied access to the JobKeeper program due to the way it was structured; denied overseas students from whom (admittedly too much) revenue was relied upon; and denied any certainty about their return even in 2022 due to a snail-paced vaccine rollout.

As a result, a country that led the world through the 2020 pandemic trails it in 2021 through a bungled recovery program, while perhaps permanently hobbling one of its most lucrative and reliable exports.

Ever innovative, Australia may have found a way to give its university sector, and therefore its own future growth, the economic version of "long COVID".

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Politically, Scott Morrison's options at the start of 2021 looked pretty inviting. Flush with that 2020 success - a combination of good judgment, good luck, and state government front-footedness - the PM was riding high in public opinion. Inevitably talk turned to a possible spring election to capitalise.

Labor's end of the see-saw was weighed down. Doubts were aired about the leader's cut-through, his chances in an early poll, the pros and cons of a challenge.

But events since have changed everything. Two months of attempting to politically nuance a series of negative stories and allegations regarding the treatment of women in politics have damaged the government, consumed its oxygen, and pricked the PM's inflated reputation as the supreme pragmatist.

His unwillingness to get in front of the problem has instead evinced a strange defensiveness, and his grudging late-stage efforts at political rescue have been less effective for their pointless delay and for the tightly qualified nature of the language used.

The Christine Holgate saga is merely the latest iteration.

It was clear weeks ago that Ms Holgate had been prejudicially forced from her job at Australia Post. The most senior political leverage in the land had been summarily and publicly applied.

A prime ministerial apology was the obvious solution, not just for her but for him also.

Morrison's reluctant acknowledgment of multiple problems with the vaccine rollout reinforces this instinctive stubbornness.

The abject helplessness of Australia in the vaccine stage is all the more jarring for its contrast with the 2020 suppression of the virus and the glowing vaccination expectations the government itself created.

On these grounds alone, the PM's political judgment is questionable. Australians were promised a world-class vaccine program in which we would be at the front of the queue. What it would lack in immediacy (a luxury of zero community infection, we were assured) would be more than made up for in logistical precision.

Scott Morrison's has displayed a bizarre unwillingness to get in front of the vaccine problem. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Scott Morrison's has displayed a bizarre unwillingness to get in front of the vaccine problem. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

In fact, it has failed to materialise. Opaque and piecemeal, the rollout feels more like an eke-out.

Now, the Coalition looks to the May 11 budget for political salvation.

Even with a jobless number of just 5.6 per cent, it has limited political capital to spend and must use the balance sheet to repair its political stocks rather than the nation's books.

JobKeeper, JobSeeker, and even JobMaker have either gone or will not make enough difference to matter at the ballot box next year.

What the government really needs is what the country needs: JabMaker.

After all, it's the jabless rate, rather than the jobless rate, that could decide the next election. It currently sits "comfortably" above 95 per cent, with no certainty that the population will be vaccinated this calendar year.

The end-of-October boast has been junked, replaced with ... nothing.

Compare that to calamitous America, where they expect to reach the full adult population by the end of July.

Last week, the US inoculated the entire population of Australia. In one week! On one of those days alone, 4.6 million people received jabs of either the Pfizer vaccine or others such as Moderna or Johnson & Johnson.

Australia is well and truly jab-ready.

Its government, not so much.

  • Mark Kenny is a professor at the ANU's Australian Studies Institute and host of the Democracy Sausage podcast.
This story JobKeeper and JobSeeker are old news. What the PM needs is JabMaker first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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