Associate Professor Salvatore Babones has released a new paper at the Centre for International Studies (CIS), entitled “The 12-Week Window: Coronavirus crisis Australia didn’t have to have”. The paper argues that the federal government acted far too late in closing Australia’s international border, in turn resulting in a harder economic lockdown than would otherwise have been required:
The coronavirus crisis has wreaked death and economic destruction throughout the world, but it was a crisis that Australia didn’t have to have. This paper lays out a detailed weekly timeline of the crucial first 12 weeks of the crisis, from China’s first public admission of the disease outbreak on Monday, December 30 to Australia’s border closure on Friday, March 20. Those weeks were Australia’s window of
opportunity for fighting the virus at the border instead of in the community.
Had Australia properly treated the coronavirus as a border security challenge during those 12 weeks, it could have quarantined a limited number of arriving passengers and thus insulated the rest of the country from the worst effects of the pandemic. Instead, Australia treated the introduction of the coronavirus as unavoidable, focusing instead on managing it as public health challenge, using tools like social distancing and the closure of large parts of the Australian economy to isolate 25 million people from the few infected individuals.
By treating the coronavirus as a public health threat instead of as a border security threat, Australia needlessly imposed hundreds of billions of dollars in financial losses on its own population.
In criticising Australia’s public health led response, this paper presents evidence that Australia’s Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy and the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC) he chaired:
- Placed inordinate faith in the highly-politicised advice of the World Health Organization;
- Placed inordinate faith in China’s ‘transparency and openness’;
- Uncritically endorsed the World Health Organization’s advice to rely on China (and, later, other countries) to contain the outflow of coronavirus cases instead of taking independent action to control the inflow of cases from China (and, later, the rest of the world);
- Equated handing out informational pamphlets containing advice on self-isolation with ‘quarantines’; and
- Inexplicably failed to issue advice on cruise ship sailings until the end of Week 11 or the beginning of Week 12, by which time it was too late.
Notwithstanding these errors, the prime minister and the National Security Committee of Cabinet (NSC), not the AHPPC, bore ultimate responsibility for ensuring Australia’s border security. This paper presents evidence that in exercising this responsibility, the prime minister and the NSC:
- Made inappropriately firm public commitments to act only on the advice of their health experts (i.e., the AHPPC);
- Counter-productively endorsed the exploitation of loopholes in Australia’s travel restrictions, instead of closing them; and
- Failed in the execution of simple border security measures like electronic record-keeping and routine follow-up.
Throughout the crucial first 12 weeks of Australia’s coronavirus response, the critical point of failure in the government’s border security policymaking occurred at the junction between bureaucratic expertise and political leadership. The research presented in this paper leads to the conclusion that political leaders who sit on the NSC could have — and should have — drawn on their extensive foreign policy experience and contacts to:
- Discount the advice of the WHO not to impose travel restrictions;
- Disregard Chinese propaganda about its success in managing the crisis; and
- Critically evaluate the advice it received from the AHPPC in light of actions being taken by other jurisdictions with which the members of the NSC were presumably in regular communication (e.g., Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, and the United States).
For the first 12 weeks of 2020, the coronavirus crisis was not a public health crisis, but a border security crisis. By treating the coronavirus as a public health crisis right from the beginning, the NSC abrogated too large a portion of its decision-making responsibility. The AHPPC were out of their depth in advising on national security — a policy area that was not really within their area of expertise.
The coronavirus crisis has exposed fault lines in Australia’s national security decision-making that should be mended. In any future national security crisis, the NSC and the elected leadership should:
- Limit the role of bureaucratic advice to narrow areas of expert competency;
- Take greater public responsibility for decisions that are, ultimately, political;
- Exercise due skeptism of pronouncements from highly politicised intergovernmental organisations like the WHO and other United Nations specialised agencies; and
- Apply a ‘reasonable person’ test to policymaking, in the full confidence that the Australian electorate, on the whole, consists of reasonable people.
Australia is one of the oldest, most stable, most successful democracies in the world. Its record of policymaking and policy execution throughout its long history of self-government is vastly superior to that of most of the other member states of the United Nations and its specialised agencies. Although it is appropriate for Australia to conscientiously take notice of the advice of intergovernmental organisations, it makes no sense for Australia to slavishly follow their dictates.
After China’s initial mismanagement and attempted cover-up of the Wuhan outbreak in weeks 1-4 of the coronavirus crisis, it was probably impossible to prevent a near-global pandemic spread of the disease.
Nonetheless, at that point it was still possible to prevent the spread of the coronavirus into Australia’s general population. This, the NSC failed to do.
Salvatore Babones will get zero disagreement from MB. As the virus was initially spreading, we published daily articles over many weeks demanding the closure of Australia’s international border.
Australia’s powerful university sector didn’t help the situation. They initially lobbied hard against travel bans. And then once that was unsuccessful, they smuggled international students into Australia via third countries like Thailand and Dubai.
Now, after Australians have endured months of lockdown and economic pain to get ahead of the virus, we risk repeating the farce all over again. Australia’s universities are once again lobbying hard for tens-of-thousands of international students to be allowed into Australia at the same time as we cannot travel abroad or interstate.
Salvatore Babones’ full paper can be downloaded here.