Leading article Australia

We are not Anzacs in this crisis

24 April 2020

11:00 PM

24 April 2020

11:00 PM

One hundred and five years ago today, our boys stormed the barren shores of Anzac Cove. For all the Victoria Crosses awarded for bravery in that ill-fated campaign, every man leaping from the boats that first Anzac Day to scale those steep, rocky Gallipoli cliffs, under withering Turkish fire, was brave in a way that most of us who have never known world war or even economic recession could ever understand.

Or, as Test cricketer and second world war RAAF fighter pilot Keith Miller once remarked, ‘Pressure is having a Messerschmitt up your arse, playing cricket is not.’

As Australia under Scott Morrison’s leadership has gone deep into the Wuhan virus suppression stage and our society and economy have been upended, the prime minister and others have invoked the ‘Anzac spirit’ to inspire and motivate Australians to self-isolate, practise social distancing and endure the losses of livelihoods. Fair enough, but for anyone to equate staying at home to binge on Netflix and foregoing a moderate amount of personal freedom for the common good to the bravery of Gallipoli, the Somme, the Blitz and the Burma railway is far too big a stretch.

That the Queen, 94 this week and of an age where she is most at risk of the full deadly consequences of coronavirus infection, felt compelled to reassure us with her Vera Lynn-inspired message that ‘we will meet again’ should be a sobering reminder that we have become too effete, too soft in ourselves and our culture that we struggle to cope with this unexpected setback.  We’ve had it too good for too long.

What’s become acutely obvious in recent weeks is the herd mentality that when things get tough, government must always provide. Mr Morrison and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg were arguably right to double Newstart and institute the JobKeeper wage subsidy programme to keep as many jobs in hibernation rather than lost altogether; but only as a safety net, not an entitlement. Yet how quickly we have banked that massive, debt-driven lifeline and put our hands out for more. Look at the growing complaints from employers and unions that JobKeeper doesn’t do this or cover that and that every possibility is somehow government’s responsibility to provide for. Sure, let’s be grateful for what’s being done, but recognise that future generations are saddled with paying off this monstrous national debt.

And why has industry after industry gone to government with hands extended for bailouts? Certainly, the unexpected decimation of the tourism and hospitality industries is on a scale that is seeing many businesses go to the wall for reasons beyond their control and given their contribution to GDP some additional assistance is justified. But Labor and others demanding a massive handout to a skint airline almost wholly owned by foreign interests and a clownish billionaire was, frankly, Virgin on the ridiculous.

The private hospital industry is another example. Effectively the Morrison government bailed out private hospitals late last month, ostensibly to provide overflow intensive care and high-care bed capacity for the anticipated flood of coronavirus patients. All well and good, but why were day-procedure centres and small surgical hospitals, which have nothing to do with the coronavirus fight,  included? Looks like government was suckered into socialising the losses of often speculative ventures designed more to make money for their promoters than heal the sick.

Then there’s the university sector which, having put almost all its revenue eggs in the foreign student basket, is suffering from Chinese students being kept home. Its bloatedly overpaid million-dollar-plus salaried vice-chancellors blame government for their self-caused predicament (not enough taxpayer funding forced us to do it, you know), while demanding buckets of public cash to keep them going.

In both businesses and households, the Wuhan virus is exposing hard truths. Instead of anticipating rainy seasons by putting money aside, for too long we’ve gone along spending, borrowing and using credit with gay abandon. Recent surveys indicate half of us have household savings of less than $10,000 while average household debt, mortgages included, is now more than 200 per cent of net household income.  Many businesses similarly have leveraged themselves to the point that a recession, whatever the cause, will finish them. We’re now reaping our own whirlwind from Wuhan.

In marking this Anzac Day, do not invoke the Anzac spirit to evade responsibility for the bad consequences of our own choices. But if it must be invoked, let it inspire us, in future, to do more for ourselves, to save against the unexpected and to encourage personal initiative and enterprise rather than assume government will be our mother, father and nanny.

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