Mr Abbott observes that the National Pandemic Plan while he was Health Minister did not include 'advice to close state borders, shut workplaces and cancel mass gatherings in a moderate pandemic.' He then goes on to argue that these measures were unneccessary in the current pandemic, and that acting otherwise has been a betrayal of 'conservative values.'
It is interesting that a theme of Mr Abbott's writing from his campaign speech for preselection through writing Battlelines to this contribution, he steadfastly claims that we should 'stop knocking our country' or that we should have a 'renewed emphasis on the active virtues and robust attitudes that have made Australia a country to be proud of.' Yet all he does in all of these is criticise Australia by criticising everyone who doesn't agree with him.
On the core issue of COVID Mr Abbott falls into the camp that claims the global response has been an over-reaction. He says 'When the Italian hospital system seemed to be collapsing under the strain of COVID cases, a degree of public panic was understandable. But nine months later, with the virus much better understood and much less likely to kill...it's still being treated like the grim reaper.' As to death rates Mr Abbott observes 'To what extent should everyone be locked down in order to protect a vulnerable minority.'
This is a complete failure to understand the virus - or viruses in general. Firstly, it wasn't public panic, it was professional assessment of the capacity of the health system to cope. The goal was slowing the spread sufficient to get health resources in place. We discovered that using standard pandemic controls - correctly identified by Abbott as dating from the Spanish flu - we identified that our borders made it possible to go beyond slowing the spread to eradication.
As we are discovering the health impacts are not only death (which is concentrated in, but not restricted to, the elderly) but longer term impacts including breathing difficulties and no doubt more yet to be identified.
But the other reason for wanting to suppress the virus is that every time it is transferred increaes the possibility of dangerous mutations. We are already seeing mutations that make the virus more infectious, but mutations could also make it more dangerous.
Mr Abbott's real concern appears to be that Government is doing anything at all - based on what he identifies as 'conservative' principles. He writes:
For all governments at all times, the challenge is to get the balance right betweeen keeping people safe and keeping people free....The pandemic has presented all governments with invidious choices, but especially conservative ones that are normally intent on minimising official intrusion into people's daily lives.
This is consistent with his other writings, but really confuses being 'conservative' with being 'liberal.' A true conservative is someone who just thinks we don't need change - the original Tories supporting the monarchy and aristocracy against the dangerous liberal ideas of the merchant classes and the socialist ideas of the working classes. The victory of the liberal democratic order changes all that so - yes - a conservative can be someone who is intent on promoting liberty. But in doing so, these conservatives are living contradictions - they are supporting the unthinking retention of the victories of previous progressives.
Mr Abbott's explanation for why we pursued strategies that weren't included in his pandemic plans is that there are 'seismic cultural shifts now underway in the West, writing:
We are materially rich but spiritually poor, and generally more fearful. More self-confident governments would not have placed so much faith in unelected and unaccountable experts....Societies that retained more 'faith in the world to come' would have been less alarmed by a virus like those that have readily been seen off before.
It is hard to tell if the reference to the 'world to come' is that we should welcome death as our pathway to heaven, or, in contradiction to being a conservative Mr Abbott believes in a unidirectional arrow of progress.
It is Mr Abbott's attitude to the advice of experts that is most telling. To not place faith in experts is to suggest their advice should be ignored, that Governments did whatever they suggested and bugger the consequences. But Governments have been doing exactly what Mr Abbott claims they should do, getting 'the balance right betwen keeping people safe and keeping people free.' To that could be added keeping people prosperous - i.e, caring for the economy. And on this Governments also took advice from experts.
He tries to inject a degree of political bias, suggesting that Labor Premiers have been 'revelling in slamming shut their borders, restricting their businesses and giving orders to the public.' But despite his protestations the Liberal Premiers have been no different. Steve Marshall ordered an immediate lockdown for a week after a quarantine leak, NSW slammed shut its borders with Victoria (and - one might add - in a way that didn't deal well with the border towns).
Mr Abbott's criticism is therefore of all Australia leaders, all of whom are enjoying widespread public support. His criticism is founded in decision making not being 'conservative' enough. He writes:
Always, it's the job of a thoughtful conservative to question and to doubt; to insist that new measures be justified and proportionate, especially when change goes counter to considered positions that conservative political movements have been supporting for decades.
And there is the rub. The response to the pandemic was wrong because it took actions that limited 'freedoms' of some kind. Nevermind the jurisprudence around concepts of freedom such as the judgement of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. in Schenck v. United States, where he wrote:
The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic. ... The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent. It is a question of proximity and degree.
Restrictions on movement to protect public health is not a restriction of freedom - either legally or ethically. It is not the action of anything other than a liberal democratic state exercising its responsibility to keep people safe. To suggest otherwise is delusional - a word often used about Mr Abbott.
Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans JWL
Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans JWL