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Richardson: Marshall could pay political price of freedom

Opinion

There’ll be no ‘freedom day’ in SA, we’re frequently told, but that hasn’t stopped the staged reopening of the state’s borders and economy – likely late this year – from being widely described in some sections of the media as a liberation.

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Not that our presumptive hitherto lack of freedom has been overly onerous here in SA.

Despite the protestations of a local few and the gobsmacked awe of some US-based observers, whose ‘Give me liberty or give me death’ credo has now become a genuine choice, for most Australians the relative inconvenience of things like QR check-ins and mask-wearing have been broadly adopted as temporary staples of the social contract, namely responsibilities we are prepared to bear for the broader good of society.

More problematic has been the loss of freedom of movement, which has seen families separated, livelihoods lost and genuinely tragic circumstances such as people unable to farewell dying relatives.

Then there is the spectre of imposed stay-at-home mandates, which we have seen from afar in Victoria and NSW but here in SA have only endured for a relatively minor period.

These are the elements we are now told will be gradually lifted once the population reaches a broad target of 80 per cent of the population over 16 years of age to have received their second COVID vaccination.

But like most things in this pandemic era, the details are as yet vague.

Steven Marshall this week made the grandiose announcement that families could expect to be reunited with interstate-based loved ones in time for Christmas.

Except, the thing is – it wasn’t delivered as a grandiose announcement.

In fact, it was mentioned as an aside in response to some detailed questions literally 30 minutes of the way into an unrelated media conference about TAFE courses, at which point the Premier’s media minder decided the whole thing had gone on long enough and wrapped up the proceedings.

Marshall reiterated his previous assertion that South Australians should expect a “relatively normal Christmas” – a shame really, since for me this entails leaving the present shopping till the last minute only to realise on Christmas morning that I’ve forgotten about the distant relative to whom I was assigned the responsibility of buying a Kris Kringle gift.

Marshall is, in essence, sticking to the national cabinet model he’d already agreed to, whereby statewide lockdowns and border closures are phased out once the 80 per cent vaccination target is met.

And given SA is tracking behind significant jurisdictions, that means by the time we meet that target in enough areas of dense population, the states on our eastern borders will already be well past that point.

Unfortunately, those states currently continue to report hundreds of new COVID cases and multiple deaths daily, which assuming things haven’t settled down by early December – our long-presumed double-vaccination benchmark date – will leave the Government with quite the conundrum.

You see, for all Marshall’s talk about a ‘relatively normal Christmas’, we still don’t know what the next phase of ‘living with COVID’ looks like.

And for all those South Australians desperate to travel to visit loved ones, or simply to leave their own proverbial backyard (as opposed to their literal backyard, which is also a distinct and ever-present possibility), there are also plenty of South Australians more than happy to stay safely snuggled in their COVID bubble.

Which makes the next few months a curious period for Marshall and his Government.

For in March next year, they will go to the polls seeking a second term.

It’s long been assumed that the Government’s handling of COVID – or, more precisely, its handballing of the management of COVID to a couple of senior and well-spoken bureaucrats – would be its biggest selling point come polling day.

And yet, with the election campaign around the corner and SA boasting about as campaign-friendly a pandemic record as anywhere in the country – if not the world – Marshall is taking a leap into the unknown.

We’re told the Government is working on the finer details about what the next phase, post 80 per cent, looks like.

But Marshall has already made this much clear: “I think people this Christmas can look forward to people coming from interstate to spend time with them.”

There will, he insists, still will be restrictions in place, with density caps and, presumably, mask-wearing – and certainly QR code check-ins, those less onerous burdens of the social contract.

But also, he says: “I think we can look forward to no state lockdowns.”

He’s previously suggested that could be replaced by more localised lockdowns to combat new clusters.

But if such snap mandates become commonplace, it won’t look a lot like freedom to those impacted. In fact, it will look a lot less like it than what they have now.

Marshall is also adamant the hospital system is equipped to deal with an inexorable influx of COVID cases, arguing “we can flex our capacity… up or flex it down”.

Which sounds good, but sits uncertainly besides daily reports of ramped ambulances and over-worked EDs.

If there is flexibility in the system, why isn’t it being utilised already?

Marshall has rarely if ever been one to rock the boat with his federal colleagues in Canberra, and his rhetoric is broadly consistent with the staged plan to reopen the nation outlined (again, vaguely) by Scott Morrison earlier this year.

But it assumes that South Australians – broadly speaking – are itching to reopen borders.

And I’m not convinced they are.

The psychology of SA through this pandemic has been telling: while other nations endured thousands of new cases a day, and other states became accustomed to regular outbreaks, the revelation of a solitary truckie testing positive after spending a few hours transiting through our state is enough to trigger broad local hysteria.

The highest daily caseload in SA was 38, and that was back at the start of the pandemic. Since then, the only significant spikes came with the clusters that triggered our two brief lockdowns, both of which quickly petered out.

So the notion that after almost two years in which SA has meandered along with the occasional new case or two, almost always ‘safely’ ensconced in hotel quarantine, the Government is preparing to throw open the doors to a significant influx of COVID cases is one that requires some patient and nuanced explanation.

The Government can’t go from calling emergency press conferences about every COVID-positive truck driver to inviting a likely surge in cases heading into Christmas, and merely assume people understand that the rules have changed. That once the 80 per cent vaccination target is reached, we are more concerned with hospitalisations and ventilator rates than we are with case numbers per se.

It’s also unclear just when the borders will come down, and to whom.

Will double-vaxxed Melburnians be allowed to visit SA for Christmas, even if their state’s case numbers persist at well over a thousand a day?

Will they have to quarantine and, if so, where and for how long?

And when will the quarantine requirement be wound back?

These are questions Marshall has pondered but as yet not clearly answered.

It’s hardly his fault, but it’s hard to think of another Premier whose public policy platform is so unclear this close to an election.

I suppose Marshall should be commended for his courage: for such a leap into the unknown three months before polling day is certainly courageous.

But I recall the words of Yes Minister’s Humphrey Appleby, who famously told the titular minister that a ‘controversial’ proposal would lose him votes.

A ‘courageous’ one would lose him the whole election.

Tom Richardson is a senior reporter at InDaily.

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