OPINION

Forklifts and failures: PM's Wednesday presser was a doozy

Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaks to the media on Thursday, the day after he floated the possibility of lowering the age required to drive a forklift. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong
Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaks to the media on Thursday, the day after he floated the possibility of lowering the age required to drive a forklift. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Justin Stevens, that polite young man who runs the ABC's flagship current affairs programs 7.30, explains his work woes each day with a tweet enumerating the many days the federal Health Minister Greg Hunt has refused to appear on the program. He has a list of the times Hunt has been asked for an interview, with little crosses next to the minister's name. May 2021 was the very last time the minister agreed to an interview. In the middle of a freaking pandemic. Pusillanimous. Spineless. Impuissant. And other synonyms for bad language we can't have in a family newspaper. In the meantime, Hunt's beleagured comms people must continue courteously to deny requests for their boss to be held accountable.

Speaking of complete unaccountability, did you manage to catch the Prime Minister's press conference on Wednesday? ICYMI, let me parse it for you.

Parse is not a word you hear much these days, but when I was in fifth class, the idea was you'd be given a passage of prose or a poem and would go through it looking for nouns, verbs, clauses, metaphors, rhetoric, exaggeration, etc to find real meaning. I still mess up the past perfect, but let me bring you to the present very imperfect, where Mr Morrison spoke uninterrupted for way too many minutes. There were, of course, nouns and verbs unattached to meaning aplenty, but also many metaphors for the mess in which we find ourselves.

The Prime Minister said he wanted to start by being very upfront with Australians. This would be a change, since Morrison has never been upfront about the vaccine rollout, nor the strollout, nor the baffling lack of rapid antigen tests.

That lack of upfront-ness has led us to Australia's current predicament. We all want a return to normal life - of course we do - but we can't have that without provision of what will protect us. Vaccines and boosters work. Masks and social distancing work. We know antivirals are now working a treat. We know RATs work like canaries. But for all those things to work, the government has to as well. I genuinely feel lucky. A week into a mild case of COVID and I'm on the mend, although I'm not sure "mild" is quite the way to describe night sweats, shivers, coughing up my insides and having bones too sore to walk. I'm not dead, so that's a blessing. But having to drive three hours to find a RAT for diagnosis tells me the government is not doing its job. That's not normal life.

Morrison's decision to be upfront should be normal for politicians dealing with a country exhausted by three devastating summers: bushfires and pandemics. But he doesn't understand what we want by normal. We want big-picture thinking. We want decisive action. We want political - collective - responsibility. Decision-making for the good of us all, not a trivial grab bag of word-saladism. My favourite bit of his first re-election speech of 2022 was his open consideration of an industry suggestion we should allow kids to drive forklifts. Awesome. So awesome.

Look, I have a particular interest here, for both personal and professional reasons. The personal, first: my grandson, nearly two, would be thrilled. Some inventive early childhood educators take all the children in his group out to the front verandah to watch forklifts for entertainment, and Levi would be absolutely chuffed to get behind the wheel. But grandma pride aside, professionally I know that wasn't what the Prime Minister meant. He was using the forklift proposal, sadly now ruled out by the national cabinet, as a more general metaphor for workplace conditions. Let's change the rules without any proper consultation, and use the pandemic as an opportunity to undermine workplace health and safety provisions. Business tried that on last week with the idiotic decision by Teys Australia to demand COVID-positive employees return to work, fortunately stopped by the Australian Council of Trade Unions. But you know that if Morrison and whoever is the minister for industrial relations these days had their way, worker protections would be swiftly eroded.

During this stump speech, Morrison made much of changes to visas and work rules for international students and working holiday makers. They can return to being exploited because they don't know their rights (and now for longer hours, because the government is scrapping the 20-hour rule). But the really great news is that it will cost them less to sign up to be ripped off! So exciting! And it won't cost Medicare a cent, because these young ones (mostly young) have to have health insurance to ensure they can get medical care while here.

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On and on it went. According to Morrison, and later the Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, this government has done a profoundly glorious job. If I was sticking with the parsing tool, I'd say the claims of both Morrison and Frydenberg (now completely recovered from COVID) were exaggerations.

Only one good thing emerged from Wednesday's stand-up - the clear signal the government was preparing to (financially) cut loose George Christensen, the member for Manila, the man who has given his time willingly to conspiracists, anti-Semites, and anti-vaxxers. He claims he resigned from his (extra) $23,000-a-year committee under no pressure from anyone else. Whatever. And that's not quite enough. He should be ditched instantly.

I so loved the letter of Peter Reynolds of Gilmore, who wrote to The Canberra Times on Thursday: "We are both agreed that if the Coalition continues to tolerate these troglodytes, in the cynical interests of re-election sans morality, then we'll get off the train at the next station."

I asked Peter what he would do at the next election. He said he and his wife might vote informally in the lower house, but they aren't sure about the Senate.

"We have been Zed [Seselja] supporters in the past, and we could well go independent. My wife and myself are both pretty frustrated."

Aren't we all? [That's definitely a rhetorical question.]

  • Jenna Price is a visiting fellow at the Australian National University and a regular columnist.
This story Forklifts and failures: PM's Wednesday presser was a doozy first appeared on The Canberra Times.