International affairs

COVID-19 pandemic has pushed global leaders to their limits: Julie Bishop

Australian National University Chancellor and former Foreign Affairs Minister the Hon. Julie Bishop told CEDA’s 2020 Copland Lecture the global COVID-19 pandemic has tested political leaders around the world almost to their limits.

Speaking in Perth, Ms Bishop told the audience there was no global plan, no roadmap and no blueprint for this crisis.

“I have to say the World Health Organisation, after decades of planning and preparing for a global pandemic, were somewhat missing in action, and so nations were basically left to work it out for themselves,” Ms Bishop said.

“And we’ve seen the trial and error around the world, but you can’t criticise too many leaders too readily because we hadn’t been down this path before.

“So the impact of the decisions being taken by leaders around the world is still to be felt. It might be many, many years before we really work out what we should and should not have done.”

Speaking on Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s leadership during the crisis, Ms Bishop said: “Sometimes leaders are the person for the moment, and yet other times, the times didn’t suit them.

“John Howard always said he was a leader for his time, and I think the same could be said of Scott Morrison, most certainly over the period of the COVID restrictions he has certainly come into his own, without doubt.”

Ms Bishop also discussed the Federal Government’s balancing of the health and economic consequences of the pandemic, warning it would take decades before the projected more than $1 trillion in government debt would be repaid.

She said recovery would have to come through driving economic growth, given taxes are not rising and spending is growing.

“The budget is based on some pretty optimistic assumptions about the pandemic and its impact in the short and long term,” she said.

“But what began as a flattening the curve strategy, where we would ensure that the rate of infection would not overwhelm our hospitals and health system, has morphed into an elimination strategy where the public health outcome must win, virtually at any cost.

“Our borders are still closed, and yet we are an open, export-orientated market economy. Our standard of living, our economy depends upon our ability to sell our high-quality goods and services around the world.

“And when our borders are closed, we can’t welcome international students, or international tourists. And higher education and education and tourism were our third and fifth largest export items.”

Ms Bishop also voiced her support for the National Cabinet model of government introduced at the start of the pandemic.

“I think one of the best initiatives Scott Morrison introduced was the National Cabinet, and that started out very well,” she said.

“I think we all felt quite reassured that leaders, whatever their political colours, had put that aside to come up with responses to the pandemic that would assist us all across the nation.”

But the former foreign minister expressed surprise at the Federal Government’s decision to “cede quarantining arrangements to the state premiers”, pointing out that decision had led states to follow their own paths on border arrangements.

“I feel that we should come back to the National Cabinet idea, because we’re operating in separate fiefdoms at the present and I don’t think that is in the national interest,” she said.

“The idea that Western Australia can maintain a hard border against the advice of our Chief Medical Officer and not include South Australia, Northern Territory and Queensland and Tasmania at the very least, just defies logic as far as I’m concerned.”