Why I’ve Learned to Loathe Australia’s Trivial Politics

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MELBOURNE, Australia — Before the U.S. election in 2016, I visited Australia from Los Angeles, where I was living at the time. I stayed with my father at his house in northern New South Wales, and like a lot of older Australians, he had his television tuned to the news almost constantly.

I remember jokingly appreciating how benign the political news was here: The major stories of the day often consisted of a boring minister standing in front of a boring building saying something boring — and rather inconsequential — about health care or education.

Compared to the ugly scene unfolding in the U.S., this kind of wonkish politicking and penchant for bland photo opportunities seemed almost innocent. But perhaps I was the innocent one, being unfamiliar with the downside of focusing on minor squabbles and ignoring the major issues facing Australia. This week in particular has shown just how ill-equipped the current Australian political ecosystem is when facing catastrophe.

The care system for seniors in Australia is in a state of acute crisis: soaring Covid infections and deaths (some put the current numbers at more than 30,000 infections in senior care alone) plus massive worker shortages have led to horrible conditions and a system on the brink of collapse. After years of lockdowns and sacrifice to keep Australia’s Covid numbers low, we’re now facing dozens of deaths daily. Some of the country’s most vulnerable remote communities are being newly walloped by Covid.

What are our politicians doing? This morning, Prime Minister Scott Morrison stepped into a hair salon and washed a customer’s hair.

Earlier in the week, the discourse was dominated by a “gotcha” moment over Morrison’s inability to answer a question about the cost of bread, and the supposed text message name-calling of politicians in his party.

Everyone I speak to, on either side of the political spectrum, is incredulous. Frustration, embarrassment and a general despair over the lack of any kind of leadership are the main themes in those conversations. It’s not about an individual politician or party — the whole political (and media) ecosystem seems to be set up to focus on trivial distractions rather than serious policy.

There are problems in need of proposed solutions, including health care, inequality, education, immigration and climate change. Where are the proposals? Where is the debate?

Of course, perhaps it’s also us. Maybe the darkness of my recent discussions says as much about my own social circle in Melbourne as it does about Australia’s political class. Maybe we’re all too fatigued by our lack of control over a pandemic that just refuses to quietly into the night. Maybe we’ve become too accustomed to seeing the worst in what surrounds us.

Clearly, not everyone feels that way. Richard Glover, the popular radio host, wrote a column this week noting that while the pandemic “has trained us for disappointment,” most people have learned to adapt and keep going.

“We straighten our shoulders, set our gaze on the next horizon and endure what the world sends our way,” he wrote, adding: “That’s the big picture. Not just Australians, but humanity. A terrible plague has come our way and — most of us, most of the time — have tried to make the best of things.”

I’m not sure I agree. But even if the Australian public is resilient, can the same be said about our government?

Where is the leadership? Where is the opposition? Why isn’t anyone seemingly doing much of anything of substance? What seemed like a charming relief to me a few years ago now looks like a dangerous disconnect with reality.

How are you feeling about the state of Australian politics, given our current problems? Let us know at [email protected].

Now for this week’s stories:

Australia and New Zealand

A paramedic in Melbourne. The city spent 262 days in lockdown.Credit…William West/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
  • Live With the Virus’? For Australians, It’s Taken Some Getting Used To.Australia once stamped out every Covid outbreak. Now it’s done with all that. The policy U-turn, and the soaring case numbers, caught many off guard.

  • Janet Mead, Nun Whose Pop-Rock Hymn Reached the Top of the Charts, Dies. Her upbeat version of “The Lord’s Prayer” was an instant hit in Australia, reached No. 4 in the U.S. and was nominated for a Grammy (it lost to Elvis Presley).

  • New Zealand Announces Plan to Reopen Its Borders. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the country would begin to ease strict border controls and quarantine rules for citizens and travelers who have received at least two doses of a Covid-19 vaccine.

  • Women under financial stress are more likely to be abused during the pandemic, researchers find.Women who experienced financial hardship as a result of the pandemic were also more likely to be abused by their partners, according to an Australian study.

  • Leader of Australian Megachurch Steps Down After Charge Over Father’s Sexual Abuse. Brian Houston, who was the leader of Hillsong, is accused of concealing past abuse by his father, who later died and was never charged.

  • Orcas Are Able to Kill and Eat Blue Whales, Scientists Confirm. Recordings in seas off Australia proved that the predatory prowess of killer whales is inescapable, even for the adults of the largest species that ever lived.

  • Tonga’s Proud Diaspora Confronts Daunting Challenge of Disaster Response. Tens of thousands of overseas Tongans, intimately tied to their homeland, are contending with the pandemic, snarled supply chains and limited communications.

Around the Times

Nathan Chen of the United States skating in the team competition on Friday in Beijing.Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times
  • Beijing Winter Olympics.Live updates from the 2022 Winter Olympics.

  • Over a Million Flee as Afghanistan’s Economy Collapses. Thousands of Afghans are trying to sneak into Iran and Pakistan each day, as incomes have dried up and life-threatening hunger has become widespread.

  • One Letter Transformed Britain. But Who Wrote It?“The Trojan Horse Affair,” a new podcast with Serial Productions, investigates the origins of a mysterious letter that caused a national scandal.

  • Top Aides to Boris Johnson Quit, Adding to Downing Street Turmoil. Day after day, new developments add to the political crisis over boozy parties during lockdown, which threatens to bring down the prime minister.

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