COVID leadership lessons - The Australian Experience
It is an honour to join you here in Seoul for the Asian Leadership Conference. I thank Chosun Iblo for their kind invitation to share my contribution.
At a conference of Asian Leaders, I am also honoured to join the many tributes to the Late Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan and express mine and my wife Jenny’s sincere condolences to his wife Akie.
Shinzo was a great friend of Australia, a great friend of democracy and freedom and a wise friend of mine.
Shinzo was a man of grace and strength.
I will never forget the humility he displayed when he visited me in Australia to lay a wreath at the site of the Japanese bombing of Darwin.
He combined a gentle nature with a giant political stature.
Shinzo Abe will be terribly missed.
When confronted with a genuine crisis there is a temptation to believe your situation is unique – unprecedented even!
We are now in our third year of COVID. The pathogen has officially claimed around 6.5 million lives, and crumbled economies all over the world.
According to the IMF, during the first year of the pandemic the global economy shrank by 3.1% – more than 30 times the magnitude of the economic decline during the Global Financial Crisis of 2009.
The World Economic Forum’s 2022 Global Risks Report summarised the knock on effects well:
“The economic fallout from the pandemic is compounding with labour market imbalances, protectionism, and widening digital, education and skills gaps that risk splitting the world into divergent trajectories”.
Niall Ferguson’s Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe is not a cheery read. In this work, Ferguson recounts the history of plagues, pathogens and conflicts that have tested humanity over centuries.
Interestingly, Ferguson summarises five policies designed to limit recurrent outbreaks of plague contagion in the 18th century . They sound familiar.
Firstly, controllable borders with quarantine;
Secondly, bans on gatherings;
Third, burying of the dead in special pits, and destruction of the personal belongings;
Fourth, lockdowns; and
Fifth, health status tracking in the form of bills of health
He also notes some experimented with free food and medical care to those whose livelihoods had been disrupted
There really is nothing new under the sun.Y
 Ferguson, Niall. Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe (pp. 150-151). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.
But no matter how hard you try there are no guarantees.
To illustrates this, Ferguson recounts the unfortunate experience of Habsburg Emperor, Joseph the first who In 1710:
‘decided to block the spread of diseases from the Balkans by creating a continuous “sanitary cordon” along his realm’s southern frontier with the Ottoman Empire. By the middle of the eighteenth century, the border was policed by two thousand fortified watchtowers, positioned a half mile apart.
The restriction to just nineteen border crossings ensured that anyone arriving on Habsburg territory was registered, housed, and isolated for at least twenty-one days. Their quarters were disinfected daily with sulfur (sic) or vinegar.
Notwithstanding his efforts the Emperor succumbed to smallpox in 1712 having caught it from none less than his own prime minister, whose daughter was infected.
So what to do.
There will of course be more pandemics. Science and medicine will help, but not always prevent them.
The usual suspects of the human condition will also make things worse – poverty, poor sanitation, arrogance, fear, apathy, ignorance, ideology, fanaticism and many more.
But there is no need to be defeatist.
A key learning from the many pathogens of history is that we do overcome. We can learn and we do adapt. And that is our opportunity and responsibility now, especially as leaders.
During my almost four years as Prime Minister in Australia, we not only had to contend with COVID, but severe drought, wildfires, floods, cyclones and even a mice plague.
During one of the many meetings I chaired of our National Security Committee early on in the pandemic, I chose to break the tension by recalling the Biblical story of Moses and the plagues on Egypt, when Moses demanded that Pharaoh release the children of Israel from slavery.
I turned to our Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, a dear friend and a proud member of our Jewish community, and said “Josh, I think it is time we let your people go.”
These have been extraordinary times, and they have demanded much from our peoples, our Governments, our scientists, our health workers, our economies and all those tasked with leadership.
I said at the start of the pandemic Australians had always rightly thought ourselves to be a strong people, but we were about to find out once again just how strong we really were.
And I was not disappointed.
In February this year Bill Gates was asked at the Munich Security Conference whether it was possible to prevent the next pandemic. He answered by citing Australia’s response to the pandemic, referring to it as the “gold standard’, stating “ if every country did what Australia did, then we wouldn’t be calling it a pandemic.’
The New York Times did the math in May this year claiming that if the United States had the same death rate as Australia, about 900,000 lives would have been saved.
John Hopkins University has ranked Australia second in the world in pandemic preparedness. Bloomberg ranked Australia the world’s fifth most COVID resilient nation.
Now, as Prime Minister during that time, I certainly do not believe our response was perfect, far from it. We had our good days and bad days.
And nor would I claim that Australia’s success was the singular achievement of Government. This was a national achievement. And we had help.
Australia received great support from our many friends, with direct support as well as sharing our experiences and information, and learning from each other, notably Singapore, Japan, Korea and Taiwan.
And in Australia we also returned the favour. Throughout the pandemic Australia continued to support global efforts, especially throughout our Quad partnership with the US, India and Japan, to fight COVID delivering vaccines, PPE, ventilators, AUSMAT medical teams and other medical support to the Indo Pacific and globally through COVAX and GAVI, especially to the Island nations of the South Pacific and our friends in ASEAN.
But Australia’s results do tell a proud story. One of the lowest fatality rates, highest vaccination rates and strongest economic performances of any developed country in the world.
Australia has the third lowest mortality rate in the OECD at 401 deaths per million population. This can be compared with Canada at 1,106 per million, the United Kingdom at 2,688 per million and the United States at over 3,000 per million. During the pandemic we estimate that, when compared to the average fatality rates of OECD countries, Australia’s response saved an estimated 40,000 lives.
More than 95% of Australia’s adult population have had two vaccine doses and we have already commenced fourth doses.
Likewise, since December 2019, when the pandemic first struck, Australia’s economy has grown by 4.5 per cent. This compares to 3.9 per cent in Korea, 2.7 per cent in the US, less than one per cent in the UK, Canada and France, while the Japanese and German economies have remained in negative territory.
Australia’s success was partly achieved by limiting the scale of our economic decline during COVID.
In Australia our economic decline caused by COVID was 2.2 per cent. This compares to 3.4 per cent in the US, 4.5 per cent in Japan, 4.6 percent in Germany, 8 per cent in France and 9.3 per cent in the UK.
Australia also now has the lowest unemployment rate at 3.9% in 48 years, with 500,000 more jobs than we had before the pandemic.
The results we were able to achieve were no accident – ‘no fluke’ as we like to say.
In mid January 2020, I first received the news from my Chief Medical Officer, that there was a serious outbreak of a novel Coronavirus in Wuhan, China.
We were already in the midst of severe bushfires, so my National Security Committee was already meeting daily, and often several times a day.
There were very little details at this stage, but following the deadly experiences of SARS and MERS in our region in the early 2000s, we were not treating these reports casually.
I immediately moved to include a Coronavirus update on our NSC agenda and we monitored the situation closely.
While domestically the media and political focus remained on the bushfires and other issues, inside the Government, COVID was moving rapidly to the top of the agenda, as the news just kept getting worse.
It was clear that whatever people thought 2020 was going to be about, everything was about to change.
As I look back on those times now, there are many take outs, especially from a leadership perspective.
One of the most important is that in a crisis leaders must be across the detail.
You quickly become the central point of all information, communication and decision making. You set the pace, tone and direction of the national response.
Process is an important detail.
Sound process provides the guardrails to get things as right as you can, and the mechanisms to fix them quickly when you don’t.
The flow and source of your information and advice, the decision making process, your accountability and follow up mechanisms, implementation plans. It all matters.
This should not be confused with wanting to be personally hands on in implementing all aspects of your response. That is a recipe for disaster.
You must be able to trust and delegate. And you must reconcile yourself to the fact that when it does go wrong (which it certainly will at some point) and events conspire against your best laid plans and advice, as the Leader you will just have to cop it.
So control what you can and don’t get overwhelmed, bitter or frustrated by what you can’t. Just suck it up, as we say in Australia.
It was fortunate that as a Government we had been together for a considerable time. My Minsters were experienced and well established in their portfolios.
Our third victory at the election during the previous year added additional authority, which is essential in managing any crisis.
Together we knew how Government worked and we knew how it didn’t.
As a Government we had established a solid operating rhythm through our Cabinet processes. We had strong relationships with and respect for our senior bureaucratic leadership. This was certainly no time for any Government to be learning the basics on the job.
We also had the benefit of standing administrative and statutory frameworks to guide and govern our pandemic response.
In 2014, the Australian Health Management Plan for Pandemic Influenza was established and had been recently updated in just August 2019.
In 2016, The National Communicable Diseases Plan was established and updated in 2018, which established a National Medical Expert Panel comprising the Chief Health Officers of all state and territory administrations, and chaired by the National Chief Medical Officer (CMO).
At a national level The Biosecurity Act 2015 and The National Health Security Act of 2007 provided important authorities to support national management of the pandemic.
So with these foundations in place we set about our response.
On January 19, we established the National Incident Room in Canberra. The following day we listed ‘Human coronavirus with pandemic potential’ under our Biosecurity Act – the same day the first Coronavirus case was confirmed here in South Korea.
In the days and weeks that followed we enhanced biosecurity measures at international air and sea ports, we began shutting the borders, starting with China on February 1, flights were dispatched to rescue trapped Australians in Wuhan, and initial quarantine facilities were set up on one of our remote islands for inward flights from high risk countries.
We then bolstered our national medical stockpile, placed restrictions on public gatherings and formally declared COVID 19 a pandemic a full two weeks before the WHO, demonstrating just how seriously we were taking COVID 19.
From a health perspective, our focus was to slow the spread of the virus, to ‘flatten the curve’, and to resource and manage scaled-up demand on our health system.
There was also the task of finding a vaccine. As early as March 2020, our Government began funding research into vaccine development and to ensure that when one was available we could make it in Australia to avoid any supply chain risks or likely vaccine protectionism. This job would ultimately be done by an Australian company, CSL, manufacturing the Astra Zeneca vaccine in Melbourne.
Like many other nation-states, Australia is a federation, comprising eight provinces, all of which have their own elected Governments and possess their own primary powers and authorities, especially in relation to public health.
This means any national response to a public health crisis in Australia requires considerable cooperation to harmonise the efforts of the provinces to a common national purpose and plan.
This has never been easy.
When my Chief Medical Officer advised that the escalating number of cases meant our COVID response would need to step up a gear and start introducing broad based restrictions on public movement and gatherings, all controlled by State and Territory Governments I knew we needed to quickly change how we were doing things.
Eight different governments, with the Federal Government, would need to operate together in real time.
I convinced the Premiers to abandon our previous bi annual and overly bureaucratic Leader’s forum, and set up a National Cabinet, chaired by the Prime Minister, comprising each of the leaders and the heads of their respective public service administrations. This was necessary to ensure that the officials were aware first hand of all decisions made so they could be translated into action immediately. I didn’t want anything lost in translation.
There were no substitutes permitted, no political staff in the room and no other Ministers. The meeting operated under our Cabinet protocols and met frequently, advised by our national Chief Medical officer, Treasury Secretary, Central Bank Governor and Defence and Security officials.
As Prime Minister I chaired 57 meetings of the National Cabinet over a two year period. At no time in our history had State and Federal leaders met as often, as extensively and with such candour.
But we didn’t always agree, especially when it came to issues where the medical advice was not consistent such as state borders, school closures or vaccine mandates.
As the pandemic evolved it became more difficult to keep uniformity in the various restrictions employed by each state as the experience of the virus was no longer uniform.
When we inevitably disagreed this caused great frustration amongst the public. Australians found it difficult to understand why the Prime Minister could not just make the decisions. Some even mistakenly believed that the establishment of the National Cabinet had devolved federal powers to the States. This was untrue. The states always had these powers.
Frustration with the National Cabinet was actually frustration with our constitution and the federation. But in a crisis this was no time to engage in a political debate about our federation, nor as the national leader to pick fights with provincial leaders.
Leadership often requires you to take the hit for the mission you are engaged in. This was certainly the case when it came to managing our federation during the pandemic.
A crisis demanded that you curb your natural defensive domestic political instincts to focus on the bigger job and bigger picture. It could not be politics as usual.
That said, for all it’s critics, the National Cabinet proved its worth in the outcomes we were able to achieve together. And I am yet to hear of a better alternative.
This was also demonstrated in the establishment of our temporary national hotel quarantine network. While national quarantine facilities had already been established, they would never be enough to cope with the massive surge in demand created by Australians returning from overseas. State and Territory Governments agreed to create this surge capacity with a network of hotel based quarantine for all arrivals.
Again, it was not perfect, but with a 99% success rate in preventing transmission of the virus from inbound arrivals, it played a key role in limiting the impact of the virus in Australia. And again , for the critics, I am yet to hear of a more sensible, practical and cost effective alternative that could have been stood up with the same results in the same timeframe.
Another key element of our response was to ensure that it was information and evidence led.
We were determined to be guided by the medical evidence and we were determined to stay up to date. We were constantly looking, learning and listening to what was occurring around the world.
All of this had to be channelled into a single source of truth to guide our discussions and decision making. We needed to be reading off the same set of credible facts, not speculation or opinion.
This extended to the standard format of daily data updates to the detailed epidemiological modelling studies commissioned to inform our response.
But while the medical evidence and advice certainly guided our response, at a federal level I was determined that decisions be made by those who were elected to carry that responsibility. To do otherwise was also unfair to officials and advisers, whose narrow responsibilities were not designed to exercise such decision making functions. They needed to provide their advice without trying to second guess the response of their political leaders, or make decisions for them.
In a crisis, everyone needs to know what their job is and what they are accountable for.
Our job as leaders was to decide, the job of the medical, economic and other expert advisers was to advise and the job of the public service officials was to implement.
I have no doubt that our early responses, while not without fault, saved tens of thousands of lives.
But it was only just beginning. Having activated the initial steps and taking additional precautionary measures to buy us time while we followed the epidemiology closely, we were also thinking ahead.
It would not just be lives that would be threatened by this pandemic. It would be livelihoods and our very way of life. All of which would come under threat.
Prior to the pandemic striking, Australia was experiencing a record economic run. Almost twenty nine years of consecutive economic growth without a recession. By some accounts a world record. After six grinding years of disciplined financial management, our Government had restored our federal budget to balance. We were now looking forward to our first budget surplus in 12 years and paying down what was a modest debt by international standards at 19% of GDP.
We believed that COVID would not just threaten the lives of millions of Autsralians but their livelihoods also. Australia is an open trading economy and the world was shutting down.
COVID was going to be an economic meteor, not just a health one.
When managing a crisis you need to be clear about what your goals are. Such goals provide discipline to decision making in Government, guide your bureaucracy and provide much needed certainty, calming financial markets and bolstering public confidence.
As a result we made it very clear that Australia would have twin goals in managing the pandemic – to save lives and save livelihoods. And it is was important we do this consistent with our principles as a liberal democracy.
This included our broader values of respect for the dignity and sanctity of human life. It was not OK to just let some people die.
At the first virtual meeting of G20 Leaders to discuss the global pandemic response I set out saving lives and saving livelihoods as Australia’s twin goals for managing our pandemic response. Australia was one of the few countries to deliberately adopt this twin approach from the very outset.
In March, 2020 I summarised the principles that would guide our economic response.
Economically, our objective was to keep people in jobs, keep businesses in business, and ensure we bounced back stronger on the other side.
I did not want Australia just to survive COVID. I wanted us to emerge stronger.
This meant supporting community confidence, employment and business continuity.
It meant boosting domestic consumption, reducing cash flow pressures for the most vulnerable businesses, and supporting new investments to lift productivity.
We resolved that our response must be proportionate, timely, scalable, temporary, targeted, aligned with other policy measures – especially monetary policy – use existing delivery mechanisms, favour measures that would also boost productivity and have a clear exit strategy.
These principles guided the decisions that lead to our Government investing $314 billion (more than 16% of GDP) in direct economic support, including income support, business cash flow assistance, training and education.
The most significant was what we called Jobkeeper. While presenting as a wage subsidy, it was actually a social security payment delivered by nationalising private payrolls.
It was a unique partnership between the government, employers and the banks to deliver timely and reliable income support at a time of almost unprecedented demand that Government systems alone could never have accommodated.
The failure of such systems would have led to serious social collapse, the destruction of public confidence, deep and devastating economic scarring and the real possibility of civil unrest.
Employers decided who to keep on their payroll, where necessary they borrowed the $1500 per fortnight for each employee from their banks, who were best placed to assess their financial situation, and we then settled up with payments to employers using established processes in the tax system.
Jobkeeper was deployed nationally in April and phased out by the end of March 2021.
Jobkeeper directly saved 800,000 jobs and hundreds of thousands of businesses. The way we delivered Jobkeeper also preserved an important feature of Australian society.
Many other countries gave wage subsidy payments as a proportion of previous wages. My Government rejected this approach, leading some to claim that by doing so we had rejected providing wage subsidies. This was false.
Australia is a strongly egalitarian society. I was adamant that no Australian would be eligible for any greater taxpayer supporter than any other. We were all in this together. This was another way of ensuring that we were dealing with the crisis in a way that preserved our national values and character. We were making our Australian Way through the pandemic.
Jobkeeper also showed the importance of enlisting the non Government sector in our response.
One of the most important rules in managing a crisis as a leader is recognising that you are not always, if ever, the smartest person in the room and that Government does not have all the answers. You can’t manage a national crisis from an ivory tower.
To ensure further collaboration and engagement we also established a National COVID Commission, bringing together experienced business leaders to workshop, stress test and align our actions with those of the private sector and make sure that important issues like supply chain pressures were being addressed effectively.
It was also important to keep communicating to support community confidence. On more than one occasion I announced ambitious reopening plans, developed with provincial leaders, only to be thwarted by the next permutation of the virus.
I do not regret such actions as it showed what we were trying to achieve – living with the virus, not pretending we could eradicate it.
So when the next wave hit, we regrouped, reset and came up with a new plan.
We also worked to strike the right balance in our response measures and not get too far ahead of where the public was at. Like in most western countries there were many who loudly proclaimed their ideological and religious opposition to pandemic measures. As Ferguson recounts in Doom, such responses also have a long history, from seeing pandemics as divine judgement to global conspiracies.
My experience of the pandemic is that the virus does not care about your ideology. It is real, it has threatened lives and livelihoods and has to be taken seriously. Most Australians had a similarly practical view. Sure, none of us liked the restrictions any more than those of us who had the responsibility for imposing them, but I can assure you that none of it came as a direction from any conference of the Global Illuminati.
We just collected and evaluated the science and made the most sensible decisions we could, with the information we had, to help as many people through the crisis as possible as we could.
And on this score Australia has a really good story to tell.
In conclusion, as we emerge from the pandemic we must now address ourselves to the forces shaping our post pandemic world.
- The acceleration of the digital economy – the need to align the rules and behaviour between digital and physical worlds, and the centrality of digital to economic growth.
- Heightened demand for skills and research talent in our economy – the need for world class skills and training, more adaptable workplaces and closer collaboration between business and the research community.
- Sharper geo-political competition – playing out in multiple realms and regions, but with its epi-centre in our region, the Indo Pacific.
- New pressures on global supply chains and open trade – with governments and companies having to reassess assumptions from what some have called the era of ‘hyper-globalisation’, and
- The drive to decarbonise the global economy – with technological innovation and the push for a deep transition in the global energy system, alongside the need to maintain affordable, reliable energy for consumers.
We face these challenges in tandem with navigating a strong, sustainable recovery.
The world needs a fast recovery – not the prolonged sluggish recovery that followed the GFC in the 2010s.
This is vital because we know COVID has accentuated new divides…
….between those bearing the brunt of pandemic and those able to insulate.
….between countries that have strong health and vaccination infrastructure and those without
…and between the sectors that are growing – such as logistics, health, and IT, and the sectors that have suffered – tourism and travel, business events, and the like.
A business led recovery that creates jobs and prosperity, that reactivates markets, free trade and entrepreneurialism, that inspires innovation and that narrows the divides – because shared prosperity is always the foundation for democracy and security.
As an Australian I am incurably optimistic, hopeful and confident that all of these challenges are not beyond us, and that, once again, humanity will overcome.
The Hon. Scott Morrison MP
30th Prime Minister of Australia