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Morrison is hell-bent on a 'vaccine passport' but could it become his Australia Card?


Among the blizzard of suggestions about how to deal with our vaccination and quarantine problems, one idea has captivated the Prime Minister, writes Dennis Atkins.

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Two things happen after the monthly meetings of Australia’s national cabinet. Scott Morrison runs a narrowly focussed, usually boastful, occasionally informative media event.

It’s where the Canberra journalists get their leads, quotes and targeted grabs for the nightly news. These carefully honed happenings are almost always a big success for the government propaganda machine.

The other less noticed event is the release of the “national cabinet statement”. Last Friday it ran to just under 1700 words with a one and a half page attachment on “key assessment criteria and health criteria” for stand-alone quarantine facilities which would attract Commonwealth partnership. More of that later.

Anyone with a bit of institutional memory would find this statement quite familiar. It reads like the old wrap-up statements issued by the Council of Australian Governments, the group of federal and state leaders the national cabinet was not only going to supplant but leave behind.

It’s wordy, bureaucratic and full of process. We shouldn’t be unkind because some of this is meaningful and necessary at a time we’re still dealing with the health and economic aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Two things stood out in the national cabinet statement not mentioned by Morrison at his post meeting media availability – what’s happening with vaccination, particularly the use of so-called “domestic vaccine certification”, and a broad plan for quarantine.

We shouldn’t give in to the Orwellian language-twisting of “domestic vaccine certification” and call this part of the statement what it is: a vaccine passport.

It’s a controversial proposal which Morrison floated about two months ago but retreated from when his ever busy focus groups told him it didn’t play that well.

As most premiers doubted the effectiveness or desirability of having vaccine passports for domestic travel, Morrison found someone to use as a human shield, pointing out it was something first suggested by the Australian Medical Association.

He loves grabbing someone else to take the heat when he’s caught floating a dumb or unpopular idea. Look at how he pushed government health secretary Brendan Murphy into the line of fire after his “this is not a race” excuse on vaccines was shown to be as unwelcome as it was stupid.

This might be the way he contorts these problems in his head, but we also know he is stubborn and supremely self-confident. It’s why he’s sticking to his vaccine passport plan which will be rolled out next month.

Yes, you read that right. The Morrison Government is going to make available a “COVID-19 digital vaccination certificate” through the Medicare Express phone and device app in digital wallet form in July.

There has been passing reference to this proposal but no serious announcement and no genuine discussion about how it would work and why we need it.

Here’s why Morrison wants it, as explained in his national cabinet statement: “States and territories may consider the potential future value of COVID-19 digital certificates when considering automatic travel exemptions for interstate travel during state-determined lockdowns and travel restrictions.”

Notice the word “may” which translates to it’s going to be available but no state or territory has signed up. Don’t expect them to rush to get behind it. The very bullish open borders New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian doesn’t want it because it could sanction shutting down while those premiers who still want the ability to shut their gates don’t want any mechanism outside their control.

The thing Morrison and his MPs should think about is whether voters will like this after they consider it. In 1985 the very popular Hawke Government had a plan for an Australia Card which would simplify tax and welfare systems but the longer debate went on, the fewer people supported it.

By 1987, after opting for a referendum on the issue, Hawke withdrew the whole plan. He went on to win the next election but it was a bruising experience.

These ideas sound good but Australians have never warmed to the idea of any national ID plan as the Australia Card demonstrated. There has been acceptance of cards or identifiers specific to a single use, such as the Medicare Card and the tax file number.

However, if debate on a vaccine passport suggests function creep, the public will quickly turn against it as happened with the Australia Card.

It is particularly difficult for a government to argue in favour of having a vaccine passport when it can’t successfully get vaccinations into more than one in five Australians after six months, missing deadline after deadline (all set by the government itself).

The Commonwealth still hasn’t vaccinated all aged-care workers and doesn’t even know if these critical employees have or haven’t had a jab.

Morrison clearly wants to keep his vaccine passport dream alive but he might find those focus groups who whisper in his ear saying it’s a bad idea.

Queensland Senator Matt Canavan, who always has his ear tuned to conversations on the street, has sounded an early alarm for the prime minister. Canavan on Tuesday told Radio National’s Breakfast making people carry such a passport would be “un-Australian” and run counter to our birthrights.

Meanwhile, the national cabinet was given, without warning, those criteria for a Commonwealth tick for a stand-alone quarantine facility which you can view here.

It reads like a document drawn up by the scriptwriters of the ABC satire Utopia with 13 performance requirements adding up to a mix of the bleeding obvious, the unnecessary and the deliberately impossible.

It’s been five months since Annastacia Palaszczuk presented Morrison with her (admittedly sketchy) plan for a stand-alone quarantine facility in either Gladstone or Toowoomba. After those 20 weeks, the Commonwealth came back with a set of criteria clearly designed to make any state plan fail, especially if it’s from Queensland.

Why Morrison is so opposed is mysterious, although he’s swayed by LNP members in Gladstone and Toowoomba who say their communities don’t like the idea. This is a narrow reading of local opinion and the prime minister didn’t help his case by talking down the value of the airports in these very proud regional cities.

He might not be facing any direct electoral cost from pushing back against the Gladstone and Toowoomba proposals but as far as regional quarantine is concerned, there’s deep and wide backing. You don’t need a focus group to understand that.

A smarter, more agile and politically alert national leader would have worked with the Queensland Government to find a way to make a collaborative proposal happen.

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