Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 30, 2020

The End of Certainty (2020), by Katharine Murphy (Quarterly Essay #79)

I was not in the mood when this arrived in my post box in September.  Here in Melbourne we were in the middle of one of the world’s toughest lockdowns, and we were witnessing the collapse of the bipartisanship about which naïve political commentators had waxed lyrical as a potentially long-term alternative to combative politics.  I was living pandemic politics, and I didn’t want to read about it too.

It is my belief that all governments need defeat after two or three terms, to reset against complacency, inertia and corruption.  So I believe in the importance of a good opposition and for most of my life I haven’t minded too much when My Side gets voted out, because The Other Side is usually not all that different and can be tolerated until the electorate decides that it’s time for a change and it’s My Side again.  The Kennett and Howard years were awful, and the Abbott government was beyond appalling, but they prove my point.  My Side got their act together: they got rid of some of the dead wood including those devoted to internal self-destruction, and they developed new policies.  Were they as good as they could have been?  Most definitely not, but better than before and the Australian electorate thought so too and turfed out those awful governments.

But short-term political opportunism in Victoria during the pandemic went beyond anything I’ve ever seen before.  The Other Side actively sabotaged the health messages of the state government and actively encouraged people not to cooperate.  I’m not talking about the moronic trolls squawking from the Trump playbook, I’m talking about the Leader of the Opposition; the fellow who wants his job; and the Federal Treasurer whose seat in Melbourne is not as safe as it used to be.  Faced with a distressing second wave, these men set out to destroy public confidence in the health advice we were getting.  It was appalling, and dented my faith that governments can come and go in a cycle of renewal because all sides aim to govern in the best interests of the people, even though they differ about what that might be.

So no, Katharine Murphy’s essay was not what I wanted to read.  But time has passed, and the good sense of my fellow Melburnians has prevailed. That lockdown was hard, very hard for some people indeed, but we have beaten the second wave.  We have now had an entire month of zero cases, the economy is bouncing back and the polls show overwhelming support for a government that puts the health and wellbeing of its people first.  Our premier who at his daily press conferences represented stoicism, a steely determination and faith in our cooperation is the most popular premier in the country.  Whatever mistakes were made, and mistakes are inevitable in a situation like this, the people support evidence-based decision making.

So, by the time the latest Quarterly Essay turned up in the letter box last week, I was ready to take a glance at Katharine Murphy’s essay, and I ended up reading the whole thing.  Some of it is about Our Esteemed Leader and why he acts the way he does which is of no interest to me at all, but most of it is a survey, from Canberra, of course, about what’s happened, what has been done, and what we’ve learned.  In other words, the Big Picture that we sometimes couldn’t see at the time.

One thing I learned is that the nation was just lucky to have a prime minister who’s a pragmatist.  Contrary to his usual scorn for experts, he decided to value the expertise of the public service and the Chief Health Officer, thanks to Stephen Kennedy, a Treasury Secretary who was a nurse in a past life and therefore has what Murphy calls a flicker of emotional intelligence.  Lucky for us that Kennedy’s PhD in economics examined whether changes in economic outcomes had an impact on people’s health.  

Fortuitously, Kennedy had conducted research on the economic impact of a pandemic, his interest triggered by avian flu and SARS.  Back in 2006, he was the lead author of a departmental working paper that had concluded that a highly contagious pandemic could knock 5 per cent off GDP during the first year.  (p.37)

Lucky for us that Kennedy knows how to win people over to positions.  A 5% drop in GDP is the kind of number that would give pause to any PM focussed on the Big End of Town and  a belief in Trickle-Down Economics.  Lucky for us Our Esteemed Leader accepted Kennedy’s recommendation of discretionary fiscal policy because even a small number of deaths would have a large, short-run economic impact. [It would have been nice to have a PM who cared about the deaths for compassionate reasons, but that, it seems, was a luxury we had to do without.]

‘Discretionary fiscal policy’ is just another name for economic stimulus, a label that Our Esteemed Leader steadfastly refuses to use because of the ideologues in his party and a long history of berating My Side for using it during the GFC to stave off recession.  And although it wasn’t enough — and Murphy clearly doesn’t accept that there were no ideological reasons why some groups were not eligible for Jobseeker and Jobkeeper — anyone who saw those terrible, heart-breaking queues of people lined up at Centrelink because hundreds of thousand of jobs were lost, would have to concede Kennedy is a bit of a hero.

Will this new reliance on expertise last?  Martin Parkinson (another senior bureaucrat) thinks the crisis has seen an evolution in the government’s thinking about experts, and its preparedness to listen to advice from officials.

“We’ll do the thinking, you’ll do the doing — that never works, but you might be able to delude yourself in thinking that it works in more normal times. In crises you need experts. To the government’s eternal credit, they’ve recognised that, and they’ve drawn on the expertise of the chief medical officer and his team for the medical response, and on Treasury and [Prime Minister and Cabinet] in formulating the economic policy response.” (p.38)

Well, maybe.  Murphy talked to ACTU Secretary Sally McManus too.  Facilitated by former ACTU Secretary and Minister in the Rudd-Gillard governments, Greg Combet, McManus developed a surprising bond of trust with Attorney-General Christian Porter when there were legislative changes needed to facilitate Jobkeeper.   Will that relationship survive the Coalition’s wish-list for market deregulation?

It seems unlikely.  “What I’m saying is, I think things will change,” McManus says.  “It’s not possible to say to what extent, or whether it will be long-lasting.” (p.54)

The big question is, of course, will the government now listen to its own experts on climate change?

If the behaviour of The Other Side in Victoria is any guide, the answer is depressing.

Author: Katharine Murphy
Title: The End of Certainty, Scott Morrison and Pandemic Politics
Quarterly Essay #79, published by Black Inc 2020
ISBN: 9781760642761
Source: personal subscription

Available from Fishpond: The End of Certainty: Scott Morrison and Pandemic Politics: Quarterly Essay 79 or better still, subscribe through the QE website.


  1. I have been waiting for this to come available at my local library Lisa! And I think we are on the Same Side!

    I was reading your review while waiting here for a second full week of temperatures at 40 degrees or above, (& I don’t have aircon) in an area that was (until about ten years ago) known for its freezing temperatures and short summer, and I was wondering whether you would get to climate change (of course you did!)

    My answer to your last question, I don’t think they will. Yet everyone I speak to here knows there is a real problem. People are sweltering. Many of us moved here for a cooler climate and now 40 degrees for 5 months of the year seems to be considered normal & almost no snow in winter). Don’t get me started on ABC reporters asking happy surfers at Sydney beaches how they are enjoying the heatwave – try asking poor people in the western suburbs without aircon who would have to travel for hours to reach a beach and a sea breeze.

    People are being baked alive. No public spaces are available for people to shelter from the heat – with or without their pets. The only places to get cool are shopping malls (but you have to shop, the chairs have been removed due to covid) & the library (but it closes at 3pm, the hottest part of the day).

    I wish they would listen to the climate scientists the way they did to the medical experts with covid, but money is being passed under the table somewhere and I just don’t see it happening until a lot of people start dying from these prolonged heatwaves (which are also affecting businesses, since people don’t want to walk down the streets, it’s too hot). But i’m not holding my breath. I am trying to stay alive through these temperatures though!

    I guess I should still try to read this? If I haven’t melted!


    • Don’t get me started on the ABC, the lazy journalism that does the same reports about the same things over and over again is a disgrace. No, it’s worse than that, it is as you say, failing the people who need responsible journalists to call out the government on this.
      I don’t know what to say in response: is there any groundswell of support where you are for activism to get some practical relief happening through your local council? Changing the hours of opening at the library, for example? Tree planting and shadex in parklands and along pavements? Shaded fountains for kids to play in? At the very least, community groups taking responsibility for checking on the elderly and doing any urgent shopping for people with small children so that they don’t have to go out in the heat. And some citizen journalism documenting effects at the local level so that the message begins to get through?


      • Thanks Lisa I was having a good vent there! I know the ABC won’t interview people badly affected by climate change, because if they did the government would cut back their funding even further…

        There is a lot of local activity here including public marches about climate change and banners put across buildings, so far it’s to no avail but we keep pushing. We have a wealthy local council which could do so much more than they do.

        I would just like to see State and Federal governments pulling their heads out of the proverbial sand and changing to more sustainable energy supplies – instead of insisting on a gas lead recovery! Ho hum.


  2. So would we all.
    But even if the entire world got their act together tomorrow, we’re still stuck with the weather as is — and worsening for some time to come. So the pressure should also be on enabling people to survive it. Our council, (hardly a progressive group of people I hasten to add) has a policy for sheltering the homeless on very hot days. (In our community we have some homeless people who have resisted rehousing, mental health issues, I think). They have a program of free canopy trees for people to plant in their gardens so that their houses are shaded.
    If you haven’t read it, I urge you to get hold of a copy of Jane Rawson’s Handbook Surviving and Living with Climate Change. I have implemented some of her ideas already (and can tell you that thanks to her suggestions, the weather needs to be 40+ before we even think about using the AC chez moi, and we have solar, so we could use it guilt-free). I am currently trying to get a community group going to share her ideas… my neighbours are all on board, but it needs to be wider than that.


    • Hi Lisa, you’re singing to the choir here – I couldn’t agree more with everything you say, and what frustrates me is that countries overseas such as Germany are so far ahead of us.. we need more shade trees, public misting fountains such as they put in the streets of Chicago after the great heatwave there that killed so many hundreds of people, I could go on and on. New housing estates here have no garden space for shade trees around the house and no room on footpaths (if there are any) for shade trees. It’s ridiculous. I get frustrated at how slowly Australia is responding to this. In Melbourne you are probably more progressive – these inland towns take their time.


      • Yeah, I guess so.
        I think we need another word meaning hyper-frustrated!


  3. […] My life in lockdown was like The End of Certainty, by Katharine Murphy (Quarterly Essay #79) […]


  4. […] and contesting the space.  (Much of this was discussed in the ‘The End of Certainty’ (Quarterly Essay #79) so I won’t repeat it […]


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