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Australia needs a national mobilisation committee to navigate the coronavirus crisis—now

Posted By on March 19, 2020 @ 06:00

The new national cabinet the prime minister has formed with state premiers and territory chief ministers will need to grow quickly in reach, speed of action and composition to get ahead of the rapidly unfolding set of events the coronavirus is bringing.

Step one is for the cabinet to reach across the aisle, now that it has already reached across federal–state boundaries. Bringing in the opposition leader and his deputy is a big but simple move that will reinforce the national unity that our leaders need to build and project.

Beyond politics, though, thinking of this cabinet as a national mobilisation committee during a time of crisis akin to a war seems the right frame of mind. Australia had an Advisory War Council during World War II that included members of the opposition.

The coronavirus is primarily a public health crisis, but it also comes wrapped in intermingled financial, political, economic, international relations and community stability crises. And the usual ways of coordinating government–corporate cooperation will just not work in this rolling set of related crises.

Departments and ministers with individual working relationships with particular businesses and business leaders won’t be able to integrate information quickly enough—either to brief the national cabinet on possible actions, or to broadcast cabinet decisions so that implementation can begin. Such relationships and procedures below the level of this cabinet, no matter how accelerated, like the now activated National Coordination Mechanism located in the Department of Home Affairs, won’t be sufficient.

Decisions that Australians need taken cut across not just Commonwealth–state jurisdictions, but also across public and private sector boundaries. Some of the people with the power to take critical national decisions are not in any parliament, but are the leaders of key functional enterprises like major supermarket operators, big logistics companies, and the heads of various private sector medical firms and hospitals.

Key corporate leaders will be informed by their own experts and driven by their own corporate and institutional drivers, with the nation’s wellbeing in mind, but probably a loose understanding of national implications and imperatives. (Think of some of the decisions the Qantas CEO and the heads of Woolworths and IGA have taken recently as examples.)

So, the national cabinet can’t be left as just government and political machinery. The result would be reactive to events and the assessments of others, swamped by the disparate decisions of key leaders in critical sectors.

The speed of decision-making and action required mean that any top-level national body will need to be connected to the actual sources of power and advice that will allow our nation to manage this crisis—and emerge from it not just with a sense of having been controlled by the virus, but with an understanding that we responded to changing demands as needed, with an overall design and coherence to how we worked.

Think about a prospective decision to close schools in one or more of our major population centres. Is it unthinkable to do now because of the disruption it will cause to our health professionals and other essential workforces? Or is it unthinkable not to do now if we are to prevent large clusters of infections in our cities?

It’s probably both. But without rapid and deep planning, a move in either direction could have first-, second- and third-order effects. Maybe the big providers and government can find a way we can close schools to staunch the rate of spread of the epidemic and support the workers and families in these critical sectors. Maybe the answer is to close schools to all children except for those of essential service workers and use the reduced school populations to implement social distancing there. We won’t find the answer fast enough unless we take a different approach to planning and interaction than we do for normal times.

Food distribution, production and distribution of medical supplies, power, transport, telecommunications, education and other activities like waste management will all need to be similarly ruthlessly prioritised and orchestrated as Australian population centres enter various levels of lockdown to slow the virus’s spread.

Including the CEOs of our big national medical, aged care, food, logistics, power, financial, transport and telecommunications companies in advisory and decision-making processes, rather than at the end of complicated chains of communication, will be essential through this time.

This will require more than the machinery in place so far: the well-practised National Security Committee of cabinet, the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee and Home Affairs’ National Coordination Mechanism. It will require giving key corporate leaders a seat at the national cabinet table where they are involved in designing and implementing the big decisions. That ‘seat’ will need to be via teleconference or videoconference so people can be where their organisations operate best during the crisis and to minimise the risk of key leadership staff falling ill.

All this needs to be heavily laced with what leaders of any kind find hard to do: delegation and transparency.

Any national mobilisation committee, no matter how integrated across government and corporate power centres, will need to delegate much decision-making to others. That’s likely to be messy and experimental, but it will be essential.

Even more important will be transparency about the actual factors driving decisions. Here, the balance might need to shift even more to letting experts—whether from the public or private sector—speak directly and frankly to the Australian people, unmediated by political overlays. That will require the government to establish and empower consistent individual voices that the public can turn to for coherent and clear information. Laying out some of the nastier scenarios and issues that are involved—as in the case of deciding who gets triaged for scarce intensive-care beds and who doesn’t—will be more likely to build public support and confidence than repeated words of reassurance and calm.

It’s a counterintuitive fact that all the attributes we need in this crisis will be even more valuable as we emerge from it. That’s brought about by the reality that we live in an interconnected world. The ways of operating and organising we’ve used in the past are not suited to a world of category collapse, in which boundaries and responsibilities are blurred, and effects compound and escalate. Australia will prosper in this world if we use this crisis wisely.

The convening of the first meeting of the national mobilisation committee can’t happen fast enough.

Article printed from The Strategist: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au

URL to article: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/australia-needs-a-national-mobilisation-committee-to-navigate-the-coronavirus-crisis-now/

[1] Advisory War Council: http://john.curtin.edu.au/behindthescenes/cabinet/index.html

[2] National Coordination Mechanism: https://www.homeaffairs.gov.au/about-us/our-portfolios/emergency-management/about-emergency-management/national-coordination-mechanism

[3] Australian Health Protection Principal Committee: https://www.health.gov.au/committees-and-groups/australian-health-protection-principal-committee-ahppc

[4] category collapse: https://www.canberratimes.com.au/story/6514590/cohesion-across-ministries-needed-in-dealing-with-china/