Former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has blasted the “extraordinary ineptitude” of the Victorian government in handling the coronavirus outbreak, blaming Premier Daniel Andrews for effectively running a “health dictatorship.”
Speaking at the Policy Exchange in London – a Conservative leaning think tank chaired by former High Commissioner to the Alexander Downer – Mr Abbott spoke about his view on lockdowns that have swept the world in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
He said having served as health Minister in the John Howard government, he “certainly envisaged” people wearing masks on public transport “but not for a moment did I ever contemplate ordering people to stay home.”
“The way I saw it, in any pandemic the focus would be to get people to stay at their posts … not to lock everything down lest disease spread.”
“People should get on with their lives even in the presence of death,” he said.
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Mr Abbot was unequivocal about lockdowns having lasted for too long and said the focus had shifted to preserving “almost every life at almost any cost’.
Citing the example of New Zealand postponing its election with less than 100 active cases and Victoria moving into “virtual house arrest” for Melburnians in the midst of a second wave, he blasted the unprecedented measures under state of emergency powers.
“Homes can be entered, people can be detained and the ordinary law of the land suspended and the premier now wants to extend this health dictatorship for at least another six months,” he said.
“It’s amongst us. We can’t get rid of it,” he said, adding Australia had reached almost zero community transmission before the “extraordinary ineptitude of the Victorian government in the management of its hotel quarantine system produced what has been the biggest outbreak in Australia so far, responded to with the most severe lockdown tried in the world outside of Wuhan itself.”
Mr Abbott said “people have an instinct to be free” and this was a “bad time for anyone who would rather not be dictated to by officials, however well meaning.”
He said lockdowns had created a “stop start economy and stop start life” that created a climate of fear with governments failing to ask the hard questions about how much to spend on saving lives.
“So far, with Sweden the most notable exception, governments have approached the pandemic like trauma doctors instead of thinking like health economists trained to pose uncomfortable questions about a level of deaths we might have to live with.”
He said officials have become “trapped in crisis mode, especially if the crisis adds to their authority or boosts their standing” and people were sick of being dictated to by “unaccountable experts.”
The Oxford-educated former Liberal leader said six months into the pandemic it was time to “relax the rules” and said while the health implications were “serious” and economic implications “disastrous…..I suspect that it’s from an overall wellbeing perspective that it will turn out worst of all.
“Because this is what happens when for much more than a mere moment we let fear of falling sick stop us from being fully alive.’
He said the 75th anniversary of the end of the second World War had prompted his reflections, arguing: “That generation, ready to risk life to preserve freedom. This generation ready to risk freedom to preserve life. Yet we don’t think of our parents and grandparents as too brave. I wonder what judgment history will pass on us”.
“My plea is for us to be very careful about further lockdowns because the consequences of lockdowns are enormous.”
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The speech attracted some criticism online including from doctor and City of Sydney Councillor Kerryn Phelps who said “I am not prepared to let other people with no awareness of public health decide the risk they are prepared to run for everyone else. It’s about shared responsibility. #COVID-19”
Mr Abbott has been the subject of much media commentary in the UK after being tipped to lead Britian’s Board of Trade which would help the country to strike trade deals around the world post-Brexit.
Asked about his potential new role, Mr Abbott said it was “not yet official” and brushed off criticism about his views saying it was the result of having “convictions.”
The UK’s shadow trade secretary, Emily Thornberry said she found the decision “absolutely staggering.”
“On a personal level, I am disgusted that Boris Johnson thinks this offensive, leering, cantankerous, climate change-denying, Trump-worshipping misogynist is the right person to represent our country overseas,” Thornberry told The Guardian.
“And on a professional level, this is someone whose only experience of trade agreements was turning up to sign the treaties [the former Australian trade Minister] Andrew Robb negotiated for him.
“He was ousted by his own colleagues after two years in power, and kicked out of Australian politics by his own constituents just last year. They are the people who know him best, and they wanted rid of him – yet here we are, hiring him to negotiate our trade deals around the world. If it wasn’t so downright humiliating, it would be almost hilarious.”
On Tuesday Mr Abbott also addressed the Foreign Affairs Committee for a session on the UK’s role in strengthening multilateral organisations where he spoke about how English speaking Commonwealth countries can better work together.
The Brexiteer said Britain should not fear a hard Brexit and Australians “gave a cheer” when they heard the news Britain had voted to leave the EU.
That’s at odds with a Lowy Institute poll which found 62 per cent of Aussies thought Britain leaving the EU was a bad thing for the country in 2019.
Mr Abbott was ousted as Prime Minister by Malcolm Turnbull in 2015 and lost his seat in parliament last year.