Remember the time Tony Abbott called ISIS a ‘death cult’ eight times in the same speech? The year was 2015, his last as prime minister. In the national security statement, delivered before a comically large number of Australian flags, Abbott averred that ‘there is no greater responsibility – on me – on the government – than keeping you safe.’ Referring to the kinds of counter-terrorism operations he was intent on ramping up by expanding ASIO’s powers, the then-PM went on to say that ‘some of these raids may not result in prosecution. But frankly, I’d rather lose a case, than lose a life. The protection of life must always rank ahead of the prospects of a successful prosecution.’
Abbott’s imputation was clear: Islamist terrorists worship death; we value life above all else. This was, after all, the former health minister and archly conservative Catholic opposed to abortion and euthanasia. Life, to him, was not merely precious in a secular sense but sacred. How curious then to witness Abbott’s latest contribution to the public debate given, as is his wont in the post-prime ministerial wilderness he now occupies, to an overseas right-wing think tank.
Sounding evermore like a subreddit-dwelling conspiracy theorist, Abbott railed in the keynote speech against COVID-19 restrictions and ‘virus hysteria’ in the media. ‘So far, with Sweden the most notable exception,’ Abbott told his audience, ‘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.’
These comments are of a piece with his increasing tendency to pass off the fulminations of ultra-right shock jocks and tabloid columnists as his own hard-won political wisdom. They’re also an example of how the poison of American-style libertarianism has leached into global politics. However, the speech revealed more than what we already know about modern conservatism – namely that, in its relentless attacks on health, education, and welfare, as well as its racialised approaches to immigration and foreign policy, it does not hold that all lives are equally worthy. It showed his capitulation to a kind of brutal economism more often associated with Randian capitalist radicalism than the religious right. The invocation of Sweden’s coronavirus strategy expressed what his mealy-mouthed words didn’t – that, for him, it’s fine that significant numbers of the elderly die as long as the economy is unimpeded and people are allowed to go about their daily lives without the imposition of face masks, lockdowns and the like. Perhaps Abbott, that staunchest of Christians, has forgotten his Psalms: ‘Cast me not off in the time of old age; forsake me not when my strength faileth.’
To think in this way, as Abbott clearly does, is to deny the reality of Sweden’s approach, which has seen it claim the dubious distinction of having the world’s highest coronavirus death rate per capita. According to Nigel McMillan, an infectious diseases expert at Griffith University, that equates to 28 times the number of deaths we have experienced in Australia, a country with around 15 million more inhabitants.
It’s also worth pointing out that, in addition to these extra deaths and the virus’s rapid spread, Sweden’s economy is in a downturn as severe as that of its Nordic neighbours with harder lockdowns. In any case, what was at stake in Victoria prior to the introduction of stage 4 restrictions last month was not ‘just’ the deaths of old people, but the unchecked spread of the virus, which, judging by data gathered about the effects of the July lockdown, would have resulted in tens of thousands of people contracting COVID-19.
As the ongoing Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety is making clear, how we look after our elders is a moral catastrophe presided over by a conservative government that appears to lack the will, means, or both to reform the sector. And the former prime minister is not wrong to suggest that a price can be placed on human life. As repugnant as that idea is when stated plainly, the truth is that we do so all the time, in matters ranging from insurance to the setting of speed limits.
But why, for the likes of Abbott, do professions of care for human life carry more weight, and conceptions of liberty less, when it comes to terrorism as opposed to a pandemic? Within the context of national security, we are used to hearing our leaders proclaim that our safety is their prime responsibility. Yet the reality is that only a handful of Australians have died as the result of a terrorist attack. Many more are murdered by the police, or by their partners or ex-partners, while COVID-19 has claimed more lives in less than a year than all of the acts of terrorism committed on Australian soil put together.
A few months after his ISIS speech, in which he said that ‘we need to give our agencies [additional] powers to protect our community’, Abbott oversaw Operation Fortitude, an ultimately aborted attempt to have Australian Border Force goons, transport officials, and police roaming around Melbourne’s CBD checking the visa conditions of random people (a Department of Immigration and Border Protection spokesperson denied racial profiling would take place).
Abbott would have us normalise such trade-offs between individual liberty and community safety in the name of specious national security threats, but not for the sake of preventing the spread of a dangerous and highly infectious disease. This is not to say that anything should be permitted in the name of public health – for my money, Melbourne’s tower lockdowns were a quasi-authoritarian overreach with unmistakably racist and classist dimensions – but that it is morally abhorrent to subordinate the wellbeing of, in many cases, our most vulnerable people to the demands of capital.
It’s more evidence that we have entered an uncanny epoch in which a new, globally ascendant and ideologically vacuous form of conservatism cannot be said to conserve anything except itself, its increasingly salient culture wars, and the interests of its political donors. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Trump and Bolsonaro, the world leaders most representative of this movement, have in common with Abbott the denial of the climate crisis, another grave threat to public health that, according to an analysis by the National Bureau of Economic Research, could cause more annual deaths by 2100 than all infectious diseases combined.
‘After six months,’ Abbott said in his keynote, ‘it is surely time to relax the rules so that individuals can take more personal responsibility and make more of their own decisions about the risks they are prepared to run.’ You would have thought a former health minister would understand that, under the conditions of a global pandemic, the risks are not ours alone to take. Now more than ever, individual actions carry with them the potential to affect collective histories. As the outbreak of panic buying at the beginning of the pandemic showed, it is not more personal responsibility but social responsibility that we need, a lived care for those around us and especially the most vulnerable – the poor and disadvantaged, the already sick and the old.
No doubt the news that Australia’s economy has posted its worst fall on record and is now officially in recession will give succour to Abbott and his fellow anti-lockdowners. But it is worth asking, as the global coronavirus death toll nears the symbolic threshold of one million, who the real death cultists are.