‘Unforgivable’: Frydenberg and Andrews go to war

‘Unforgivable’: Frydenberg and Andrews go to war

Phillip Coorey, James Eyres and Sue Mitchell – The Australian Financial Review – Tuesday October 20 2020

Open warfare has erupted between Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews and federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg amid a growing suspicion inside the Morrison government that the timid reopening of the state economy stems from a lack of confidence in its COVID-19 testing and tracing regimes.

Mr Andrews mocked Mr Frydenberg’s leadership bona fides after the Treasurer accused him of a callous indifference towards jobs and small business.

“It’s all about the politics with this bloke, isn’t it? That’s all he does,” Mr Andrews said. “He is not a leader, he is just a Liberal.”

As they traded blows, senior business figures, including Commonwealth Bank CEO Matt Comyn, piled in, arguing that the easing of restrictions in Victoria was too slow.

“Clearly, this is having a very, very sharp impact on small businesses in Melbourne who are definitely bearing the brunt of the pandemic much more harshly than other parts of the country,” Mr Comyn said.

“People would certainly find the [timing of] relaxing of restrictions and impact on small business disappointing. There has [been] a huge impact on businesses. A lot of support has been put in place, and we will see how many are able to recover.

“But there is no question, particularly around metropolitan parts of Melbourne and the CBD, that a number of hospitality and retail businesses and a number of our customers are finding it extremely difficult and are very concerned about the future.”

Although Prime Minister Scott Morrison has maintained a more diplomatic approach, Mr Frydenberg, a Victorian whose family has been living under lockdown and whose children have missed months of school, exploded on Monday after Mr Andrews’ limited lifting of restrictions.

This was despite the number of coronavirus cases now being very low in Victoria and on a par with those in NSW, a state that has had an open economy and lived with small outbreaks for months.

Victoria recorded just four new cases on Monday and one death. NSW recorded no locally-acquired cases and four in quarantine. It had one coronavirus victim in intensive care; Victoria had none.

“There’s been a callous indifference by the Victorian government to the loss of jobs in the state and the plight of small business,” Mr Frydenberg said.

“More than 1000 Victorians have lost their job every day as a result of the lockdown and Victoria makes up 26 per cent of the population, yet 40 per cent of Australia’s effectively unemployed.

“The bloody-mindedness is unforgivable. The stubbornness is unforgivable. He’s making it up as he goes [along]. It’s not even his original road map.

“Victorian businesses, big and small, are just pleading for a fair go. They just want to get their workers back into a job. Enough is enough.”

Victoria’s outbreak was caused by a quarantine failure and greatly exacerbated by the state not having in place a proper testing and tracing regime.

Senior federal sources said the only possible explanation as to why Mr Andrews was refusing to open up was because he still did not have confidence in his protocols.

Some business leaders in Victoria declined to comment out of fear of retribution from the state government or the union movement.

But larger figures stepped up their criticism of Mr Andrews, who will have had the state locked down for 19 weeks by November 1, when he plans to lift most restrictions, including enabling hospitality and retail to reopen.

The easing of restrictions on Sunday was limited and included extending travel limits from 5 kilometres to 25 kilometres, increasing outdoor gatherings to 10 people from two households and dropping time limits on people leaving their homes. But in retail, only hairdressers were allowed to reopen.

“This is overkill, and the problem with doing overkill is you make a lot of people very angry,” Harvey Norman executive chairman Gerry Harvey said.

“When they reopen, they’ll have been closed for four months, so you’ve got this great pent-up demand – those stores are going to go crazy.”

Andre Reich, chief executive of discount retailer The Reject Shop, agreed, saying the longer retail stores were forced to stay closed, the harder it would be for retailers to manage the crowds after the reopening.

“It is time to open up as soon as possible – all retailers have COVID-safe plans to ensure team members and customers are safe, and it’s now time to get retailers safely back to work,” he said.

Daniel Agostinelli, chief executive of Accent Group, Australia’s largest footwear retailer, had been gearing up to reopen on Monday, and was disappointed that his Platypus, Hype and The Athletes Foot stores in Melbourne would have to stay closed for another two weeks.

“We have everything ready to go. We have people wanting to go to work and wanting shifts,” he said. “JobKeeper is largely over but we still have everyone employed, and it’s a burden.

“Our view is the government is trying to manage the emergency, whereas we feel they need to manage the risk and put much more effort and funds into getting contact tracing right.

“I understand absolutely what they’re trying to achieve, which is to eradicate it, but I’m not sure anyone around the world has been successful and I’m not sure why we think we’re going to be.”

Victorian Liberal senator James Paterson branded Mr Andrews an “authoritarian leader” who had smeared his own citizens as “enemies of the state”.

This was after the Premier on the weekend attacked Mr Frydenberg and Health Minister Greg Hunt, also a Victorian, for demanding the economy be reopened immediately.

“Some [politicians] are from Victoria, but not for Victoria,” Mr Andrews said.

Mr Frydenberg shot back, saying Mr Andrews “doesn’t get to decide who is for Victoria”.

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