In polities without fixed electoral terms, where the prime minister can manipulate the timing of elections to confer additional advantages on his government, guessing when the next vote will take place is as fraught as forecasting the result.
Recent political manoeuvrings and a public health crisis may, however, provide us with some clues.
The sudden flurry of media appearances by the NSW Premier, and the Prime Minister’s discussion of the Doherty Institute timeframe for opening up the economy, indicate that a policy change by the federal and NSW governments from ‘COVID 0’ to ‘living with COVID’ is underway. It is not clear that the Victorian Government is moving as quickly in the same direction, if at all.
The policy shift is driven by stubbornly high Delta variant infections in NSW (around 1000+ per day) and Victoria (around 50 per day), as well as low vaccination rates (33% of the eligible population). In reality things cannot open up in any meaningful way below a 70% vaccination rate which is still several weeks away, hence Premier Berejiklian’s odd reference to the freedom to picnic if you are vaccinated (conditions apply): a carrot amongst the many sticks.
The bigger problem for governments now pushing for ‘living with COVID’ is that public opinion will not switch as quickly as policy has. The Melbourne CBD did not return to normal earlier in the year after all COVID restrictions were removed. Eighteen months of habitual, government-enforced restrictions including “stay home” messages, will linger in the public’s mind long after lockdowns are partially lifted. Some sectors of the public are going to find the new “freedom messaging” contradictory and confusing.
Many people will remain suspicious of government motives, especially when the NSW Premier conceded that her earlier “gold standard” aversion to lockdowns was driven by pressure from the business community. Some, though by no means all, will keep away from large shopping centres and crowded entertainment venues, self-imposing restrictions which no longer even apply. This hesitancy will continue if daily infection numbers remain high, even though governments now want us to focus on hospitalisation and death rates which will improve as the vaccine “stroll out” increases.
Given the federal election is now likely to be held in the first quarter of next year, Prime Minister Morrison will want to claim the credit for opening up NSW and Victoria with higher vaccination rates. A poor Christmas for the retail sector will not help him, and he will want to face the electorate well before drawing up another, even worse deficit budget in May. The incompetence of so many federal ministers and the growing stench of corruption are likely to dog his campaign for re-election. Pravda-like cheerleading from Murdoch media outlets will help his chances, despite diminishing newspaper sales and Sky News ‘after darkies’ mercifully being limited to FOXTEL subscribers.
Victoria could be a total disaster for the LNP and the ‘Prime Minister of NSW’ as he will increasingly be labelled by critics. Even the Liberal Party Premier of NSW considers him a repugnant bully and very difficult to work with. Morrison’s inability to work in unison with the state premiers to confront COVID is less about the failures of the federation and more about his own incompetence as a leader.
Treasurer Frydenberg played partisan politics when the Andrews Labor Government locked Victoria down, However, he has remained supportive of the NSW Premier when she was reluctantly forced to do the same thing a few months later, despite proclaiming that she didn’t do lockdowns. He might find his succession path to the leadership blocked by defeat in Kooyong after its boundaries were redrawn. Victorians don’t like to be sandbagged by one of their own.
Meanwhile, Opposition Leader Albanese’s ‘me too’ strategy depends entirely on the public still blaming Morrison for the bungled vaccine rollout in April next year when vaccination rates will be above 80% and there will be an abundance of Delta-specific Moderna and Pfizer booster shots available.
Albanese seems determined to stand for as little as possible, eschewing principles and significant policy initiatives in favour of waiting for the electoral pendulum to swing in his favour: the great weakness of the two party political system. This will be seen by ALP stalwarts as policy inertia, a betrayal of the party’s mission and a replay of the do nothing policy vacuum of the Gillard and Rudd years. Political timidity invariably leads to reactive rather than proactive government. It is odd that the ALP refuses to learn this lesson.
Incumbency has significant advantages in Australia’s political system. And timing is everything in politics. If nothing else, the Morrison Government’s re-election strategy has now taken shape. It is not clear that the ALP can respond effectively, let alone decisively, if it remains on its current small target pathway.