Scott Morrison – Scott Morrison risks facing political danger in post-coronavirus vaccine Australia
Imagine it’s September 2021 and Scott Morrison’s done what some suspected he always intended doing: using the six-week spring parliamentary break to call a federal election for October.
Yes, he’d claimed to be a “full-termer” and was instead going to the polls early, but the Prime Minister would parry impertinent questions from journalists about this sudden change of heart by positing what’s really at stake.
“This election — the 2021 election — is about who has the best plan for the post-COVID recovery,” he’d say.
“We have a five-year plan, what is Labor’s? That is what this election is about. I ask the Australian people to support my plan so that our economic recovery plan can continue.”
It’s this sort of scenario that the Prime Minister is seeking to protect, not because he necessarily wants to go early but because it’s wise to keep your options open.
Then again, some senior Liberals are convinced an election in the last quarter of 2021 is inevitable, believing — like many in Labor — that Morrison won’t want to squander the power of incumbency that’s proven to be even more acute in the middle of a pandemic.
October, don’t forget, is when the vaccine rollout is scheduled to finish. A population that’s shown great and sometimes surprising tolerance for never-before-seen curbs on everyday life, may impatiently hanker for what they used to have pre-COVID.
With the comfort of herd immunity — if that’s what the vaccine delivers — Australians might start perusing the horizon, less distracted by the near and immediate, and survey the damage done by the coronavirus to their prospects and the economy.
There’s a danger for Morrison and the Coalition that Australians become restless, even resentful of their lot, forgetting the relative success that Australia has enjoyed.
Why squander the advantage, goes the logic, when competence has never been so richly rewarded by the electorate?
Australians have clung to governments who’ve collectively kept them safe. They’ve seen what’s happened in Britain and the United States and are relieved, even grateful it happened here.
Annastacia Palaszczuk’s Labor Queensland recorded a spanking victory in October and the ALP also secured re-election in the Northern Territory and the ACT.
WA Liberals believe they’re headed for humiliation in the WA state election on March 13, when Labor’s Mark McGowan goes up against Liberal leader Zak Kirkup, 20 years the Premier’s junior.
Expect McGowan, who’s tapped WA’s ever-present secessionist spirit to buttress his “close the border” COVID-19 strategy, to use this age contrast to frame a commando v boy scout contest.
On Sunday, Morrison might’ve noted McGowan’s crafty swivel from (mini) COVID crisis to masterclass exercise in incumbency.
Announcing a five-day lockdown after a hotel quarantine security guard tested positive for COVID-19, McGowan said he’d be suspending political campaigning (election writs are issued on Wednesday, with the government entering caretaker period) and put the guilts on Kirkup for even thinking about electioneering.
Of course, suspension of the campaign mustn’t stop the Premier’s “essential work”, McGowan asserted.
“I have to communicate,” the Premier told reporters. “There’s essential work which is an exemption, and me communicating essential messages is important.
“I will leave it for the Opposition to determine what they do, but we will be suspending our campaign, I don’t think people want political campaigning, at least for the next five days.”
Pandemics don’t cater for caretaker governing nor do government much like catering for caretaker provisions given they tend to put the opposition on an equal footing.
A year ago, COVID allowed Morrison to re-engineer his flagging prime ministership. A year on, he is still dominant.
Morrison’s command of the national response largely neutered Anthony Albanese and as much as the Labor leader anticipated various steps in the economic response over the past 12 months, Morrison has taken most of the credit for implementation.
It is acceptance of the fact that no-one else in the Labor team would be travelling much better in this oxygen-deprived environment that is preventing doubts about Albanese becoming more troublesome for the leader.
Not to mention that there’s no break-glass-in-case-of-emergency alternative to Albanese, even if Tanya Plibersek’s seen by figures in Labor’s Left and Right as potentially Labor’s best chance of unsettling Morrison’s blokey projection.
But as the worst of the pandemic abates, there’ll be two matters of absolute focus for Morrison: the economy and the vaccine strategy; the first becoming more and more reliant on the second as time passes.
There’ll be no policy adventurism for the Coalition in the remaining months of the 46th Parliament. The prickles will be shaved off once-ambitious industrial relations changes and the PM will be hesitant about lending his shoulder to a backbench push to halt an increase to the superannuation guarantee to 10 per cent in July.
Morrison’s necessary obsession will be that the vaccine rollout goes smoothy. Only when that is ensured will the economic contamination of sudden lockdowns and border closures be ended.
As much as Morrison was rightly marked up in 2020 for his stewardship of the health and economic response to the outbreak, 2021 will be about the efficient distribution millions of vials, which starts later this month.
If it goes smoothly, Morrison will be relieved because Australians expect nothing less, especially when the Government have claimed virtue in not rushing to vaccinate. But if the rollout is executed poorly, Albanese will pounce — understandable, given his position.
Morrison will furiously avoid ceding any ground to the Labor leader whom he’s politically suffocated for 12 months.
When it comes to the vaccine rollout, managerialism has an electoral premium never seen in a (potential) election year.
It’s a state-of-play that’ll deeply frustrate Albanese and other Labor folk who contend the Government should be pursuing “legacy” economic reform.
But that’s not how Morrison will play it, whatever taunts Labor throws his way.