Opinion: The perils of our pandemic politics

Opinion: The perils of our pandemic politics
Photo by Glen Carrie on Unsplash
Thursday 26 August 2021

By Mark Kenny

A version of this article was originally published by The Canberra Times.

“He needs to define exactly what Labor stands for … post-Covid,” wrote one learned commentator this week.

“He needs to explain why the country should take notice. And he needs to explain how the party is changing after the disastrous 2019 election”.

Let me return to who said this, and why, in a moment. But here’s a hint, the most important words for me are “post-Covid”.

First however, a lament on the game itself.

With its formulaic charades and its prohibition on all but the shortest-term goals, national politics is rightly decried as shallow, the blind leading the blind.

But whose fault is this really? What do voters expect? Or even want?

If we’re honest, we aren’t too visionary or exciting either. As a cohort, we punish those who pursue big ideas based on values, principles, and the longer-term.

And, we don’t even disguise our defence of narrow self-interest (usually financial) at the ballot box.

Little wonder then that our representatives pay only lip-service to the bigger picture, the longer timeline.

An example. A significant majority of Australians embrace the science of global warming and fret about over consumption, unconscionable waste, habitat destruction and calamitous emissions.

Yet, when push comes to shove, how do we vote? Election after election, we install a Coalition that cares in words only, offering up fig leaves and slogans – axe the tax, technology not taxes.

In so doing, voters prefer the slogan over the substance and send the message to any alternative party that it will be rejected for going further.

Why? Because come election day, the key drivers are fear of the new and the hip-pocket nerve even if cheaper electricity comes from fossil fuels.

So, it is also true that Australian politics is the bland leading the bland.

These prosaic truths will once again be evident when the election is called.

Labor can read. Its approach in 2022 is the path of least resistance with leader Anthony Albanese making a persuasive tactical case for ensuring the battleground is Scott Morrison’s multiple failures rather than a redux of Labor’s 2019 adventurism.

Ostensibly this means highlighting Morrison’s negligence on most aspects of the pandemic - “he had two jobs, safe quarantine and securing enough vaccines, and he failed on both”.

Albanese’s pithy mantra also dovetails with a larger narrative he seeks to build. Namely that Morrison is always late to problems. That he is a serial non-leader who blames others before settling on remedies which end up costing more and working less. It’s a critique with tangible links to quarantine failures and last-year’s mystifying vaccine hubris, but also invokes his government’s insensitivity to women, his resistance to border closures, school shutdowns, mask wearing, wages subsidies, assistance for businesses and the jobless. It draws in too, Morrison’s slow crawl from coal-waving evangelist to pseudo-convert on emissions reduction, and in recent weeks, his government’s staggering clay-footedness in Afghanistan.

It seems compelling, but do not assume this pattern of woe amounts to an open-and-shut case for Morrison’s removal.

The Nine newspapers’ most recent Resolve Political Monitor suggests this critique, while resonating strongly with cosmopolitan progressives, may not yet be shared by a majority of Australians – despite gruelling lockdowns made worse and longer by vaccine shortages.

Rather, the Monitor shows Labor’s primary vote not rising but dipping by 3% to just 32% with the bulk of that transferring back to the Coalition which is up 2% to 40%. Both now sit one percentage point lower than what they secured at the 2019 election.

Despite the above failures and his smug incomprehensible messaging, the PM has widened his head-to-head advantage and is now twice as preferred as his opponent at 46% to 23%.

On the centre-left echo-chamber of Twitter, the response to these findings was typically bellicose, shooting the messenger, alleging bias in the interpretation and slamming Resolve’s methodology.

While it is true that any one poll could be an outlier, Nine went through a detailed polling review process in the wake of the 2019 shock to ensure that future surveys would be more representative, and would yield richer attitudinal data across key policy areas. It would also avoid drawing heroic two-party-preferred conclusions based on extrapolation.

On balance, then, it seems more likely after its 2019 embarrassment, that this conclusion is robust, and if so, suggests a very narrow path to a Labor victory.

But 2021 is no ordinary pre-election year, and nothing is set in stone.

The opening quote above is by my friend Sebastian Payne, Whitehall Editor for the Financial Times and his subject is in fact, British Labour’s equally unfashionable leader, Keir Starmer.

Astoundingly, Boris Johnson’s shambolic performance through the pandemic (a list of wilful errors headlined by 135,000-plus COVID deaths) has not dented his standing with voters either.

Like Albanese, Sir Keir is a solid parliamentary performer and a person of great decency, and intelligence.

But it may not be enough right now. Already drowning in uncertainty, voters do not have the band width to be listening to oppositions.

And the root of that challenge (for Labor and Labour) is incumbency. As I’ve noted before, of the five elections held here since COVID (plus another in New Zealand), all have returned the governing party.

The pandemic is the only story registering in 2021 – all else is second-order and possibly even annoying – and that includes debates about alternative governments.

This suggests Albanese has an equal interest in helping to put the pandemic emergency behind us, even if that success means Morrison getting considerably more credit than he deserves.

Perversely, Labor’s best shot at being heard might come from not trying to cement Morrison as a failure, so much as from easing the path to maximum vaccination and an open economy ASAP.

In short, it might be that Albanese needs a genuinely post-Covid poll even more so than Morrison.

Mark Kenny is a professor at the ANU Australian Studies Institute and host of the Democracy Sausage podcast.

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Updated:  27 August 2021/Responsible Officer:  Head of School/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications