Virus a political vaccine for the incumbent premiers?

Most of the commentators seem to expect that Annastacia Palaszczuk, the Labor premier of Queensland will be comfortably returned to power on Saturday night.

Assuming that this happens, one can expect that the Morrison government spin-doctors will more or less deny that there is a lesson or message for the federal coalition, and, probably attribute most of the result to the premier’s populist management of the Coronavirus pandemic, not least with the border closures that the feds have deplored.

In much the same way, the return of a Labor-Greens coalition in the ACT two weeks ago may have prompted some Liberal soul-searching into the viability of the ACT Liberal Party branch under current management, but was not generally seen as a signal to Morrison that his tenure was limited. Though in my opinion the result represented rather more of a rejection of the Liberal opposition than a whole-hearted embrace of Andrew Barr’s record, platform or agenda, some of the local Liberals have already been denying that, saying that Barr’s successful management of local  pandemic measures overwhelmed all other issues. This suggests that successful pandemic management alone guarantees re-election for incumbents.

After all, Daniel Andrews in Victoria and Mark McGowan of Western Australia, both Labor Premiers, seem to be very popular in their states because of their local measures against Covid-19, however unpopular their actions have been with other state premiers or with Scott Morrison and (in Victoria’s case at least) the Treasurer John Frydenberg. Neither that criticism, nor sustained attacks from News.com newspapers or Sky television seemed to have had any impact on overall poll support for the particular premiers, or popular support for stringent lockdown or border measures. Nor has the standing of Michael Gunner, Labor chief minister of the Northern Territory, seemed to suffer from a genuinely successful attempt to contain the pandemic, particularly from Aboriginal communities.

Similarly, Steven Marshall in South Australia and Peter Gutwein in Tasmania, as well as Gladys Berejiklian in NSW, seem to have won praise from their own constituents at least for their management of the effects of the virus within their own bailiwicks. As with local actions by the Labor premiers and Chief ministers, their actions have not always been so popular with other premiers and chief ministers, or with a prime minister who has been increasingly exasperated with all, even as he has pretended to admire what Berejiklian is doing, or trying to do, to lead Australian economic recovery.

So far, opinion polls suggest that voters, in their own jurisdictions including the national one, have been fairly understanding and forgiving of mistakes, accepting both the novelty of the conditions being faced by officials, and sometimes, shortcomings in the flow of information. The first catastrophic mistake was in allowing passengers from a cruise liner to disembark in Sydney without health checks, even though there were ample grounds for suspicion that some were carrying coronavirus. As it turned out, many were and their dispersal was a major cause of the transmission of the disease around Australia. Strictly, quarantine is a Commonwealth responsibility and duty, but Border Force, which had once marketed itself as protecting our borders, denied any responsibility, saying that quarantine was not its business, and that NSW health officials were to blame. Border Force acted with spectacular incompetence in managing crowds at airports, creating proximity that made transmission virtually inevitable. In Victoria, mismanagement of quarantine security arrangements in hotels, including the hiring of security industry staff rather than assigning service folk, police or prison wardens to monitor strict compliance was responsible for the significant stage two outbreak the state has just conquered. Both the Commonwealth and individual states, but particularly the Commonwealth, must accept responsibility for poor staffing, health protocols and outcomes in nursing homes, not least in the Commonwealth’s clear failure to have any sort of plan in place to protect elderly people known to be most at risk. Perhaps there will be a full accounting once things settle down, but it is noticeable that no bureaucrats have been sacked, demoted, or shifted as a result of any failings, and only one, the head of the premier’s department in Victoria, seems to have resigned. No one is apparently responsible for anything much.

Two state ministers paid a price — though one, accused of breaking the rules to go to a holiday home was later reinstated. The Victorian health minister quit over the security guards fiasco, held responsible for a fault within her area of responsibility. A good but, in the modern era very rare example of ministers being held accountable for failures of policy and administration within their department — something which would be fatal for a significant number of Morrison ministers were that rule enforced at federal level. But the Victorian minister has not gone quietly and seems to be stalking the premier.

But even if voters give premiers and chief ministers reasonably good marks for pandemic management, it seems doubtful that this alone will guarantee political survival. Andrew Barr and Annastacia Palaszczuk — or, more properly, the ACT and Queensland — managed the pandemic with no great hiccoughs, and kept the first wave down to levels that the world, now deep in stage two and three can only envy. But both are lucky in their opponents, and other leaders cannot be sure that they will have the same good fortune when they face their voters, in some cases three years from now. By then the outlook might have changed. Moreover, there is still the threat of fresh outbreaks, and no immediate certainties about the availability of vaccines. And the international resurgence of Covid threatens international recovery, and ultimately our own: neither the premiers, nor federal government are complete masters of their own destinies.

It was only seventeen months ago that Scott Morrison won his “miracle” — chiefly from Queensland, where he had been expected to win seats. Voters in Queensland as much as anywhere else have shown themselves quite capable of separating state and federal factors; indeed some prefer different parties in power at different levels of government. But the Queensland LNP has been trying to work off just the same Labor weaknesses at state level as it was able to exploit at federal level, including ambivalence over coal, as well as a disconnect between Queensland’s north and south east. Federal and local Labor must ultimately resolve their contradictions: it is by no means certain that Morrison will be able to exploit such divisions next time.

In NSW Berejiklian has won herself a lot of sympathy as she has struggled to manoeuvre herself out of the problems caused for her by her secret boyfriend. She has certainly not been shown to be an accomplice in his corrupt tricks, but evidence before the corruption commission has suggested that she knew of his efforts to make a quid from his position — and to a degree hers — and did not do anything like enough to separate herself from him. But just as dangerously, she is now facing further inquiries about her management of a taxpayer-funded Liberal party slush fund, engaging in the sort of corrupt rorts that have given the Morrison government, and Morrison himself, and his Attorney-General, Christian Porter, such a bad name. I have previously underestimated her political resilience, but I cannot help but think that she is overextending her political credit and that the brownie points she has earned at disease control will do her little good.

The performance of Dan Andrews has been amazing, and might, perhaps be an example to all politicians, in spite of some of the obvious mistakes of administration under his watch. The first point has been his availability to answer questions, every day, without fail, for months, including deeply partisan questions from pseudo-journalists such as Peta Credlin. The questioning from News.com journalists has been hostile, not least because the Andrews lockdown was at variance with the News.com (and federal government) conviction that Victoria should lighten up before every business in the state collapsed. The campaign, and the headlines, as well as the imputation from some politicians that Andrews was somehow personally responsible for 800 deaths in his state, seems to have rebounded. So much so that some critical journalists have suggested the state is suffering from Stockholm syndrome. There were plenty of people, particularly in the business community, annoyed by Andrews’ caution in relaxing controls until the state had broken the back of its second wave. But there was another constituency, a bigger one, apparently, which accepted the need to get the job done.

Morrison was initially fairly supportive of Andrews in public. He could certainly have learnt some lessons from him in being straightforward, accepting responsibility for error, and in avoiding spin. Morrison has a slick eye for marketing, an aptitude for changing the subject or finding a distraction, and for burying anything inconvenient with verbiage. But his dissembling and prevarication, his efforts to rule legitimate questions out of order, and his habitual secretiveness and refusal ever to admit a political mistake are increasingly making him look guilty, shifty and untrustworthy. When that impression settles, it is hard to shift.

print

John Waterford AM, better known as Jack Waterford, is an Australian journalist and commentator.

This entry was posted in Politics. Bookmark the permalink.

Please keep your comments short and sharp and avoid entering links. For questions regarding our comment system please click here.
(Please note that we are unable to post comments on your behalf.)