Image: Mick Tsikas/AAP
If Scott Morrison had contracted COVID two months ago, it would have been a big story. Instead, when the PM fell victim this week, it was also-ran news.
We are finally starting to “live with COVID”, as Morrison has insisted we should. Except in Western Australia, which opened its border this week, and faces a painful transition.
More significantly of course, the COVID story has been pushed aside by two massive events: Russia’s attack on Ukraine and the devastating floods in NSW and Queensland.
Both show, in their vastly different ways, how quickly and dramatically things can change, and consequently shift public attention, throwing a blanket over most else.
Each has highlighted, again so differently, the great courage of ordinary people. And they have put into perspective the smallness and the pettiness characterising much of our day-to-day politics.
We are only weeks from the formal start of the campaign for the May election. Yet we’re having a break in the national argument between the parties.
Or at least it’s been toned down. It goes beyond being drowned out. The major parties are either finding in their research, or intuiting, that people’s tolerance for their usual carry-on is limited in times like this, although the hiatus will be temporary.
The floods will feed into the on-the-ground issues in coming weeks in some areas. Stressed voters trying to get their lives back together will lay blame as the reconstruction begins.
The state governments will cop criticism but the Feds will be vulnerable too.
Morrison (with the lessons of the bushfire disaster in memory) has been anxious to get ahead of critics. On Thursday he convened a virtual roundtable to discuss supply chain and other issues (he tuned in from Kirribilli House); federal funds have been announced for NSW and money for Queensland will follow.
At the start of the week Newspoll, in which the opposition retained its 55-45% two-party lead, was a relief for Labor and a source of further worry for an embattled government. Most immediately, it suggested the Coalition had failed, at least for the moment, in its over-the-top attempt to wedge the opposition on China.
Both sides know the polls will narrow at some point. But the longer Labor can hold that off, the better for its momentum and the more the Coalition’s morale will be sapped.
One danger Labor will need to keep in mind is being caught on the hop as circumstances change. COVID-related government mistakes were fertile ground for the opposition as recently as January. Yet Labor’s strategists know that harking back to these, while tempting, is reaching into a bucket with a hole in it.
It’s always difficult to let go of issues as they pass their use-by date – for example, Labor in 2001 was out of time when campaigning on rolling back the GST on some items.
For its part, the government needs to get attention onto the economy, but it mightn’t have much opportunity until close to the March 29 budget.
Wednesday’s national accounts indicated a strong economic recovery in the December quarter, in a bounce back from last year’s lockdowns in Melbourne and Sydney. (The March quarter will reflect the Omicron hit but we won’t see that until after the election.) The numbers received limited coverage, squeezed by the dominant stories.
The budget, the launch pad for the election, will be affected by both the floods and the Ukraine war, although the estimates of the extent of the impact will of necessity be rough. Apart from bringing direct costs, the floods will hit production. Reserve Bank governor Philip Lowe this week drew attention to the uncertainty the war poses for the world economy.
Asked this week about the budget’s priorities, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg laid down some markers.
“Despite the very strong economic recovery that we’ve seen and the resilience, the recovery is not yet locked in,” he told his national accounts news conference. COVID was “still with us” and the international events showed the “downside risks”.
The government had been driving unemployment down – “we are on the verge of full employment” – and the budget would continue to invest in areas that helped create jobs. “So, there will be very significant infrastructure investment […] There will be very significant investment in our regions because they are going to be key to our economic growth.”
Frydenberg named the digital economy as “a major focus” for the government, as well as manufacturing. There’d be attention on skills and on “incentivising investment”, including in energy. National security will obviously be to the forefront, and he also mentioned health and education.
Budgets are full of pea-and-thimble tricks, so in some areas the question will be whether extra spending is real or illusory. But clearly budget repair will not be a priority at this point and there’ll be election “pork” to try to attract voters.
Frydenberg continues to dodge the question of whether the low and middle income tax offset, which costs nearly $8 billion, will be renewed. Despite the price tag, it would be a big call in an election budget not to continue it or have some equivalent.
This budget is not just important to the government’s chance of reviving from a low base, but many in the Liberal Party will also have an eye on the personal performance of Frydenberg, as a prospect for leader if the Coalition is defeated.
As he watched things from isolation at Kirribilli House, Morrison would have registered Anthony Albanese arriving in Perth as soon as the border opened on Wednesday night. Morrison is desperate to get to WA, where the Liberals fear for two or three of their seats.
The PM’s illness has been a sharp reminder of something that’s been preoccupying the parties. We might be “living with COVID” but it still has the ability to disrupt life mightily, including election campaigning.
Frustrated as he might be this week, Morrison may reckon he’s better off to have COVID now than in the campaign itself (assuming no return bout).
Albanese has dodged the virus but knows there are no guarantees it won’t strike him between now and election day. Imagine coming down with COVID in the second-last week of the campaign, say when there was supposed to be a face-to-face debate.
The parties are putting in place contingency plans but nothing is easy. With our “presidential” campaigns, there are no understudies for leaders.
In this era when many people have become fans of working from home, for a leader a week’s electioneering from the domestic office, perhaps while feeling crook, is as bad as campaign nightmares get.
This article was written by:
Michelle Grattan does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.