The politics of dealing with coronavirus are beginning to come into view, as the stakes in each state become clearer. By Mike Seccombe.

Politics and messaging across borders

It was three-quarters of the way through Scott Morrison’s Monday media conference at Parliament House when the question about Western Australia came.

The WA premier, Mark McGowan, had suggested over the weekend that his state’s border might remain closed until the end of this year, or even the middle of next year, to keep out coronavirus.

“Now,” the reporter asked of the prime minister, “what is your response to that? Do you have any concerns about what something like that might mean for Australia as a whole?”

Morrison replied: “Well, we have no quarrel with Mr McGowan on these matters.”

It would be welcome if things could open up by Christmas, the prime minister said, “but I doubt that is going to happen. I doubt the medical position will enable that. And so you’ve just got to follow the medical evidence on all of these, whether it’s borders or whether it’s the restrictions on trade or of local businesses or whatever it happens to be.”

A couple of questions later, when asked if he was satisfied with the Queensland government’s reasons for again closing its border, the prime minister was equally sanguine: “I’m just simply saying that premiers need to explain the decisions that they make and they need to explain the advice upon which they’re acting. And it’s for others to judge whether they’re doing that sufficiently or not. I’m not the arbiter of that.”

It was a breathtaking example of prime ministerial chutzpah. Only a matter of weeks ago Morrison was setting himself up as “the arbiter of that”. He argued that all states should keep their borders open. He railed against Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk in particular, over her state’s border closure, accusing her and her government of damaging the economy and costing jobs.

Morrison’s government announced its intention to intervene in support of court cases to force both Queensland and Western Australia to open up. It dropped the case against Queensland in early July, but the action involving WA was only discontinued two weeks ago.

Other conservative politicians around the country followed Morrison’s lead, demanding the reopening of borders or the expedited end of shutdowns within states, or both, for the sake of the economy. They were enthusiastically supported by sections of the media.

Now Morrison has suddenly dialled it down. Why?

The obvious answer is the Victorian second wave. In the last week of June, the number of coronavirus cases in Victoria took off. At time of writing there have been almost 16,000 confirmed cases and 275 deaths in Victoria, and the number is still rising, although the rate of new infections appears to be slowing.

But that is only a partial answer, because the health crisis is so far restricted to that state. New South Wales is walking the edge of disaster, but has not tipped over, and the other states are largely Covid-19 free. Given that, one might think Morrison would still be strongly making the argument for the opening of borders between the less affected states. But he isn’t.

Of course, the case numbers dictate a more restrained approach. Yet political numbers are likely a big consideration, too.

Let’s start with one number: 42. That’s the number of consecutive days, as of Thursday, that Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has fronted up to answer media questions about the grim progress of the second wave of Covid-19 in his state. By the time you read this, it will almost certainly be 44.

It’s been six weeks of bad news: more cases, more deaths, more restrictions on the community, more hard questions about how his government allowed this to happen. It has become a routine, the only change to which came this week, when instead of the new daily numbers being selectively leaked in advance of Andrews’ appearance each day, they are now being shared on social media at the same time for everyone.

You can almost see Andrews ageing under the strain of it, but he just keeps fronting up.

It’s a remarkable record. Also remarkable is the fact that despite all the bad news, people give Andrews credit for turning up and taking responsibility.

An Essential poll, conducted last weekend and released on Monday, asked 499 Victorians how the outbreak had affected their view of Andrews. Forty-four per cent said they viewed him either much more favourably (24 per cent) or a little more favourably (20). Another 26 per cent said it had made no difference. Only 29 per cent thought less of him.

Curiously, this regard does not seem to translate into support for his government – only 49 per cent thought it had done a good job – just as Morrison’s high approval numbers have not seen any significant lift in the polls measuring federal voting intention.

Even more significant, though, is that the survey found overwhelming support for the Andrews government’s imposition of tight lockdowns – stage four in Melbourne and stage three elsewhere in Victoria. This is despite the economic and social consequences, and the evidence that it was a failure of government hotel quarantine measures that allowed the virus to escape into the community.

By a margin of better than four to one, respondents thought the restrictions appropriate and likely to be effective in stopping the spread of Covid-19.

These results are no surprise to Kosmos Samaras, a former Labor Party official and now director of RedBridge Group Australia, a political/management consultancy based in Melbourne. RedBridge has conducted a large number of focus group interviews across Australia over the course of the coronavirus epidemic, concentrating on Victoria since the second lockdown.

“To summarise thousands of interviews,” he says, “most people’s feedback – to date anyway – has been, ‘This is not something we’ve ever experienced. I don’t expect politicians to get everything right. I expect mistakes to be made. We need Daniel Andrews to succeed.’

“The same goes for Scott Morrison. People want him to succeed.”

And no doubt, just as Andrews made mistakes in hotel quarantine, Morrison has made mistakes. As journalist Niki Savva, a former Liberal Party staffer, pointed out in The Australian on Thursday: “At almost every critical point on almost every contentious issue, he has been forced to shift position.” She enumerated some, including waiting too long to block travel from the United States, opposing school closures, wage subsidies and pandemic leave, and suspending parliament.

And that is only a partial list. Other issues include his early insistence that the economy would snap back quickly, and that JobKeeper and JobSeeker would end in September.

A long-time political operator, who is no fan of the prime minister’s, said he admired the political flexibility. “Morrison’s very agile,” he said. “He shifts his position constantly, without any apparent embarrassment.”

But in relation to lockdowns and border closures, he was not so agile. No sooner had the first Covid-19 wave passed than he and his federal and state colleagues began agitating for the states to open up. Criticism for being too cautious was largely directed at the Labor governments of WA, Queensland and Victoria.

The criticism fell most heavily on the Palaszczuk government, which faces an election on October 31. It looks like being a tight contest, despite Palaszczuk’s personal approval rating.

Before the reopening of Queensland’s border, Morrison went in very hard, as did the Queensland Liberal National leader, Deb Frecklington, and others.

“There was lots of tough talk about how this was outrageous,” Katharine Gelber, head of the school of political science and international studies at the University of Queensland, says of the border closure.

Then came the second wave in Victoria. “Those people have all gone very quiet now,” she says.

Attacking Palaszczuk and Labor on economic grounds might have seemed a good idea at the time, but it probably wasn’t, even then. At the end of May, The Australia Institute commissioned a survey of voters’ attitudes on border closures across the four largest states. It found 77 per cent support for them. It ranged from 70 per cent in NSW to a whopping 88 per cent in the west. In Queensland it was 78 per cent.

Bottom line, says Samaras, is that the conservatives badly misread the public mood. Most people are more concerned about contagion – “literally a life and death issue” – than about the economy.

“They’ve seen what’s happening around the world. They know how bad this can get,” he says. “Their contrast is Trump.”

How this will ultimately play out electorally is anyone’s guess. On one hand, we see extraordinarily high approval ratings for incumbent leaders. On the other, those ratings do not necessarily indicate voting intention.

But we will get our first, small clue a week from now, when the results of the Northern Territory election come in.

“Based on the opinion polls, you would have said Labor was dead meat four months ago,” says Rolf Gerritsen, professorial research fellow at Charles Darwin University.

The government of Michael Gunner, he explains, was saddled with enormous debt and the territory economy was tanking, even before Covid-19.

“Then Gunner, like every other jurisdictional leader, did the ‘firm and resolute’ thing [and] got the same poll bounce,” says Gerritsen.

“During the election campaign, Labor has accentuated the need for stability and firmness in the face of existential threat.”

This week Chief Minister Gunner doubled down, telling the ABC that if his government were re-elected it would maintain border controls – though not actual border closures – for at least 18 months.

The territory, of course, is a politically eccentric place. The Queensland poll will tell us much more. But Morrison’s newly conciliatory attitude to border closures would seem to be telling us something already.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 15, 2020 as "Border implications".

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