Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Delta variant’s political toll

There is an increasing likelihood that the Delta strain of the Covid-19 virus has dealt a fatal blow to the prospects of the Morrison government retaining office at the next election, whenever it is held.

The prime minister has spent the week holed up in isolation back at The Lodge in Canberra ahead of the scheduled parliamentary sitting in two weeks’ time. His colleagues have no doubt he is ruminating on the findings of a string of opinion polls this week showing a fall in support for the government and his own declining approval ratings – none more disturbingly than the Newspoll.

Newspoll is the poll all politicians take particular note of, so the six-point lead recorded for Labor – 53-47, two-party preferred – is a shattering result. It breaks the run of lineball findings over the past few months, even though they mostly had Labor just ahead. Of course, the next poll will show if this is an outlier or the beginning of an entrenched rejection of this government.

Exercising the minds of the PM’s inner circle in the meantime would be the finding that most Australians, including the 14 million in strict lockdown in three states, sheet home much of the blame for their predicament to Morrison.

The best explanation for this situation comes from the New South Wales Liberal premier, Gladys Berejiklian. Her daily announcements of the losing struggle to suppress community transmission to zero has one recurring theme: vaccine scarcity. On Wednesday, when Berejiklian announced a spike to 110 community infections, she said without the lockdown that number “would undoubtedly have been thousands and thousands”.

Epidemiologists agree. Professor Adrian Esterman told ABC Radio that the Delta strain sees 10 per cent of people cause 80 per cent of infections. Transmission can be fleeting. “You can get this walking through a cloud of particles,” he said.

And even though the vaccine rollout is beginning to ramp up, with one million Pfizer doses arriving onshore this week, Australia is still sitting at the bottom of the vaccination ladder of OECD nations.

Berejiklian says the only way people can live “freely and safely” now is to quash the current outbreak with draconian measures, because “our vaccination rates are so low”. Her sentiments are echoed by the premier of Western Australia, Mark McGowan, who says lockdowns are not the best solution, vaccination is. “It’s our best and only way out of this pandemic,” he said on Tuesday.

Newspoll found Morrison’s ratings for his performance in handling the pandemic have been in a steady decline – since a peak of 85 per cent satisfaction in April last year to 52 per cent last week. But his handling of the vaccine rollout has been marked down even more severely, with 57 per cent dissatisfied and even Coalition voters tepid in their approval.

Morrison, however, said on Wednesday he had nothing to apologise for because he had been more unlucky than anything else. He said his critics in hindsight are ignoring the changing developments and advice on vaccines, and Australians know this. But on Thursday he finally said he was sorry the rollout had not gone as he planned. What Australians also know is that their prime minister put too many eggs in too few baskets and failed to originally purchase enough mRNA vaccines.

The arrival of the Delta strain has unmasked the wishful thinking behind the ditching of JobKeeper and JobSeeker. The end of the payments was originally based on the January forecast that four million vaccine doses would have been delivered by April. Morrison is paying dearly for that failure, as is the nation.

The prime minister has no wish to return to JobKeeper or something similar, as Anthony Albanese is urging. He is half right on that: the original design was deeply flawed and hundreds of millions of dollars went to unscrupulous companies paying themselves bonuses and pocketing the handouts as profits. But there is a strong case for doing more than the Covid-19 Disaster Payment he eventually announced after three attempts at more generous support for workers and businesses hit by the lockdowns. Pensioners and other social security recipients who have lost the opportunity to supplement their incomes with casual jobs have still been left out in the cold.

Morrison has had to pivot from how terrific his government was in responding last year to the pandemic to his new favourite line: You would rather be in Australia than anywhere else. Without doubt this will be a key theme in his re-election strategy, but how much kudos he gets for it is increasingly doubtful. Research by The Australia Institute, released this week, showed the premiers are getting most of the credit for our successes so far.

Ironically, the two Liberal premiers, South Australia’s Steven Marshall and NSW’s Berejiklian, have done Morrison no favours with their shutdown of construction. Everything from major multimillion-dollar projects to housing construction and renovation is suspended. These are the prime minister’s tradies, the hard-hatted, high-vis-wearing mostly blokes he has gone out of his way to appeal to. They are invariably subcontractors whose insecure incomes are tied to the jobs at hand.

Berejiklian is now saying she will lift the shutdown of this sector after two weeks. She is, however, hostage to the Delta strain and the fact it is being transmitted on worksites and then taken home to families. What would be galling to Morrison is the fact Victoria’s Labor premier, Daniel Andrews, has left construction working, as he did in the state’s second major lockdown last year.

Nobody doubts, however, that Morrison is completely dedicated to winning the election – whatever it takes. The shaky polls would only steel his determination to repeat the strategy that delivered him his “miracle win”. That strategy was laid out in more detail at this week’s senate estimates hearings, and it was not so much divine intervention as hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money diverted to the Coalition’s election campaign.

It is now apparent that no sooner had Morrison become prime minister in 2018 than he set about buying the “unwinnable” election by targeting marginal seats with government projects. Indeed, if you take into account the so-called sports rorts program, the regional and community development grants program and the commuter car park fund, you are talking billions of dollars.

The auditor-general was just as unimpressed with the $660 million car park congestion fund as he was with the $100 million sports grants program. Acceptable standards of accountability and transparency with taxpayers’ funds were trashed in favour of blatant pork-barrelling.

If nothing else, the allocation of these funds to hitherto safe seats in Melbourne’s south-eastern suburbs shows just how worried the Liberals were. One party source says up until two weeks before the election, the party’s tracking showed Treasurer Josh Frydenberg to be in trouble in his seat of Kooyong. The same staffer in the Prime Minister’s Office who oversaw the distorted allocation of sports facilities funds also played a key role in the car parks scheme.

The current Urban Infrastructure minister, Paul Fletcher, is unapologetic. On 7.30 he gave every indication the government will employ the same tactics again. You can bet on it, especially if the polls show no lift in the months ahead.

While the Newspoll was particularly good news for Labor, it wasn’t so flash for Anthony Albanese personally. His satisfaction ratings took a hit, though not as big as Morrison’s. Some in the Labor Party are pointing to this as proof he is not cutting through. He has pinged the government on vaccines and quarantine and even on support for locked-down Australians, but hasn’t persuaded voters he has answers and alternatives.

There is a worry that Labor could fall at the final hurdle, as it did with Bill Shorten as a leader. That time around, not enough voters felt they could trust the opposition leader, especially in Queensland and Western Australia.

But Albanese’s internal support from the Left and a good whack of the Right faction is holding, especially in NSW. One key backer says: “Show me the leader who would trade off a six-point two-party-preferred lead for better personal ratings and I will show you a sure-fire loser.”

It is true that the satisfaction ratings have never been predictors of voting intention – in fact, the exact opposite. Coalition voters often express satisfaction with a Labor leader if he or she isn’t causing any grief for a Liberal prime minister. Similarly, Tony Abbott wasn’t “popular” as Liberal opposition leader but he took a lot of skin off the Gillard–Rudd government and succeeded in winning the election.

No one thinks the coming poll is a so-called “drover’s dog” election, where anyone who led Labor, including a mangy mutt, could defeat the Morrison government. In 1983, when then Labor leader Bill Hayden coined the phrase after the party dumped him in favour of Bob Hawke, the polls consistently had Labor ahead. But the party room wanted to make dead sure by going to the much more popular Hawke.

There is no Bob Hawke in the wings this time. If the old adage that governments lose elections rather than oppositions winning them holds, then the current state of affairs should calm Labor nerves.

The fact is, right now Covid-19 and lockdowns are preoccupying millions of Australians. Albanese is confident the election campaign will give voters the chance to see his “better policies” already out there but unnoticed.

Maybe, but the Coalition thinks Albanese is its secret weapon. Barnaby Joyce’s taunting of the Labor leader in parliament along these lines is the widely shared view on the government benches.

The mutating bug, though, may well have changed that calculation.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 24, 2021 as "Delta bad hand but still gambling".

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Paul Bongiorno is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a 30-year veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery.