It is hard to believe this election is coming not just at a time when global politics and the economy are in turmoil but when Australia has just emerged from the biggest social upheaval in peacetime.
It might seem especially odd since Australia’s response to Covid was so utterly political. ‘Political’ does not just mean partisan political, although it did often descend to that, but political in the sense that there was a cast-iron certainty that of course government could stop Covid—it was just a matter of political will. The pandemic measures may have been proposed by public health officials but the certainty they would work was political. This core belief, commonly known as ‘Zero Covid’, underpinned some of the most drastic measures the west has seen, even compared to wartime. It had some backing in the medical profession but little manifestation in reality. ZeroCovid activists on social media would point to this and that country that was stopping Covid—until they were not. The ideology is now going through its grim death throes where it, like the virus, began, and ZeroCovid activists have become curiously silent.
This certainty that government could stop a novel virus, about which we are still learning, was a feature of much of the western democratic response to Covid. However, it was reinforced in Australia by the peculiar way the country views its place in the region and the world.
In Australia, Covid comparisons were made not with its geographic neighbours, as would be expected with a naturally spreading virus, but with its political neighbours, which for Australia are on the other side of the planet, in the US and Europe (mostly UK). In the south east Asian region, Australia’s experience with Covid was unexceptional, even quite high, especially compared to the developed democracies down the eastern and southern Asian seaboard . But generally the Covid experience in the region was ignored. It was far preferable to make favourable comparisons with Trump’s America and Brexit Britain, and the political conclusion was that Australia had a lower death toll, not because it was in a favoured part of the world, but because it was handling Covid better.
Exactly what Australia was handling better was never quite clear. Protection of the elderly in care homes and quarantine were hardly sparkling, as subsequent inquiries have shown. One area where Australia was an absolute stand-out, however, was in closing off its borders even to its own citizens to a degree not seen in any other democracy. This is especially striking as Australia is a migrant country and sealing off borders inevitably meant severing family ties. The disproportionate burden borne by migrant families from Australia’s response to the pandemic is worth noting, not least because, with some rare examples, hardly anyone thought it worth doing so. This distinctive feature of Australia’s response points to a long-standing political strain stretching back to the colonial outpost days of both a naïve faith in closed borders’ ability to insulate from the world’s problems and a half-arsed attitude to Australian citizenship.
The ‘Fortress Australia’ mentality that was so much a part of Australia’s Covid response should have favoured the Coalition that came to power in 2013 making such a deal of it, and should have put wind in its sails for this election. But the politics changed.
At the beginning, the federal government sought to take the lead on the Covid response. Morrison’s China flight ban in late January 2020 was, as Peter Hartcher wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald, meant to show Morrison had learnt the lessons of his inept handling of the bushfires a few months before. But since the practicalities of one have little to do with the practicalities of the other, Hartcher was referring to political lessons. The flight ban was mostly theatre, as the New York Times noted for Trump’s coincident ban, as by then the Covid horse was well and truly bolting around the world while Wuhan and the rest of Hebei Province, where the virus was concentrated, had gone under the strictest lockdown.
Yet this early federal initiative was soon lost as inevitably the virus entered the country and since it was so certain that government could have prevented it, political journalists solemnly concluded that the federal government lacked the will to tackle the virus, a conclusion they spiced up with some epidemiological observations as though they knew what they were talking about. As a result, the six states and two territories began to take over the initiative for the response.
It is hard to argue for the fragmenting of the national response to a virus that required, if anything, global coordination, not to be run on the lines of the colonial anachronisms of territory borders. It was not like they proved any more competent. True, not all reached the ineptitude of the South Australian government’s shutting down of the state on a ‘super strain’ because they had not worked out the guy who picked up the pizza actually worked there, or repeated the Queensland government’s outrageous, politically motivated, scaremongering about the AstraZeneca vaccine. But besides applying the tried and tested Australian formula of more border controls and the further degradation of Australian citizenship, it was hard to point to any practical reasons for the transfer of powers. Rather it was a political response (as seen in other federal jurisdictions) as national government took the flak for a perceived failure of political will to stop Covid.
In the hands of the states, the response was, if anything, even more political and disconnected from reality. The state of Victoria could easily be lauded for demonstrating the most political will in tackling Covid with one of the longest lockdowns in the world—as well as having by far the worst national outcome. When the Omicron variant ripped through the country, sending Australia to the near the top of the world’s caseloads, the ZeroCovid illusion was over. The states rapidly wound up restrictions whereas, of course, if the restrictions did prevent Covid, they would have done the opposite.
The retreat of the states has not seen a restoration of the authority of the federal government, and this overshadows the federal election. It should favour Labor. Labor tends to come to power when international changes require a domestic change in direction. International politics is now in a state of flux but not enough to point a direction for Labor. Usually by default the Coalition will rely on the federal government’s authority in border control and the economy, but the damage to authority it suffered during Covid has made this harder.
The loss of federal authority lends this election a special air of pointlessness. Both parties’ agendas have been running dry for some time but now both seem intent on bringing nothing to the election, even if they could. Morrison has attempted to take advantage by extending the campaign in the hope Labor will panic and fill it with something like they did in 2019, giving us the tedious paradox of the less content in the election the longer it is.
But the emptiness of the election is not only a result of the blow to federal authority during the Covid response. It is also coming from the difficulty either party has in tackling the one issue dominating the electorate’s attention in this campaign, the cost of living.
What we are seeing in the current spike in inflation is the breakdown of a long running, silent, ‘social contract’ that in return for stagnant wages, prices would stay stagnant as well. Yet this is clearly difficult to grasp. In a piece in The Australian written the day the election was called, a journalist breezily declared that it would be nonsense if the government was penalised on the economy since it is the best it has been for many years and an accompanying graph showed that, yes, by all the metrics, the economy is looking in excellent health—except, unfortunately, the one that most of the electorate will care about. For the first time this century, and likely some time before that, the electorate is going to the polls with falling real wages. It would seem then that any party that can tap into cost-of-living concerns, and Labor is giving it a go, should have it in the bag.
However, there are two barriers to either party picking it up. The first being that the obvious response to falling real wages is to increase bargaining power to raise them and no major party is willing to propose that—least of all the party that was formed on the back of it which now has that rare thing, a leader from the party’s left who seems intent on making that as meaningless as possible.
However, there is a more important, subtle, reason. The supply-side shock from the extreme act of political will in shutting down the economies to defeat Covid, and the energy shock from the extreme act of political will in extricating a key G20 economy from the world economic system to defeat Russia, have had the active support of both major parties. Hence the source of the current inflation and the economic turbulence must remain a mystery (the Reserve Bank claimed that raising rates was necessary due to rising wages, it would be nice if it gave evidence to support this).
The implication for the political establishment of the current hit on cost of living is already being seen in populist movements in the US and France and it played a part in the landslide re-election of the populist government in Hungary. It suggests the potential for a second, more virulent, populist wave to come.
In Australia, populism is for now in the shambolic hands of One Nation and the United Australia Party so discontent is likely to continue to be expressed in the downward drift of the primary votes of the majors (the LNP is now polling the lowest primary that major non-Labor parties have ever achieved in elections). This decline of the majors’ primary votes asserts itself in the destabilising and undermining of their once safe seats. But the independents that emerge tend to be high-minded folk that are almost the antithesis of populism.
The current crop of ‘Teal’ independents complete the transition begun in 2010 from candidates simply representing their local area and to those who make a criticism of the inadequacy of the political system as a whole, especially on its inability to tackle issues like climate change. Indeed it is even possible to detect in the current support for independents a displacing of support from Labor on the hope they will reform and revive the political system.
Yet as we all know, they will not.
The author is an analyst who writes the Piping Shrike blog, a perspective on Australian politics.