Timing is everything
Will the federal election be brought forward?
Right now, there are two major, highly interdependent questions about timing dominating Australian politics: when will the federal election be, and when will the international border open? The answer to the first appears to grow sooner by the day, while the second seems to inch further and further away. But ultimately the answer to both is “whenever is most politically advantageous to the prime minister”. The election, despite Scott Morrison’s insistence that he is a “full termer”, will likely creep forward, with both leaders seemingly in campaign mode on a weekend “blitz” of the battleground state of Queensland. The date of the border reopening, however, remains stubbornly vague and far away, in spite of growing calls from experts for a more concrete plan. There are good reasons for both events – which are currently scheduled for 2022 – to be brought forward. But what impact will the latest Newspoll – showing strong support for the budget and closed borders but no real electoral lift for the Coalition – have on Morrison’s political calculations?
Whispers of an early election became even louder over the weekend, with both leaders in Queensland in what 9 News labelled the “start” to Morrison’s “election campaign”. Unnamed Liberal MPs told Nine they believed an early election was increasingly likely following last week’s big-spending budget, and could perhaps be as soon as October this year, arguing that a third budget is no longer needed before heading to an election (although don’t expect an announcement any time soon; a decision on when to call the election won’t be taken until after the government sees how the June sitting period goes). Those quotes, however, came before Sunday night’s Newspoll. Though the poll found the budget was incredibly well received, with the highest approval rating since 2007, it came with no electoral boost for the Coalition. Labor remains in the lead on the two-party preferred vote, at 51–49, and although the ALP did see its primary vote fall two points to 36 per cent, there was no corresponding lift for the Coalition, stable on 41 per cent (the Greens picked up the 2 per cent of primary votes instead).
The poll has complicated the idea that Morrison no longer needs a third budget because this one was so electorally popular. With no boost in the polls, it’s the politics of the pandemic that will have to guide Morrison. There is a strong argument for him to go to an election early, with Australia still in an incumbent-favouring pandemic mode. Anonymous Liberals agree that it will also depend on how well the vaccine rollout is going, but if the government is not going to hit its vague, end-of-year timeline, it might be better to go to the polls before it misses the deadline.
On the issue of the international border, however, an outcome still looks pretty remote, though it will be just as guided by the politics of the pandemic. Despite a weekend of medical experts, business groups, Liberal backbenchers and separated families calling for a clearer reopening plan than “some time in 2022”, the Morrison government doesn’t look likely to budge, especially after the Newspoll also revealed that three quarters of Australians support keeping the border closed until at least the middle of next year. The list of experts calling for that clarified reopening plan (and against Australia’s “hermit kingdom”, “fortress Australia”, “elimination bunker” mindset) grew longer today, with the NSW treasurer, Dominic Perrottet, arguing for clearer goals linked to vaccine targets. But the prime minister, who has repeatedly called for state borders to open, and just a month ago implied that international travel might be possible this year, today played it safe. “It’s not safe to take those next steps right now,” he said in a press conference. “Right now, it’s not safe,” he added. Much like with the India travel ban, the loudest voices may be calling for a change in plan, but the “quiet Australians” are comfortable with the “Fortress” approach. Morrison certainly knows that, and is more than happy to exploit – and stoke – their fears.
Neither the election nor the border reopening will be brought forward unless it suits Morrison and his close reading of pandemic politics. But even if it does suit him, the ability for either event to be advanced will depend, in so many ways, on the status of the vaccine rollout. Health Minister Greg Hunt today attempted to spruik the latest progress, with 436,000 vaccinations in the past week a “significant” national record, and promising that the rollout was still picking up pace. The Morrison government better hope so. As two widely respected experts reminded us on the weekend, at the rate of 426,000 doses a week, Australia’s adult population won’t be fully vaccinated until mid January… in 2023. The reopening of borders can be delayed as long as it suits, but the election can not.
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Right now, there are two major, highly interdependent questions about timing dominating Australian politics: when will the federal election be, and when will the international border open? The answer to the first appears to grow sooner by the day, while the second seems to inch further and further away. But ultimately the answer to both is “whenever is most politically advantageous to the prime minister”. The election, despite Scott Morrison’s insistence that he is a “full termer”, will likely creep forward, with both leaders seemingly in campaign mode on a weekend “blitz” of the battleground state of Queensland. The date of the border reopening, however, remains stubbornly vague and far away, in spite of growing calls from experts for a more concrete plan. There are good reasons for...
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