The Politics    Thursday, August 26, 2021

Plan of attack

By Rachel Withers

Composite image showing Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk, federal Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese and Western Australia Premier Mark McGowan. Images via Facebook

Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk, federal Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese and Western Australia Premier Mark McGowan. Images via Facebook

The PM is playing a cheap game of politics, and the Labor premiers are letting him

Scott Morrison is playing a clever game with his crude messaging on the “national plan”, creating an overly simplistic dichotomy between lockdowns and freedom, fear and hope, and Labor and the Coalition, ahead of the next election. While Doherty Institute modelling allows for targeted lockdowns once the 70 and 80 per cent vaccination thresholds are met, the PM has portrayed the Labor premiers who reserve the right to use such measures as backing away from the national plan – and he’s hammering federal Labor with it too. In today’s Question Time, Morrison continued to suggest that any criticism of his rhetoric was a sign that the Opposition – which has repeatedly said it backs the plan – didn’t back the plan. “They either support the plan or they don’t,” he said, when questioned on whether he took any responsibility for the situation the nation now finds itself in. Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese is doing his best to clarify that his party supports the plan, while trying to retain some of the nuance that Morrison is attempting to wipe away (with no small amount of help from the media). But is it working? The premiers whom the PM says are not supporting the plan are doing their federal counterpart no favours by failing to clarify that they don’t mean to maintain COVID-zero forever. What is Labor, as a federal party but also as a national team, going to do to dispel Morrison’s dangerous implication that it doesn’t support reopening?

Appearing on ABC News Breakfast yesterday, the Labor leader said that he supported the plan, but that targeted lockdowns were still part of it – something News Corp has portrayed as some kind of humiliating backdown. (“[A] major policy and political strategic shift”, wrote The Australian’s Dennis Shanahan yesterday, when Albanese confirmed that he was in favour of the plan, with The Daily Telegraph reporting that it had “finally achieved bipartisan backing”.) On 6PR Perth last night, Albanese tried again, insisting that all the premiers were on board, and that Morrison, with his implication that there would soon be minimal restrictions, was misleading the public on what the national plan was. Albanese clearly doesn’t want Morrison’s claim – that the Labor Party wants to hold the country back – to stick. But it nevertheless appears to be sticking in many corners, with the media continuing to imply that Labor doesn’t really support the plan – mainly thanks to the premiers of Western Australia and Queensland, who remain firm in their commitment to keeping COVID out of their states. 

Australian states, as Albanese well knows, cannot remain COVID-free forever – and surely the hardline premiers know this too. It’s not unreasonable for them to want to keep their unvaccinated populations safe from the virus right now, and their current border restrictions are well in line with the national plan’s suppression phase. (In fact, it is the Liberal NSW government that is most obviously failing to follow the plan, as it loosens restrictions at only 32 per cent vaccinated.) But the premiers’ extreme rhetoric is not helping Albanese in his attempt to find the middle ground here, and to shake off perceptions that Labor is the party of permanent lockdowns and COVID-zero forever. In the face of her growing outbreak, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, a strong and successful proponent of the elimination strategy, has herself begun clearly communicating that the country will have to eventually relinquish it (while insisting that lockdowns and elimination would remain in place while they vaccinate). So why aren’t we hearing that from Mark McGowan and Annastacia Palaszczuk? At this stage, WA Labor seems more interested in scoring points against Morrison for his ill-chosen Croods comments, and picking apart his weak implication that Western Australians were cave people, something that Labor MP Milton Dick brought up again in Question Time. But Labor ought to be more worried about Morrison’s more dangerous implications: that the Opposition doesn’t want to open up the country.

The prime minister wants to turn the debate on the national plan into something simplistic, an argument between being fully open or fully closed once the nation reaches its vaccine thresholds. If you listen more closely to some of his ministers, however, you get a more nuanced story, more in line with what Albanese is saying. Moderate Simon Birmingham has admitted that the plan does include capacity for “targeted lockdowns” where required, and that the federal government would not simply “walk away” from providing assistance to those enduring them, despite what Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has implied. The wildly inaccurate picture Morrison wants to paint ahead of the election is that Labor is going to keep people locked down while the Coalition is going to set them free. McGowan and Palaszczuk, in failing to provide any nuance, are letting him get away with it.

Listen to The Politics Podcast, with Rachel Withers

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Labor MP Julian Hill, who represents more Afghan-Australians than any other MP, could not contain his anger as Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews responded to a Dorothy Dixer on Afghanistan. He continued yelling as he was booted out of the chamber.

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Federal LNP senator Gerard Rennick says banks are obliged to provide finance to coal and gas projects.

Angus Taylor’s fossil fuel handouts
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The list

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“Children have been largely spared the most severe symptoms of the COVID-19 infection, but as vaccines increasingly protect the adult population, the Delta variant is spreading quickly among young people. Although acute infection in children still tends to be milder than in adults, countries such as Britain and the United States have seen a surge in children hospitalisations. In Australia, COVID-19 transmission among children has increased, too.” 

Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.


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