Morrison plays the politics of freedom

But today, with those nations by virtue of necessity having much higher vaccination rates than Australia, they are living with COVID-19, tolerating deaths and illnesses among the unvaccinated, while the vaccinated live life relatively free.

The Sydney lockdown started in late June when a COVID-19 cluster started in Bondi.  Rhett Wyman

Increasingly, Australians, especially those locked down again for months on end, their businesses destroyed, their children’s education severely damaged, their lives miserable, no longer believe this is the best way to handle the pandemic.

The most recent True Issues survey by JWS Research published last week found the proportion of voters who felt Australia was handling the pandemic better than the rest of the world had declined from 79 per cent in February to 57 per cent in July.

Losing the room

The premiers, especially those of the lockdown states, are starting to lose the room, even if the core of their dilemma has been quarantine and the vaccine rollout – which are both federal responsibilities.

Gladys Berejiklian long ago lost control of the NSW outbreak and Daniel Andrews, despite locking down hard and fast, is now losing control of the latest Victorian outbreak.

In both instances, civil disobedience is a significant problem in terms of trying to contain the spread and both leaders have expressed exasperation with people not following the rules. “The longer people break the rules, the longer these rules will be on,” Andrews told his beaten-down citizens on Thursday.

In reality, Andrews along with Berejiklian and the ACT’s Andrew Barr, are in lockstep with Morrison in that they see vaccinating people to the point we are living with COVID-19 as the only sustainable way out. Even in the states where life is good, Western Australia and Queensland, federal MPs report the mood is “transitional”.

The pivot towards the politics of hope began last week, when Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said states which continued with swingeing lockdowns and hard border closures when they were no longer deemed necessary under the national plan, should not expect federal financial support for income and business losses.

Morrison followed through, warning they would be in breach of the compact they had made with the people to open up in phases when the 70 per cent and 80 per cent adult vaccination rates were met.

“Our national plan is a deal with Australians,” he said. “And premiers and chief ministers have signed up to that plan, but they haven’t signed up with me. They’ve signed up with the Australian people.”

Power and accountability

Morrison, who has looked powerless at times in contrast to the premiers, all while footing the bill for their decision-making, was in effect telling them that with their power came accountability.

“These powers of the states were not as well known at previous times because we didn’t have pandemics running like we do now,” he said this week.

The Prime Minister has timed his pushing of the state premiers to live with COVID-19 to the restoration of the vaccine rollout.  Getty Images

“I think people are very alive to the very important powers that states and territories have. But, that also means they have great responsibilities. And, those responsibilities are to, you know, support the health and the economic wellbeing of their states.″⁣

As one source said of the states: “they’re good at locking down but shit-house at reopening”.

The federal government has been frequently frustrated by a misguided belief in sections of the community that it should override the states and implement uniform laws on lockdowns and borders.

“Should you have imposed a health emergency so that the federal government can be consistent, and we have consistent rules for everyone right across the country?” even the Seven Network’s David Koch asked Morrison this week.

Morrison reminded him no such powers existed. “I can’t sort of play fantasy government, I have to deal with real government in Australia.”

The politics of hope has a more immediate target – Labor leader Anthony Albanese. Backed by a vaccine rollout that is finally on track, Morrison sees the opportunity to appeal to a growing sense of hope while trying to portray his opponent as pro-lockdown and mired in negativity.

The government is behind Labor in Newspoll by 53 per cent to 47 per cent. The rough plan is to close the gap to 50:50 by Christmas.

Fine line

Last year at the height of the crisis, Albanese, like all opposition leaders, trod a fine line between being supportive of what needed to be done while not being too critical.

This year, when it appeared the worst was behind us, the gloves came off and Labor started dealing itself in with repeated attacks over the vaccine rollout and quarantine failures. But in recent weeks, the anxiety, fear and depression which permeated the public mood last year has returned and people want hope, not negativity and bickering.

Albanese sensed this, as did Morrison, through their internal research. And Albanese has backed off a little, for now at least.

Morrison believes he can win back the support he has lost this year by admitting he got things wrong, taking responsibility and setting about fixing the problems. While Morrison sees the national plan as his road to victory, Albanese sees it as a road to be blocked.

His strategy has long involved turning Morrison’s various pathways towards success into “cul-de-sacs” by highlighting the flaws, be it the vaccine or quarantine programs, or the billions in waste associated with JobKeeper.

Albanese said Labor supports the national plan but is not rushing to embrace it. It is laced with risk – hospitals could be overwhelmed and the national mindset not sufficiently prepared for the deaths and infections we must expect. Thus, it is up to Morrison to make it work – or fail.

Inside Labor, views are mixed over the strategy. “Labor’s strategy is: don’t make us the issue. That makes us the issue,” said one MP.

“The vaccine rollout was always going to recover. We can’t just keep saying Scott Morison f—-ed up all that way to the election. That’s not a strategy.

“(Backing the pursuit of) COVID zero buys us time, but it doesn’t buy us time forever, the game will change.”

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