The end of 2020 marks the mid-point in the federal election cycle, although there are more than a few in political circles who believe Australians will find themselves at the ballot box in the second half of 2021. As the government hits the downhill run to the election, it has effectively lost a year of pursuing its policy agenda to crisis management.
However, it may have been saved from a debate it didn’t want to have over climate action, and been given breathing space from scandals like the sports rorts affair that led to Nationals senator Bridget McKenzie quitting the front bench in February.
Monash University associate professor of politics Paul Strangio, previously the cabinet historian, says the year has underscored the reported response from mid-20th century British prime minister Harold Macmillan when asked what most worried him: “Events, dear boy, events.”
Strangio says: “You can plan, you can have programs all you like but events come along and push you off, derail all those plans and those programs.
“In many ways, that’s swallowed up the whole year, it’s changed the government’s agenda, it’s monopolised all their time almost to the exclusion of everything else.
”Maybe just at the tail end of the year, we’re starting to get some more open air and the government’s starting to fill some of the space with its own agenda.”
At the end of January, Prime Minister Scott Morrison held a press conference with then chief medical officer Brendan Murphy (he now heads the federal Health Department) to announce evacuation flights from virus-stricken Wuhan in China. He opened by noting blazes on the outskirts of Canberra the night before were a reminder the bushfire season was not yet over.
That same day, he addressed the National Press Club, a common tradition for prime ministers to outline their agenda for the year. After the bushfires, drought and floods, a national conversation had opened up about what Australia was — or wasn’t — doing on climate change. Images of Morrison being heckled in a burnt-out village in NSW and having a firefighter and a pregnant woman refuse his handshakes were fresh in people’s memories.
In his speech, Morrison dwelt on the importance of mitigation, adaptation and disaster resilience, repeatedly saying “that’s climate action now”.
Half the questions were about the sports grants program, which the Auditor-General found the Coalition had used to funnel millions of dollars to marginal seats on the eve of the election.
Three days later, the government told Australians not to travel to China and closed the borders to foreigners coming from that country. By the end of February, Australia had declared COVID-19 would become a pandemic, moving earlier than the World Health Organisation.
On March 13, the nation’s leaders met for what turned out to be the final time as the Council of Australian Governments, but their routine agenda was overtaken by fast-moving events related to the virus. The Grand Prix in Melbourne was cancelled. Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton tested positive for COVID-19 after meetings in the US. The premiers and chief ministers agreed to the Prime Minister’s proposal for a kind of war-time grouping to meet more frequently.
In December, after 32 meetings of this new national cabinet, Morrison said it had turned out to be “a game-changer”.
“I am indebted to all my colleagues here,” he said. “The way we keep coming together, we get in the room, we get things done.”
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian reflected that the pandemic had taught all leaders, state and federal, that it was possible to get things done quickly. ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr told this masthead Morrison had been “well served” by the broader circle of advice national cabinet offered.
“He has benefited from having premiers and chief ministers from the other side of politics as part of the discussion,” Barr said.
Morrison had also learned from the backlash to his handling of the bushfire crisis, when the public perceived the Commonwealth as being too hands-off.
His personal approval rating in Newspoll had plummeted to a record low net-negative 22 per cent in January. By April, he had experienced a complete turnaround to sit at net-positive 26 per cent. The ratings for state leaders were sky-high, too.
The Scanlon Foundation has polled Australians on trust in institutions and measures of social cohesion since 2007. When it did its annual survey in July, the response for trust in government was so high that it was prompted to follow up in November.
In both polls, for the first time, more than half of those surveyed — 55 per cent — trusted the federal government to do the right thing always or most of the time. The long-term average for this measure was 32 per cent. Last year, half of those surveyed said they trusted the government only some of the time.
Lead researcher Andrew Markus says Australians are traditionally very sceptical about government in Canberra. “In a time of crisis, people can go either way. They can go, ‘let’s get behind the government’, or they can be critical of it. Here, it’s been ‘let’s get behind the government’,” he said. “There’s a perception that the government has been delivering, the COVID lockdowns were working and people just need to turn on the international news media and see what’s happening overseas.”
He also points to extraordinarily high levels of support — more than nine in 10 people — for the March lockdown restrictions imposed across the country. Even among Victorians asked in November whether the second, harsher lockdown had been required, 87 per cent agreed. Usually for questions with a political dimension, Markus considers support of about 60 per cent “pretty good”.
Former prime minister John Howard compared the fortunes of Australian leaders with those of US President Donald Trump, whose handling of the pandemic had been so appalling he was “penning a political suicide note” with every public appearance.
“In the end, the public, when threatened, want their leaders to defend them against the threat,” Howard said in remarks to the Menzies Research Institute earlier in December. “And that is why you’ve had the phenomenon of Scott Morrison [who] has very high approvals, Gladys Berejiklian, our friend in Western Australia [Mark McGowan] has, and even our friend in Victoria [Daniel Andrews] has.”
In late May, when the first wave of COVID-19 in Australia had abated, Morrison stepped up to the press club podium again. “Today, I want to talk about that [economic] recovery,” he said. He talked about putting more money into skills and announced government, business and unions would be brought together to look at overhauling aspects of the industrial relations system. The economy had to be taken out of intensive care, he said. “We must enable our businesses to earn Australia’s way out of this crisis.”
Morrison and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg were deeply shocked by the enormous queues outside Centrelink offices in March when pubs, gyms, cinemas, theatres and hotels were closed and restaurants and cafes restricted to takeaway only. In January, there were 695,000 Australians unemployed. By December, this had jumped to 942,000, with many others wanting more hours or dropping out of the workforce completely.
The enormous spending program, including the JobKeeper wage subsidies and temporary doubling of the JobSeeker unemployment payments, have pushed the budget into a $197.7 billion deficit this year, instead of the modest surplus forecast ahead of the 2019 election.
In his final speech of the year to Parliament, Morrison said the economic and mental scars of the pandemic would be long-lasting.
“We know that 2020 will be something that will take Australians many years to get over — their mental health support in the years ahead, the regrowth of our economy, the restructuring of our economy so that it can grow again and realise the lives and livelihoods that Australians aspire to,” he said. “We’re passing through that storm as a country. The signs are there.”
Strangio says big government has made a comeback. The flipside is that oppositions have struggled as “the public signalled quite clearly that they wanted a bipartisan approach to the COVID crisis and they marked down oppositions … that were perceived to be playing politics”. But with the worst of the crisis passing and a vaccine in sight, he believes there will be some return to normal political transmission in the new year.
However he says it’s an open question whether Morrison will seize the opportunity to make big reforms, especially with the possibility of a late-2021 election floating around.
“What we know of this federal government and this prime minister is their natural habit is more towards the end of political management and pragmatism rather than conviction-driven big policy,” he said.
“At the moment, Australia is feeling a bit shell-shocked, a bit anxious, so I don’t think they’re probably receptive to a really divisive agenda of a government that’s going to in any way add to a feeling of insecurity out there … I’d probably lean on the side that at the moment, Australians want a period of settlement and almost recuperation in 2021.
“But there will come a point where they ask what this government is about. That’s an open question, what the Prime Minister is about, and maybe there will come some impatience.”
Katina Curtis is a political reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based at Parliament House in Canberra.