News Politics Australian Politics Dennis Atkins: The PM may learn a valuable lesson in vaccine politics at the G7

Dennis Atkins: The PM may learn a valuable lesson in vaccine politics at the G7

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British Labour Party leader Keir Starmer reckons the United Kingdom and Europe have entered a phase of vaccine politics dominated by the rate they’re rolling out jabs, how these are handled in economic terms, movement and activity and the global debate over vaccination inequality.

He’s right, and Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison could benefit from paying some attention to what’s happening in England during his visit to Cornwall this weekend and London early next week.

It’s important because Australia has been in the vaccine politics phase for more than a month. The unusual and unexpected thing about this debate and its consequences here is we’re watching both the government and opposition losing.

Morrison has stuffed up vaccines ever since he let his pride get the better of him late last year and boasted how the national pandemic strategy would put “Australia at the front of the queue for a safe and effective vaccine”.

Since then, we’ve seen stalling for time, flat out lying about what’s happening, playing catch-up and, most recently, panicking. It’s been a completely avoidable disgrace after what was a relatively strong and impressive job in handling the pandemic and responding to the economic 18-wheeler thundering down the highway, seemingly without brakes.

Morrison might have been dragged and pushed (usually by saner, more aware premiers) to the right decisions – driven by an existential fear and paranoia following his career-threatening summer of stupid in 2019/20 – but more often than not he got there.

Now we’ve got the latest, nastier variants of the virus showing up, causing further local lockdowns and putting communities back on edge.

If we’d got anywhere near reaching the goals Morrison and Greg Hunt set time and again, these lockdowns probably would have been avoidable. This would have been helped if the Commonwealth parked its stubborn refusal to take any responsibility for a national quarantine program.

In Britain, the inverse of what’s occurred here has played out. Boris Johnson and his clown car government had a hellish year as the pandemic ran wild through two major waves and lockdowns (the final set of social restrictions are due to be lifted fully later this month but might yet be extended). With that came the highest death toll in Europe.

The mistakes and blunders have been assuaged by a remarkable performance on vaccines (thanks in no small part to the National Health Service) which sees Britain at the top of a league table of G20 countries, scoring a remarkable 101.35 doses of vaccine administered per 100 people.

This data from Oxford University rates Australia in the bottom quartile, at number 16 with a poor 20.41 doses per 100 people (these ratings measure one or two doses).

Despite the poor handling of the pandemic, the double whammy of doom-laden lockdowns and the odd scandal, Johnson and his government continued until recently to dominate Labour and Starmer in the polls.

While Starmer has failed to make much of an impression, an excoriating nine-hour appearance before a House of Commons committee by the British Prime Minister’s former consigliere, Dominic Cummings, has put a sharp dent in the Conservative government’s popularity.

Johnson is trying to leverage the successful rollout of vaccines and the freedoms it promises to bolster his electoral stocks. In an interview with Canadian television last weekend, he said he’d be urging his G7 colleagues (and Morrison who’s at the Cornwall meeting with three other special guests) to adopt “COVID-passports” as a way to open up national borders and get local economic activity going.

In Britain, Starmer has picked up the populist playbook and signalled he’ll be opposing vaccine passports, saying it’s not part of the British way of life (an echo of opposition to this move expressed in Australia this week by Queensland Nationals Senator Matt Canavan).

It’s clear Starmer sees an opportunity to crack Johnson’s electoral code and tarnish his vaccine record.

scott morrison g7
The ALP would also do well to take note of Mr Starmer’s tactics. Photo: Getty

Here Australia’s Labor Party has been an ineffective bystander in the fallout from the Morrison government’s poor vaccine performance. The damage to the Prime Minister seen in satisfaction and preferred-leadership ratings this week (in Newspoll and Essential surveys) has been all his own work.

Morrison will be busy this weekend showing off his self-styled accomplishments, but it might benefit him if he turned his attention to domestic politics in Britain. If he has time, the Prime Minister could do worse than read a brilliant profile of Johnson in this week’s The Atlantic .

Morrison’s host, PM Johnson, might offer some advice about what’s happening in Britain after tendering a few serious suggestions for Australia to do more on climate change.

The kind of nimble, looking-for-two-moves-ahead, strategic path Starmer is following might put Morrison on the wrong foot. The poor performance of Anthony Albanese and Labor – laid out nowhere better than in a Niki Savva column in The Australian this week – suggests it’s beyond the reach of the Opposition.

While the failures and shortcomings on vaccines present the greatest electoral threat to Morrison, the inability of Labor to make the LNP carry any real cost means that price might not be too high to bear.

Such an equation points to Morrison coming out ahead.