Scott Morrison has changed tack from ridiculing COVID-zero states to saying he “acknowledges” their worry about opening borders, with the Prime Minister telling the Coalition to start preparing for an election.
As the saying goes, a week is a long time in politics.
Just days ago, Mr Morrison was telling Queensland and Western Australia to get out of “the cave” of lockdowns, claiming they were ‘undermining’ the reopening plan and comparing them to children’s movie The Croods.
By Tuesday, he was on a morning blitz across what he called the “low-COVID” states, singing from a new songsheet where he could see their “sensible concerns”.
Barely moments later, he was addressing the Coalition party room, telling colleagues that election season was coming and urging them to make the best of the looming five-week parliamentary break by starting their campaign planning.
“The election will come around sooner than we think”, the PM told his MPs in Canberra on Tuesday.
The reopening plan, and Mr Morrison’s re-election prospects, are inextricably linked.
As The New Daily explained on Tuesday, Mr Morrison’s attempt to recast himself as a champion of winding back COVID rules, and to paint premiers as lockdown-happy ‘cave dwellers’, is based on his hope that exhausted Australians will eventually rally around his flag by election day.
It’s a bold play, and one predicated on the hope that people in Queensland and Western Australia might waver in their strong support for risk-averse Labor premiers in those states.
WA Premier Mark McGowan blasted “the eastern states” in a fiery Facebook post on Tuesday.
Mr McGowan described Mr Morrison’s interpretation of the reopening plan as “complete madness”.
Morrison changes tune on reopening
Also on Tuesday, Mr Morrison pivoted on his previously robust opposition to Queensland and WA.
He debuted new lines, that the federal government “acknowledged” people in those states had “sensible concerns” about reopening from the pandemic and easing COVID rules.
The PM conducted a radio blitz on Tuesday morning, across stations in Perth, Brisbane, Hobart and Adelaide.
He told the party room he was specifically targeting “low-COVID” states, where people might have “concerns” about the national plan.
In those interviews, the PM took a more diplomatic and calm tone on reopening, reassuring listeners he could “understand the caution” they felt.
He stressed that easing virus restrictions at 70 and 80 per cent vaccination would not be “open slather”, but also slipped in his belief that “at those points, widespread lockdowns, things like that do more harm than good”.
“I get it that it’s a bit of a scary step, but we can’t live in fear of this thing,” he told Perth’s 6PR, in the same breath as stressing his respect for Mr McGowan.
It came after days of sustained pushback from defiant Labor premiers, who claimed Mr Morrison’s rosy projections of restrictions easing at 70 percent were “not safe”.
Queensland Treasurer Cameron Dick claimed the Coalition was “chock full of crazies” in a debate on the border rules.
By Tuesday, Mr Morrison was telling the Coalition party room the low-COVID states had “sensible concerns we’ve got to address”.
“It’s not to fight or placate. It’s a sensible adult conversation about how we understand and acknowledge people’s views and concerns, and demonstrate how our plan is safe.”
The abrupt switch-up was noticed by many Canberra watchers.
Today another change of tone by PM. More understanding of states that are resisting him. What has driven this?
— Michelle Grattan (@michellegrattan) August 31, 2021
At a press conference, the PM also acknowledged “all states are starting from a different place”.
Indeed, Mr Morrison has now even backed away from his fierce belief that lockdowns must end when 70 to 80 per cent of the eligible population is vaccinated, and premiers like Mr McGowan who refused to commit to this were in breach of the plan.
At his Parliament House press conference, the PM said leaders were “working on” further specifics of the reopening plan – despite them seemingly already having agreed at national cabinet.
The PM acknowledged “ultimately, everything is a state matter”, and declined multiple opportunities to clarify his belief on whether lockdowns must end once those reopening benchmarks are reached.
Mr Morrison would only state his position that when the 80 per cent vaccination mark is reached, “the medical and the economic advice is that lockdowns do more harm than good”.
“Specific measures between 70 and 80 per cent are the ones that we are working on right now,” he said.
COVID a spanner in election works
In the Coalition party room, Mr Morrison seemingly cut off talk once and for all of an early election in 2021.
There has been speculation, including among some senior Labor Party figures, that the government would look to an election in November.
Both parties are already setting up and staffing party headquarters and campaign teams.
Some in Labor believed the government would prefer an early election to capitalise on public goodwill – which, according to recent poll results, is fading – from its strong management of the early stages of the pandemic.
Indeed, in Labor’s caucus meeting on Tuesday, Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese told colleagues he believed if the government called an election in 2021, it would be because it thought “that 2022 is going to be worse”.
One complication is the unpredictability of lockdowns and COVID outbreaks on traditional election campaigning, such as doorknocking and leaders’ planes criss-crossing the country.
Both parties are considering contingencies to conduct ‘remote’ election campaigns from a central headquarters, instead of a travelling party.
In his speech to the Coalition party room, Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce urged colleagues to develop a “practical plan” with staff for campaigning during COVID.
Citing complications such as lockdowns and border closures, Mr Joyce suggested Zoom calls, digital ‘town hall’ meetings and tapping into community radio stations to get messages out.
His comments point to the potential of an election being called soon after the summer holiday season ends in late January or early February.
With an official election campaign typically running five weeks, that could mean polling day in early to mid-March 2022.