Modern Australian

As Melbourne's Christmas arrives early, Queensland's election will test whether COVID is a vaccine for incumbents

  • Written by Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

Anticipating reactions to political attacks can be a tricky business.

When Scott Morrison spectacularly trashed the reputation of Australia Post CEO Christine Holgate over her now-notorious gift of Cartier watches to high-performing employees, he assumed “quiet Australians” would be outraged at the largesse in a government-owned business.

Whether they are will be tested in the focus groups. But the prime minister almost certainly didn’t anticipate Australia Post’s small-business stakeholders, as well as some top-end-of-town voices and conservative commentators, would come out so strongly for Holgate.

Many Post franchisees are furious over the attack – because the deal with three big banks for which the employees were rewarded propped up their businesses.

At the other end of the wealth spectrum Marcus Blackmore, major shareholder in the well-known health empire where Holgate was preciously chief executive, told The Australian the way she’d been treated was “bloody disgusting”. He added, as testament to her business ability, “Blackmores’ business has been dismal since Christine left”.

Morrison has also received a hiding from commentators such as News Corp’s Terry McCrann who labelled him an “outrageous misogynist”.

Assuming Morrison did not have some prior agenda against Holgate before the revelations about the watches at Senate estimates, he has put the government in a bind by acting on the spur of the moment.

He’s called an inquiry that will cost a deal more than the nearly $20,000 value of the Cartier gifts. On Thursday Holgate’s lawyer was weighing into the argument, which raises the spectre of a costly legal fight.

Regardless of the inquiry’s findings, Holgate’s position is near impossible. Presumably she will end up out of Australia Post, sparking a search for a new CEO just when the business is facing upheavals caused by COVID. In the unlikely event she remained, she’d be damaged and relations with the government beyond awkward.

On a very different front, the parliamentary motion moved by Labor this week to congratulate Victorians for overcoming the COVID second wave is also a notable case study in the vagaries of reaction.

By far the strongest speech in the brief debate was from Treasurer Josh Frydenberg. A Victorian, he highlighted the costs of the lockdown and attacked the Andrews government, saying “it all comes back to the failures in hotel quarantine, for which we still do not have any answers”.

The speech won both high praise and deep condemnation. Critics variously saw it as an assault against Victorians, the wrong tone on a day of celebration, and a distasteful exercise in politicking.

The backlash revealed not just the sharp divisions over the Andrews government’s COVID handling, but also the intensity of feelings.

Only a misreading could portray Frydenberg’s speech as an attack on the people of the state. His first line was: “The Victorian people have been magnificent”; what he said subsequently did not undermine that sentiment.

Whether negatives should have been put aside on such a positive day is a matter of opinion, but there wasn’t anything confected about Frydenberg’s sentiments. He has been genuinely angry for months about the state government’s mistakes, highly cognisant of the economic damage but also concerned about the mental health implications (remember, his mother is a psychologist).

Where his speech was at fault was not in calling attention to the origin of the second wave, but in narrowing the blame for how it panned out.

The Andrews government – its quarantine bungle and its inadequate contact tracing – must absolutely wear blame. But the Morrison government must assume its share too. Most of the hundreds of deaths were in aged care, which comes under the federal government (intersecting with the state government, which is responsible for public health). The residential aged-care sector was simply not up to the task of protecting those living in it, as the royal commission has pointed out.

With Melbourne now entering (according to some retailers) an early Christmas mood as it comes out of lockdown, Andrews can expect to maintain for the immediate future the solid support he’s enjoyed, mistakes not withstanding.

But there are two major challenges ahead for him.

One is to ensure there is not another wave, which means the Victorian health system needs to be (finally) up to scratch. On Thursday NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian, talking about when she might open her border to Victorians, said it would take a couple of weeks to test the robustness of that system.

The other challenge is how Andrews responds when the inquiry into hotel quarantine reports, which surely must make very tough findings. The premier has pushed aside many questions, saying he wouldn’t pre-empt the investigation.

On Thursday the inquiry was extended. There will be an interim report on November 6 with recommendations for a proposed quarantine program.

But the findings on the botched hotel quarantine program will be delayed until the final report, now due December 21. That’s uncomfortably close to the holidays which, however, must not be used by the state government as political cover.

Facing an election on Saturday, Queensland Labor Premier Annastacia Pałaszczuk has been claiming her opponents would have left her state vulnerable to a second wave like Victoria’s by opening the border.

The Queensland poll will be the first COVID electoral test for a state government (we’ve had territory elections).

Before COVID, the Pałaszczuk government appeared in considerable trouble. During the pandemic, its chances improved substantially, with the border closure very popular. Recently, Labor has become more nervous.

The Liberal National Party would have to win some nine seats in net terms for majority government. Labor would be pushed into minority government if it lost a net two seats.

Pałaszczuk, who’s been under attack from the federal government for months over her border, is using her record on COVID as a very large crutch.

Berejiklian this week said (unhelpfully for the LNP) that Queensland Opposition Leader Deb Frecklington “has been very open … that she would have opened to NSW, and I commend her for that position”.

But it is notable this isn’t Frecklington’s current public line. She is assuring voters she’d rely on the health advice in determining border policy.

Such is thought to be the political potency of COVID.

If Labor suffers a serious knock in Queensland, the result will be interpreted as the likely beginning of the end for COVID’s role as a protective vaccine for incumbents. If COVID is seen to have shielded Pałaszczuk, that will further embolden the states, which have become extremely assertive during the pandemic.

Authors: Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

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