Australians have been forgiving of the government’s Covid response, but we may have reached our limit | Peter Lewis

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A year is a long time in pandemics. As Melburnians battle through their second week of lockdown, there is a quantifiable difference in the attitude to government emerging compared with the 2020 experience.

Last year, incumbent governments – both federal and state – experienced surging support when they invoked drastic public health measures to protect the population from a scary, unknown virus that was running rampant across the globe.

As the casualties piled up, we cheered on the very idea of our government, its public health measures, its emergency job support packages, its national cabinet, embracing the hokey dream we could build back better.

Even when chinks appeared, such as in the disembarkation of cruise ships and the mismanagement of aged care facilities, we were prepared to give a free pass to our elected representatives. After all these were unprecedented times, mistakes were inevitable and we wanted them to succeed.

Approval with government throughout 2020 transcended partisan lines. Support for the federal government’s management of the pandemic hovered around 70%; state governments were even more appreciated as health systems delivered on a suppression meets eradication strategy. Even in Victoria, where the lockdown was prolonged and politically contested, regard for the Andrews government never dipped into net negative territory.

Governments forced to the polls were the immediate beneficiaries of this new dynamic. Incumbents in the ACT, Northern Territory, Queensland and most resoundingly West Australia were returned with increased majorities; their measures to keep their people safe compelling in the face of carping oppositions.

2021 is a different ballgame, as this week’s Guardian Essential Report shows. Approval for the Morrison government has taken a 15-point hit in Victoria, leaving public support in the southern state languishing under 50% for the first time since the chaotic first week of the 2020 pandemic.

In Victoria, where the impact of the virus has hit hardest, government is now being seen less as the solution to a public health crisis, more an architect-by-neglect of the current interruption.

On vaccinations, the tardy, staccato rollout has amplified the impacts of outbreaks, with the failure to come up with a program to vaccinate workers in the high-risk aged care and disability contributing to the sense of crisis around the latest outbreak.

On quarantine, the lack of a plan B as the flaws in the hotel quarantine have become apparent are having real-life consequences and leaving voters scratching their heads as to why extra purpose-built facilities are only being built now.

Meanwhile, while the late decision to supplement the income of those affected by lockdown was a necessary, though inadequate, coda to the successful jobkeeper and jobseeker payments of a year ago.

As for national unity, even politically friendly premiers such as New South Wales’ Gladys Berejiklian are turning their sights on Scott Morrison for the lack of anything resembling a playbook for dealing with a virus which is not going away anytime soon.

In this context, it is unsurprising that significant numbers of Australians, including a sizeable number who vote Coalition, profess a diminished opinion of the 2021 version of the prime minister, compared to the 2020 model.

There is nothing terminal in these numbers, the overall trend still favours the incumbent and, providing the outbreak is confined to Victoria, so too will the political fallout.

But these figures do identify the sort of weakness that a pandemic has a knack of exploiting: at its heart this is a government that really doesn’t believe in government.

Despite the concessions to deficit in a crisis, the Coalition is a government that won power on the promise of lower (albeit inequitable) taxes, a disdain for the “nanny state” when it comes to anything apart from corporate welfare, and a deep-seated conviction that the market will do things better than the public sector.

That philosophy is embedded in some of the failings that are dogging Melbourne: the tangle of logistical processes determined by the private distributors of the vaccine; the reliance on the hospitality industry for quarantine rather than purpose-built public facilities; the tolerance of low-wage, multi-site workers to care for the most vulnerable.

These are all expressions of the neo-liberal mindset that sees government as a problem to be solved, whose role is limited to writing lucrative contracts for private sector consultants to devise markets in public service that reflect their own images and serve their own interests.

Now government really is the problem, but in a different way that could still expose this particular government for its lack of strategic planning, its lack of expertise and resources to deliver and its general lack of conviction for the job it signed up for.

Peter Lewis will discuss the results of this week’s Guardian Essential Report with Guardian Australia political editor Katharine Murphy at 1pm on Tuesday

Hafta Ichi
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Australians have been forgiving of the government’s Covid response, but we may have reached our limit | Peter Lewis

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