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Issues and outcomes

By Don Aitkin - posted Thursday, 3 September 2020

Election time is approaching in the ACT and in Queensland, with Western Australia early in 2021. We've just had an election in the Northern Territory, where Labor won comfortably. One of my interests, as an ageing political scientist, is what will happen as a result, and what they might tell us about 'the mood of the people'. A second element is the effect that Covid -19 will have on the outcomes, which are likely to be different from State to Territory. A third is the difference in political acceptability between climate change and the pandemic as items in public discussion. A fourth, of course, is how much longer the pandemic is likely to last. A fifth is the approaching Presidential election in the USA, and another election in New Zealand. That's probably enough for one essay, and they are all intermingled.

Let's start with the virus, which has caused a terrific blow to our way of life, to our general apprehension about the future, and of course to our economy. We are in September, and the pandemic's seriousness began to be evident in February. That's a good six months. What has happened politically in that time? Well, governments began to rely on expert medical opinion, and we began to hear of the warnings of the most senior health officers, along with almost daily television addresses by the Prime Minister and premiers. We learned about and experienced lock-downs, and how to work from home (the lucky ones). We learned that borders could be closed, and were. The unemployment rate shot up as businesses closed. Government introduced forms of unemployment relief. The expectation seemed to be that we needed to get through the pandemic and then return to normal.

Let's go forward a further six months. Are we likely to be out of it in early February 2021? And will we return to 'normal', whenever the episode is over? My gloomy guesses are No in each case, and I hasten to add that I have no standing in medical research. So the coming elections, wherever and whenever they are, are some guide as to how we the people are managing with an event that has no real equivalent in the past do. If the virus is a major element in our politics, then it turns on how governments have acted in trying to deal with it, and how successful they have been in persuading us that what they done has been successful, or at least the better alternative to others.


Australia's being an island was a great help in closing borders, so once that was done attention turned to how the various states and territories dealt with their problems. Closing borders isolated the populations, and the stand-out failure was Victoria. Why there? No one seems to be sure, and there are many explanations, none of which explains why Melbourne was so much worse than Sydney. The ACT has had no cases for weeks, and it is in regional NSW, with an elastic border. How did that happen? Okay, people are restive in Victoria, where the lockdown is tighter, but there are restrictions everywhere. It is a continuing puzzle.

Its effect is most obvious in the standing of Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews, who seems to have gone downhill in public esteem. Why? Perhaps because the numbers in Victoria hadn't declined (though they have now started to), and perhaps because there comes a time when the Premier ceases to be the father of the state and begins to look like someone out of his depth, a failure. It can happen overnight. In the ACT and Queensland Covid -19 does not seem to be a likely cause of a big voter shift, and I feel that at the moment the same will prove to be true next year in WA. It may be a real cause in the USA, but it is unlikely to be one in New Zealand. All these prognostications on my part come from reading and thinking, little more. But note that with any issue that causes a shift, the shift is a net one, not gross one. That is to say, there will be people moving each way, and it is the subtraction of one number from the other that gives you the real shift.

That turns me to the sorts of public discussion we have had about the virus and how to deal with it, and the comparable discussion we have not had about climate change. In the case of the virus we have had 'official opinion', which the governments and the electorate seem to have taken reasonably seriously, and a continuing argument that the management of the pandemic has been far too strong-handed, and that the lockdowns have been far too stringent. Those contrary opinions have had plenty of airtime, and governments have had to respond to them. In the case of climate change, now far down the list of people's worries, there was an official opinion, and no contrary possibility would be entered into by government, the MSM or the NGOs. The focus on the virus has ended, at least for the moment, any clamant push to do anything of consequence about the climate emergency, whatever that is.

I think that tells us something about the nature of 'crises' and the avidity of the media for bad stories. We have a good scary one going at the moment - why contaminate the news with a different one, one that had its own run a while back anyway? Yes, the Climate Council gets an occasional run from the ABC, and we read of occasional urgings from the green lobby that the climb back from the virus must be on the strategy of an end to fossil fuels etc. But I don't think anyone much is listening. In the USA climate change and its various verbal equivalents are way down the list of what seems to worry the American citizenry. What about the virus? President Trump has not had a good run with this issue, first of all dismissing it as a hoax, then playing down the issue in other ways, then claiming that the USA was doing better than other countries. His challenger, Joe Biden, has argued the opposite, but is saddled with a lot of notions rather far-Left for the USA of what has to be done economically. I wait to see if there will be three debates between the rivals. I hear that Biden will not participate. My guess is that Trump would eat him alive, but I may be wrong on both counts.

So there it is: coming elections, an issue that is far from anyone's experience, and a test of governments' capacity to deal with the issue. It's going to be a most interesting few months ahead.

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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, Hugh Flavus, Knight was published in 2020.

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