For nearly ten months, the state of Victoria has been blighted by something called ‘COVID-19”. The main manifestation of this has been in the form of a rise in oppressive state power resulting in the closure of businesses and schools, the restriction on free movement of individuals particularly in metropolitan Melbourne where citizens have been under virtual house arrest, and the division of the community particularly between those living in the metropolis and those in regional areas. According to which side of politics you are from, the cause of all this repression was either a pandemic or the consequence of Andrews government policies put in place in the name of responding to an alleged pandemic.
In the case of Victoria, the application of repressive laws and policies in the name of defending public health was overseen by the Labor government headed by premier Daniel Andrews. Again, perceptions about the efficacy of the approach of the Andrews government depend significantly on which side of politics people are coming from. To his supporters, Andrews has been a strong, authoritative leader capable of resisting the siren call of capital abandon the restrictions and lock-downs and whose reward has been the virtual elimination of COVID-19.
To his detractors, Andrews has been an autocratic hard-liner whose dogmatic approach has needlessly exacerbated social isolation and economic devastation. What is more, the repressive regime put in place by the Andrews government was a direct consequence of the government’s own failure over the administration of hotel quarantining of Australians returning from overseas.
At the time of writing this column, Mr Andrews has announced the commencement of the winding back of some of the more oppressive restrictions. The euphoria being felt in the community that this long period of state government enforced closure of the state has been palpable and some of it has been expressed as gratitude towards Andrews and his government. Their unreliability notwithstanding, nearly every opinion poll has found majority support for the Victorian premier. The citizens, it seems, have been prepared to forgive the premier not only for the lock-down, but even for the hotel quarantine failure. If an election were to be held in December, presumably Labor would win it hands down.
The interesting thing to ponder, though, is that the state election won’t be held in December 2020. Nor will it be held in 2021. Victoria is not due to go to the polls until the last Saturday in November 2022 – a full two years away! Now, of course, on the one hand this gives the Andrews government a long time to guild the re-election lily with more construction projects. Yet the ability of state governments to pork barrel at the next election is likely to be severely constrained by the massive public debt Australian government has accrued arising from the COVID-19 response. Add to this the possibility of a severe recession caused by the lock-down and the 2022 contest could be a very difficult election for Mr Andrews to win assuming he is still the premier by then.
Victoria has only had three Labor governments since the 1950s, and at least one of them – the governments led by first John Cain and then, later, Joan Kirner – ended amidst a severe economic recession. This led to the land-slide victory for Jeff Kennett’s Liberal-National coalition despite the consistently low approval rates that dogged Mr Kennett for nearly all of the time he was opposition leader. The Kennett government was to apply its own economic scorched earth policy mainly on to the public sector – an approach that may well have contributed to his defeat in 1999. State government damage their state economies at their political peril, it would seem.
The demise of John Brumby in 2010 is also worth remembering. Mr Brumby came into that election having secured significantly high approval ratings for his leadership during the state of emergency that was declared in the aftermath of the Black Saturday bushfires. Yet for all that approval, his party was defeated by Ted Baillieu and the coalition presumably on issues other than Mr Brumby’s competent management of the bushfire disaster. And Mr Brumby didn’t impose an economically devastating lock-down as part of his declared state of emergency. The moral of this story is that leaders need to be wary of the efficacy of high approval ratings during emergencies, for they don’t necessarily translate into an election-winning two-party vote.
Daniel Andrews may feel that he has worked extremely hard at the difficult task of eradicating COVID-19 (if, indeed, kit has been eliminated). Politically, however, his problems may only just be beginning especially of there are dire economic consequences arising from the lock-down. Much will depend on the extent to which Victoria recovers from the shock dealt to its economy by the lock-down. If the past is any guide, however, anything less than a return to full prosperity could be the basis upon which voters in marginal seats re-align to the Coalition. The task of winning the next election looks almost as daunting for Andrews as the effort to bring COVID-19 back under control.