Whilst lockdowns put our teeth on edge, the wider, still terror-stricken population, alas, finds much comfort in that particular unscientific, placebo-like and catastrophic virus-management fantasy, whilst the political authors of lockdowns garner public accolades, sky-high approval ratings and enhanced re-election prospects. Politicians are simple creatures and the correlation between COVID lockdown policy and electoral success is highly seductive. The prognosis for a future without lockdowns, or the ever-present threat of them, in Australia is consequently gloomy.
All Australian states and territories are essentially pursuing the fool’s errand of ‘Zero COVID’ and our politicians, compared to those of other countries with a more statistically visible virus presence, are thus even more trigger happy, permanently and precariously balanced on a lockdown knife-edge, ever ready to hit the virus alarm button and pull the lockdown lever in response to any community transmission, no matter how minimal. One positive test, even a false positive – or clinical ‘case’, as the COVID terminology police erroneously call them — is all it takes.
All state premiers and territory chief ministers, along with the Prime Minister, embraced the original nationwide lockdown in 2020 and many have shown an alarming alacrity to return to the well with subsequent statewide or local snap lockdowns, or, in the case of NSW and Queensland in recent days, with the shandy substitute of locking down specific hospitals or hundreds of individuals who were contacts of, or in the vicinity of, isolated community ‘cases’ arising from hotel quarantine or hospital-acquired infections.
Lockdowns remain the politicians’ policy of choice because, so far, they have delivered eye-watering political dividends, as can be demonstrated in all nine Australian political jurisdictions (six states, two territories and the federal government) over the last twelve months (all poll data below are from the latest Newspoll and the March 2021 Essential Research online poll).
New South Wales: Premier Gladys Berejiklian shut down Sydney’s northern beaches suburbs for three weeks in December 2020 after a ‘cluster’ of some two dozen ‘cases’ were detected in the community. Sloughing off a personal corruption scandal, Berejiklian has been politically rewarded through lockdown with a 75 per cent overall approval rating and a ‘preferred premier’ rating of 68 per cent. Tactically leaked internal Liberal polling reveals NSW Labor’s support has sunk to WA Liberal levels (see below for the WA horror story). Berejiklian’s ‘pandemic handling’ approval rate is 72 per cent. Compared with the typical political opinion-polling outcome between Liberal and Labor of 50-50, plus or minus five percentage points, such lockdown-flavoured ratings are stellar and highly bankable in terms of electoral votes.
Victoria: Premier Dan Andrews, would have been as high as a kite on lockdown power after one of the world’s most draconian and extended (four months) police-state lockdowns in 2020 went down extremely well with the large majority of the population, so much so that Andrews ordered a follow-up five-day lockdown of the entire state in February 2021 after a hotel quarantine worker tested positive (disrupting the Australian Open but, hey, he got away with mangling the 2020 AFL footy season in sports-mad Victoria, so messing up the tennis was a walk in the park). Andrews’ overall approval rating stands at a strapping 65 per cent and his ‘preferred premier’ rating is 53 per cent.
Perhaps, however, Andrews’ mustard-keen appetite for lockdowns and heavy-handed policing may have taken some of the shine off his popularity because his ‘pandemic handling’ approval rating is ‘just’ 49 per cent. So, there may be a lockdown-fatigue ceiling for public acceptance of lockdown but, if so, it is still neck-craningly high.
Queensland: Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk was so emboldened by the local applause for her 2020 lockdown theatre she didn’t hesitate to stage a three-day sequel for Brisbane in January 2021, after a cleaner in a quarantine hotel tested positive. Her overall approval rating is 63 per cent, her preferred-premier rating is 57 per cent, and her ‘pandemic handling’ approval 73 per cent. She had earlier cashed in her lockdown-popularity chips with an easy win in the October 2020 state elections, grabbing 52 of 93 seats, an 11 seat majority in Queensland’s unicameral parliament.
Western Australia: One positive test for a quarantine hotel cleaner led Labor Premier Mark McGowan to impose a five-day ‘circuit-breaker’ lockdown in Perth and adjacent regions in early February 2021. This lockdown reprise enhanced McGowan’s popularity, giving him an overall personal approval rating of a Stalinesque 88 per cent and a preferred-premier rating of 83 per cent. McGowan’s ‘pandemic handling’ rating is 85 per cent.
The just-conducted March 2021 state election confirmed the polls, delivering a stonking great win to Labor, which looks to have scored 69 per cent the two-party-preferred vote, winning at least 52 out of 59 seats (a gain of 11) on the back of a provisional 13.7 per cent swing. Labor is projected also to control the state Senate outright, with 22 of 36 seats. This was the biggest-ever margin of victory in Australian state or federal parliamentary history. Psephologists are still rubbing their eyes in disbelief.
This was largely a COVID/lockdown election. McGowan had declared back in April 2020 that he would “beat the virus” by turning WA into an “island within an island” by closing its state borders to the unclean from the eastern states and by padlocking international ports (cruise ships full of foreigners were refused docking permission). McGowan has maintained that border closures will be an as-required reality for the foreseeable future, supplemented with expanded, but as yet unspecified, police powers.
The Liberal opposition leader at the time of the election (as well as his immediate predecessor) had called for WA’s hard border with the eastern states to be removed. This went down very badly indeed with the electorate and saw the Liberals hammered. Their fate will surely act as a lesson — the wrong lesson — to any and every Australian politician tempted to publicly question the lockdown consensus.
South Australia: One positive ‘case’ (a quarantine-hotel security guard) set the governmental panic-peddlers off into a snap six-day lockdown of Adelaide (subsequently reduced to three days) in November 2020. Lockdown continues to be on active reserve, and alarm has recently been reignited (just short of lockdown this time) following detection of the virus through wastewater testing in the Adelaide CBD and northern suburbs in March 2021. Border obsessives blamed interstate visitors to an Adelaide arts festival.
Lockdown, or its spectre, has served incumbent Liberal Premier, Steven Marshall, well – he is preferred premier by 50 per cent, enjoying a 20-point lead on Labor. and his ‘pandemic handling’ approval is a mighty 78 per cent, which may help Liberals expand their cigarette-paper lead over Labor of 51 per cent to 49 per cent a year out from the 2022 state election.
Tasmania: COVID rescued the Tasmanian Liberals, lifting them from just 43 per cent of the 2PP vote in pre-lockdown March 2020 to 52 per cent now, with the Liberals, under Tasmania’s particular electoral system, expected to easily win a majority of seats in the 2022 state election. Premier Peter Gutwein, is preferred premier with a whopping 61 per cent.
ACT: The ACT is a Labor/Green ‘progressive’ fortress. Even Canberra’s left-of-centre perma-government managed a lockdown swing (of 3 per cent) to easily retain government at the October 2020 election, with Labor winning 10 of the 25 seats and the Greens six.
Northern Territory: In the Northern Territory, a lacklustre first-term Labor government has been reinvigorated by lockdown, winning the August 2020 election in straight sets with 54 per cent of the 2PP vote and 14 out of 25 seats.
Australia: At a national level, Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who had followed all the other national political lemmings into the original 2020 lockdown, has 64 per cent worth of approval in the polls. He leads as preferred prime minister over Labor’s hapless Anthony Albanese by 61 per cent to 26 per cent. His ‘pandemic handling’ approval is 62 per cent, with only 14 per cent rating it as poor (which would include not only opponents of lockdown but also those masochists who want lockdown harder and longer).
COVID has been kind to Morrison. When the virus was the headline act, day in and day out, he was the admired leader, keeping us safe as the Wuhan flu stalked the country and public imagination. The virus was a welcome diversion from all other, highly negative, political matters. All of a sudden, people stopped talking about sports rorts, for example. With the virus having lately been in retreat numbers-wise, other acts on the political bill are having their time in the limelight, such as the #MeToo mob seeking the scalp of the Attorney-General.
Across the ditch: Australia’s antipodean neighbour has seen the same political pay-off from lockdown/COVID. After trailing in opinion polls pre-lockdown in February 2020, New Zealand Labor’s Jacinda Ardern, came from behind to win the October 2020 national elections, sweeping up an extra 18 seats to secure 64 out of the 120 seats and an outright majority — unusual for NZ, where coalition governments have been the order of the day. Flushed with ballot approval, Ardern happily plunged Auckland into a seven-day lockdown in February 2021 in response to a single case, with the rest of the country placed on a restricted social and economic diet. The Zero COVID Goddess, as she is seen by the ‘international community’, still has rock star status amongst her global peers.
The Verdict? Lockdowns are electoral gold and have worked wonders for any incumbent popularity, regardless of political badging. The polls, and the four latest state/territory elections, which have essentially been lockdown referenda, are depressing testament to that.
The political upside of lockdown for incumbent governments comes from the marvellously effective propaganda campaign designed to strike fear of the virus into the hearts of citizens and to sell the snake-oil of lockdown as the cure. The latest Newspoll finds that 67 per cent of Australians are personally ‘worried about catching the virus’ — a virus which leaves most of its ‘victims’ feeling absolutely fine and from which, for all those who require treatment, some 99.8 per cent recover, with even 95 per cent or so of the already ailing and/or obese oldsters pulling through.
So virus-petrified are most Australians that 50 per cent of respondents say they will get vaccinated ‘as soon as possible’ and 40 per cent that they will do so ‘but not straight away’, with only 10 per cent saying they will spurn the needle. Even in the US, which has done it hard with COVID, compared to Australia, a Monmouth University poll in February found that although 50 per cent were vaccine eager beavers, the refuseniks (‘likely will never get the vaccine’) garnered a 24 per cent share of the population.
The desperate longing of Australians for deliverance from COVID by vaccine easily overcomes whatever reservation a large minority have about the safety and efficacy of the vaccine/s. One quarter of Australian adults believes the vaccine rollout can not be ‘done safely’ (a recognition of the potential clinical risks from an experimental, fast-tracked, inadequately-tested, legal-liability-waived, gene-monkeying therapy). One in three Australians also do not think the vaccine will actually work at ‘stopping Covid within the country’ – in this, they are in agreement with the vaccine manufacturers, Australian government regulators, the WHO and America’s unofficial lockdown ambassador, the double-masking Dr. Anthony Fauci, that the vaccines have only been designed to reduce the severity of COVID symptoms, not stop infection and transmission. Yet, still, 90 per cent of Australians want the jab.
These results demonstrate a dismaying level of political compliance by the Australian population during the COVID panicdemic. The level of obedience is redolent of wartime, with a fearful people clinging uncritically to authority in a time of danger. Any political leader, no matter how ordinarily uninspiring, merely has to stand erect at a daily press conference, look sombre, sound grave, square the jaw and they, too, can be Winston Churchill. The only cheer in all this is that, like Churchill, who enjoyed huge approval in 1945 but was turfed by voters after the war, the current COVID political heroes may have their colours lowered, partly because of all the human and economic damage done by ineffective lockdown but also by the increased salience of other political issues once the perceived virus danger is over.
This may just be wishful thinking, however. We are dealing with slippery politicians, after all. Expect to hear a lot of backside-covering, politically-advantageous bilge along the lines of lockdowns’ (mythical) necessity and effectiveness. ‘Things would be far worse without lockdown’, goes the official story when ‘cases’ are rising during lockdown, and ‘lockdown works’ when ‘cases’ are declining.
There will be many political King Canutes in Australia fraudulently taking credit for beating back the viral tides. This actually does a disservice to Canute, who was demonstrating to his sycophant courtiers that there were certain powers the monarch did not possess, including the inability to declare the gravitational power of the moon no longer in effect. Your modern-day lockdown Canutes believe they really can influence the life-cycle trajectory of a seasonal respiratory virus through ‘social distancing’ voodoo rather than attribute its bell-curve rise and fall to the virus’ inevitable summer recess and the effect of naturally-acquired herd immunity.
Not that any of the futility of lockdown, or the terrible policy mistake of hastily swapping decades of sensible, targeted pandemic planning for a Hail Mary pass with arbitrary and inconsistent edicts (‘You may protest on behalf of Black Lives Matter en masse, citizens, but you can have only ten mourners at your mother’s funeral’) Apparently, we like our politicians so much because of their ‘assured handling of the coronavirus pandemic’, as The Guardian and every other write-by-numbers propaganda organ, instructs us about the WA electoral walkover, for example.
This is all very frustrating but if Morrison’s party tumbles in the polls and Andrews’ slide in lockdown handling approval may indicate, the political gains of lockdown are not necessarily guaranteed to last. Sooner or later, the automatic implementation of lockdown policy by the political and ‘scientific expert’ classes will have to confront a growing lockdown fatigue and the fading of SARS-Co-V2 (including its much-overrated ‘Brazilian’, ‘Kent’ and other multitudinous variants) to just another, but much less virulent, typical seasonal cold/flu bug. If half the population and businesses were to decide they are ‘so over COVID’ and simply ignore any new lockdown edicts, police would be helpless to enforce them short of resorting to reading the Riot Act and priming the water cannon. Granted, Dan Andrews may have already fantasised about that but even he would have to recognise a sure vote loser.
We got into our lockdown mess due to bad science, media hysteria and politics of the crudest kind, with playground professors midwifing a panic that saw poll-sensitive politicians terrified of being blamed unless they ‘do something”. Now, with CBD office towers half-empty and a debstabilised economy and job market, they really will need to do something. The recent history of their lockdown policies suggests they will be seriously challenged in responding to real threats their own mis-rule has spawned. Optimism, one would think, is not warranted.