The Treacherous Waters of the 2022 Australian ‘Pandemic’ Election
As featured in Edition 39, available here.
BY SEBASTIAN REES-EWALD (4th year - Politics and International Studies - Essex, UK)
I was recently discussing the Australian Election with my flatmate, a classically charismatic chap. I cruelly quizzed him on who the current Australian PM was, and he replied “not sure, don’t know much about Australian politics.” It was a good point. Why should we care?
COVID-19 has had a tendency to dominate newsreels, with stories of chaos and worldwide confusion petering in slowly, painting the world in a grim light and leaving one wondering whether there’s anything else.
Melbourne, Australia has had the world’s longest lockdown, ranging just under a year. Initial restrictions were praised for reducing cases (at one point) to zero. However, part of this has come as a response to sluggish vaccination rollouts and an overburdened health system, tarnishing the government's reputation.
One might almost be forgiven for forgetting ecological disasters and migrant/refugee (depending on who you ask) detention camps that have previously occupied public discourse.
Unsurprisingly, the 2022 election so far has not centred on these issues. Instead, COVID-19 has dominated the headlines. Australia’s Labor Party have been attacking incumbent Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s Liberal Party on accounts of slashing medicare (the free healthcare system) viscerally in time for a pandemic.
Nothing comes from nothing, Labor was previously defeated in 2019 with a similar strategy of negative campaign ads, brutally targeting marginal constituencies to great effect. Social media is of course being harnessed more than ever, with the United Australia Party spending 2.5 million AUD on Google adverts alone in the last year. The political arena has been socially distanced for too long; one does not have to wonder whether the spectators are hungry for blood.
If time is money, then the six months until voting day on the 18th of May is a goldmine. Anything can change. The Prime Minister, known by most as ScoMo, is running up against the key problem of being in government: having to defend his actions, however with it comes resources unparalleled. For example, campaign spending has been dwarfed by a 13-million-dollar federal advertising campaign on the ‘Positive Energy’ initiative: reducing carbon emissions. Whilst ScoMo won the day in 2019 on a conservative stance on climate, even with 2019 being deemed the Climate Election, issues around climate change remain important to Australian voters across party lines.
COVID-19 remains a thorn in ScoMo’s side, but neither has he been as outspoken nor polarising as his US counterpart Trump. With a federal system, a massive landmass, and a tete-a-tete with China, one cannot fail to draw comparisons with the US. The recent election in the US hinged around COVID-19 and Trump's ineffective handling. Similarly, polling data from YouGov taken across the last two years has shown a similar trend against the Australian Government the longer the pandemic has gone on.
Of course, COVID played a huge role in the US election, but, on a wider scale, there is a global trend of elections being, if not determined, influenced by COVID-19. New Zealand saw an increased majority return to Jacinda Arden, whereas in Germany the CDU/CSU fell out of office with Merkel stepping away. In the UK, the July by-election for Chesham and Amersham saw a historic loss for the Conservative government.
It’s difficult to predict that COVID alone can sway the electorate, though my crystal ball has revealed the word Omicron is on the horizon. A strong response could reaffirm voters’ trust in their government in a similar fashion to the beginning of the pandemic, when calls of national unity surged support, whilst ineffective measures could nail the coffin shut.
I began by asking whether there was anything else apart from COVID-19 to discuss, and have subsequently spent the majority writing about COVID-19.
But beyond COVID-19, the next leader of Australia has many problems, including the climate and refugee crises that predominated the news pre-COVID. It is of crucial importance that COVID-19 does not become the lynchpin of elections, however emotive it may be to voters, because there is more than pandemic management at stake. The fine line between managing diplomatic and economic relationships with China and standing up for democracy is one that any PM shall have to walk. A recent survey found that 49.6% of voters consider Australia too dependent on China, but this hard-line rhetoric on China has had drastic effects on the significant Australian-Chinese community.
In a changing globalised environment, it's more important than ever to have leaders with vision and intelligence to face a variety of increasingly more difficult and interconnected problems. Peaking through COVID- 19, there’s an iceberg beneath the water that Australian voters have to navigate, and definitely should.
Image: Unsplash (Liam Pozz)