Morrison will be the first Prime Minister to have served a full term and seek a second since John Howard in 1998.
But he will face the polls at a different time in the pandemic’s cycle, when the psychological costs of lockdowns and restrictions are festering while the vaccination rollout is tarnished by unresolved questions over safety and supply.
“We’re prisoners of our own success,” Morrison proclaimed.
Labor pollster Kos Samaras has been monitoring the national mood through the polling and focus groups he conducts for clients of his firm RedBridge.
“Everyone around the world’s been traumatised to the bone and we have in this country, particularly in Victoria, a level of trauma that as a researcher I’ve never seen before, you cannot keep inflicting lockdowns on people,” Samaras says.
“The tolerance of lockdown is very low, the support for Fortress Australia is starting to fray and the fatigue we are now seeing is enormous.”
Even before the national cabinet dropped its zero-COVID goal, it was Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews who, upon return from an injury-induced political sabbatical, said lockdowns would not be necessary once everyone who wanted a vaccine had been given access to one.
“We wouldn’t be having lockdowns to protect people who weren’t prepared to protect themselves,” he said.
Former federal Labor leader Bill Shorten says he’s noticed a change in the community’s mood in his Melbourne electorate of Maribyrnong.
“People are just flat, there’s this frustrated resignation,” he says. “We’ve been in this endless loop, it’s like one of those Escher paintings with the stairs to nowhere, there’s got to be an end line, it can’t go on indefinitely. People need hope.”
Samaras says this yearning has been dominant in his groups for some time but most prevalent in the under-50s, warning of a generational divide where younger voters worry politicians are reneging on their side of the elimination bargain.
“They’ve been told all of 2020: hold tight, keep your borders shut and when the vaccines arrive, this is the light at the end of your tunnel,” he says.
Both Samaras and Shorten raised the clip of Dame Sarah Gilbert, the Oxford scientist who created the AstraZeneca vaccine being given a standing ovation by huge, non-socially distanced crowds at Wimbledon as a “penny dropping moment”.
“Everyone knows Britain’s had a terrible time with COVID but here we are watching Nick Kyrgios and Ash Barty playing at Wimbledon and going – there’s crowds, what? The penny’s dropped,” Shorten says.
‘We’ve been in this endless loop, it’s like one of those Escher paintings with the stairs to nowhere.’
Former prime minister Tony Abbott has long seen this day coming. He argues the country has been “far too quick to count the costs of staying free but far too slow to count the costs of locking down”.
“Something must have gone badly wrong for Australia to be continuing to shut down just as others are finally starting to open up,” Abbott says.
Abbott is one of few to have braved this topic publicly in the past and again this week.
“Yes we have to preserve life but not any and every cost, because facing risk and accepting challenge is part of any decent life,” he says.
Virgin Australia boss Jayne Hrdlicka knows all too well that Australia has been unwilling to have that debate out loud. In May she was castigated when she said the international border had to reopen eventually even if some people may die, although at far lower levels than from the flu.
In 2019, there were 169,301 deaths, an average of 3255 per week and 72 of those were people claimed by flu.
Morrison has said he will not countenance a death rate similar to the UK’s of around 100 per week. In Britain that ratio is 0.25 deaths per million; in Australia that would mean seven deaths per week.
Nationals backbencher and former cabinet minister Matthew Canavan says no figure should be established as acceptable. “I doubt we do that with the flu, we’re always trying to save lives,” he says.
“But I accept we can’t make perfect the enemy of the good so I can’t put a figure or number on it, except to say I doubt we’ll get to a situation where there are zero deaths from coronavirus – that’s unlikely.”
Simon Longstaff from the Ethics Centre, a Sydney-based independent think thank, believes that the community has been quietly contemplating the inevitability of COVID becoming a permanent background feature of life.
“The community is far smarter and more subtle in its thinking than most people give credit,” Longstaff says.
“The community knows that people will die every year from influenza and it’s not that they say ‘I’m indifferent to it’ but they say this is despite us putting in universal access to the flu jab, having the best respiratory doctors that we can, having good hospitals and all the rest.
“But they accept that because they know all those steps have been taken.”
“Until we get to that [high] level of vaccination, I think it’s reasonable to continue to say no, we can’t have tolerance of community transmission of cases,” ethicist Peter Singer agrees.
All roads out of Fortress Australia – and Scott Morrison’s political future – rely on how quickly jabs go into people’s arms. Notably, the road map outlined on Friday did not set a target for how many people need to be vaccinated before international borders are reopened.
“The best way forward would be to set a date by which time all who wish should have been vaccinated and declare that all restrictions will then cease,” Abbott says.
Vaccine deadlines have also been promoted by the ABC’s Norman Swan, who tweeted in May that: “We should set a fixed date for opening up internationally. That will focus everyone. Watch the queues for the vaccine.”
Jason Falinksi, a Liberal moderate and federal backbencher, agrees.
“When we get to a certain point in Australia, maybe 60, maybe 70 per cent, it will be incumbent on the government to say in the next six to seven weeks we are going to reopen the borders,” he says.
This would give everyone time to get their jabs if they are worried about getting COVID-19 and becoming ill, Falinksi says.
The World Health Organisation has previously identified 80 per cent as the threshold vaccination rate to make a real difference to COVID transmission.
Getting there is an enormous challenge for Australia, with only 7 per cent of the adult population fully vaccinated – a result of the government’s slowness to secure supplies, the seesawing debate over AstraZeneca’s safety and high rates of community hesitancy.
“It’s actually not surprising, it’s an unintended consequence of very good work,” says the World Health Organisation’s Margaret Harris, an Australian and public health doctor.
Dr Harris likens Australia’s complacency to the failure of the rest of Europe to learn from what was unfolding in Italy in February last year because it wasn’t yet happening within their own borders.
“The understanding of the reality of what this virus looks like is helpful in helping people make that decision,” she says. “Getting your population vaccinated at this point should be a critical part of the strategy.”
Dr Harris says judging the exit point is much harder for countries that relied on closed borders as their primary defence against the virus.
“Locking in the population and locking out the rest of the world is much easier to get into than get out of because it’s very difficult for authorities to pick the point at which it’s a good moment to ease and how to ease,” Dr Harris says.
The WHO has never advocated shutting borders but as Australia’s elimination strategy has shown, it works. But at real cost.
Shorten describes the country as “Balkanised”.
“State borders are back, checkpoints are in, Melbourne’s felt deserted, Western Australia’s gone its own way,” he says. “COVID has been the dye they use in MRI scans to highlight the fault lines.”
The last time Morrison tried to suggest the community live with COVID he was met a wall of interstate border closures that polling suggests the community has emphatically backed.
Subsequently, he shifted to a position of saying there was “no hurry” to reopen borders and arguing at G7 that the domestic freedoms Australia had were “the envy of the world”.
That ended on Friday. Now Morrison’s challenge is to bring clarity to the pathway to reopening with exact targets and to provide the leadership a weary public needs while the rollout takes place.
It also remains to be seen how the Premiers – who have agreed to national plans in the past only to go off and do their own thing – morph from zero-COVID warriors to managing the virus in a vaccinated population.
“You cannot keep traumatising the voting public and not have someone come in and cash in that bill,” Samaras warns.
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