Here’s a riddle. Which came first, the Morrison government’s election strategy or the national COVID-19 vaccine rollout? Just kidding – they’re the same thing!
You’ve doubtlessly been hearing smug commentators – you know, like the one you’re reading – making blithe predictions about how there’s definitely an election coming this year. And you might be thinking “But didn’t we have a goddamn election in May 2019? Where are they getting this garbage from? Actually, I could go a democracy sausage, now you mention it – when can I get one?”
Part of it is the vibe in the air: a conservative government doesn’t go giving major awards to outspoken apartheid-supporting homophobes if they’re not signalling to the base that something’s in the works. But mainly it’s cold political calculus which says that there’s a clear way for Scott Morrison to absolutely walk the next election in, and it’s by going to the polls before we run out of pandemic.
See, there’s a truism that crises make voters stick with the governments they have, which has been borne out with everything from John Howard’s triumphant Coalition win at the post-9/11 election of November 2001 to the state and territory elections we’ve had so far during The COVID Years.
Since the pandemic began we’ve seen Annastacia Palaszczuk win a historic third term for Labor in Queensland, the Labor government of Michael Gunner win a second term in the Northern Territory, and Andrew Barr’s Labor/Greens government walk in a sixth term in the ACT.
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So the assumption is that, depending on your political bias, the Morrison government have either handled the hellscape of 2020 with quiet professionalism, or largely stood back and let the states deal with it while claiming credit for the wins and running at great speed from any and all criticism – and therefore, either way, they’re the clear favourite to win the next election, even without the bonus of every publication in Australia going “Is Anthony Albanese still the opposition leader? Has his party dumped him yet? Is he gone now? How about now? Now?”
Furthermore, Morrison doesn’t want to do what Labor did with the Global Financial Crisis and go fixing a catastrophe without extracting every possible political advantage.
How does the government’s COVID vaccine strategy fit with the necessities of the election? As it turns out, very nicely indeed! Almost like it was planned that way.
There are few hard dates as logistics are still being rolled out but the current plan seems to be that front-line health and quarantine workers will get jabbed in February, with vulnerable populations (elderly folks, people with health conditions) next in March-April-ish. Older Australians and other vulnerable workers are probably around three months later, and then there’s the general population after that.
So if the vaccines do what they’re supposed to, and if the timeline is more or less kept, then the majority of Australia should be feeling a tingly needle-feeling in their upper arm and an overwhelming sense of gratitude for their bonza mate ScoMo around October-November 2021.
And that works out very nicely because according to the Parliamentary Library, Saturday 7 August 2021 is the earliest that Morrison could go to the polls, and the latest that he could hold a House plus half-Senate election is Saturday, May 18, 2022.
Technically the government could hold a half-Senate election around then and have the House of Representatives poll anytime until Saturday 3 September 2022, but splitting the elections over two dates – each with their own campaigns and massive public costs – would be electoral suicide.
So, assuming that Morrison wants to hold a normal election he’s got a ten-month window to do it. But also, not really.
Historically governments don’t hold elections between December and February on the grounds that people are either frantically busy or on leave and a) will not pay attention to the (painfully expensive) campaigns, and b) will not reward the incumbent government who made them think about goddamn politics when they were getting ready for Xmas or going on holiday.
There’s a vibe in the air: a conservative government doesn’t go giving major awards to outspoken apartheid-supporting homophobes if they’re not signalling to the base that something’s in the works.
There are also a lot of state and federal long weekends at the beginning of the year which makes it difficult to find a clear Saturday upon which to hold an election – and on a practical level, it’s harder to get volunteers to give you free and cheerful labour if they could be taking their family to the beach instead.
So Morrison really has two choices: call an election sometime between August and November this year, or look to March-May 2022. And the latter option has two strikes against it.
First up, March will feature two state elections (WA on the 11th and SA on the 17th) which will be a big drain on Liberal and National Party resources Scott would sooner see focussed on the federal ballot; and secondly, governments try to avoid campaigning over Easter for similar reasons to Xmas and this year Easter falls inconveniently on April 4.
Dodging that would mean running a very short campaign – they could potentially call the election in February for late March, although it’d be a pretty poor look to charge taxpayers to reconvene everyone in Canberra just to immediately dissolve parliament and send them all back to their home states.
Coming right back after Easter is the likely backup plan if something goes horribly wrong with the vaccine rollout between now and the middle of the year: if there’s a sudden wave of infections, for example, or if the specific vaccines the government chose to turn out to be substandard, or if we can’t actually get enough of the thing anyway (which is an unsettling possibility right now).
But 2022 is the last resort: by leaving it late Morrison runs the risk of circumstances mucking him about, and the man is nothing if not risk-averse.
So: get your voting trousers tailored, Australia. You might be needing to step out in them sooner than you’d think.