Perspectives/ Crispin Hull on COVID and an Election

Election timing appears to be driving Covid policy as much as public health. And Covid fall-out is going to determine election timing more than anything else.

The election sweet spot for the Federal Government is after lockdowns end and before deaths and hospitalisations rise too much.

The Federal Government will get blamed for continued lockdowns as much as the states because it failed to get the vaccines; get the population vaccinated early; and provide secure quarantine.

Equally, it will be blamed if it cajoles the states into opening up too early and the hospitalisation and death rates soar.

Small wonder Scott Morrison is urging everyone to get vaccinated and is massaging the advice from the Doherty Institute into what percentage of the population must be vaccinated and the level of existing cases before the lockdowns can be eased.

He has also dressed up vaccination passports as business property rights rather than some sort of socialist government-driven public-health measure.

Remember this: the first priority of anyone or any political party that comes to power, by whatever means, is to remain in power.

Morrison can set the election anytime between now and 21 May next year. The Constitution requires the election of Senators elected in 2016 be in time for them to take their seats on 1 July. Time has to be allowed for the vote count and return of electoral writs.

The longer he leaves the election the more he is at the mercy of Covid events when finally forced to the polls on May 21. Who knows what the state of things might be then and who will be blamed. But the earlier he goes, the more exposed he is to present anger over lockdowns, and quarantine and vaccine failure.

Normally, the Government can gear announcements of the goodies – tax cuts, roads, schools and hospitals – to the election date. Governments do that. More recently, they have rorted the system to hand out grant money at ministerial discretion to be spent in key electorates.

But tweaking public-health policy for electoral gain, or at least to minimise electoral backlash, would be a new level of pernicious political perfidy.

Is public-health about to be tweaked for electoral gain? Well, we do not and cannot know because the very government that might tweak the policy, at time of writing, has not make public the full Doherty Institute’s plan to get out of lockdown. But that and utterances from government are enough to make us guess that the tweak is on.

It is perhaps enough information for someone to conclude that, with the Delta strain proving intractable, we will have to live with Covid by opening up rather than trying to eliminate it. But the question is not IF that should happen but WHEN that should happen, so loss of life and hospitalisations are minimised, and the timing should be based on science not the need to have an election by May next year.

The case for fixed terms of Parliament with a set election timing (say, the first Saturday in December every three years) is unanswerable.

Over the next few months, we will watch the Government juggle public-health policy, information massaging, and election timing in its attempt to keep power.

In a democracy, the theory is that Government and Opposition put their policies to the people who vote for the one that they are convinced has the better policies and will do a better job, based on past performance and future promise.

However, that can only work well if the voters are well-informed. And they can only be well-informed if they and/or the media that they rely on to select, interpret information, have access to it. And the media presents it without partisan bias.

Presumably a government that is doing a good job, has good policies, and is acting in the overall interest of voters would be happy to have as much information out there as possible. But when it falls down on the job or has policies or spending programs geared to sectional interests, especially those of big donors, it will want to hide the information which would expose that.

The Doherty report is a case in point. It should have been made public immediately as a matter of routine. Any argument that it might scare the public or is too complicated to understand is insulting. Besides there are many more people in the community at large who understand and can explain the issues than there are in government. But if only part of the information is out there, the Government can manipulate the interpretation of it.

Since 2013, freedom-of-information has become a sick joke, as last week’s report by the Grata Fund revealed. Any request which could reveal any information which might embarrass the government is subjected to delay and obstruction.

Our democracy is far from the ideal in which well-informed voters choose between political parties which are striving for the greatest good for the greatest number. Instead, voters are misinformed by political campaigns under-written by corporate donors and supporters (including large parts of the media) and the Government goes to great lengths to cover up, hide or downplay any information that challenges its policy actions (or inactions)– including hammering the ABC.

Essentially, the pro-business Coalition Government wants to open up sooner than most State Governments or the majority of people. It has to juggle that desire with the consequences for voter opinion (hooray, no more lockdowns) and/or rising death or hospitalisation rates and overflowing ICUs (boo, it’s the Government’s fault).

So, the Government will be desperate to set election day as quickly as possible after opening up before any adverse consequences emerge. The pity is that the timing of the election is in the Government’s hands. If it was a fixed date, then it would not be a factor in Covid policy – as it should not be. Of course, no-one will admit it, but tragically, the desire of sectional interests and the imperative of staying in power will influence Covid policy as much as the overall interest of public health.

This article was first published in The Canberra Times and other Australian media on 28 August 2021.

Crispin Hull BA, LLB (Hons) | Property Convenor  |  ANU School of Legal Practice Lawyer of the Supreme Court of the ACT, on the Register of Practitioners kept by the High Court of Australia


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