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PM says he never looks in rear view mirror - here's one thing he'd love to have over

Politics

“What if” thoughts plague politicians in the dark of night after a setback or, worse, an election loss. Dennis Atkins looks at one regret Scott Morrison might be having right now

 

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The counterfactual is a delicious place in the political game schema, where the horse race takes precedence over the substance of it all.

It’s a playground for pundits and a cursed “what if” for contestants.

If Scott Morrison is not having some dark moments wondering what might have happened if he’d taken the chance of holding an election at the end of Spring, 2021, you’d have to question whether he’s human. Let’s not. Things are bad enough already.

Through most of last year, there were signs Morrison and his team were at least giving passing consideration to having an election in October or maybe November.

Some signs were hard to miss while others were assumptions and presumptions, calculations and glaring opportunities.

The script would have been simple. As Australia emerged from a still difficult but manageable second year of the Covid-19 pandemic, the country could not have been in better shape, our leader would have trumpeted.

Despite resurgent waves in New South Wales and Victoria sparked by the Delta variant, the nation had fewer deaths, less overall health impact and a greater ability to manage the virus than just about any comparable country.

Morrison punctuated every opportunity with the boast Australia was the envy of the world.

At the same time, the economy had survived and was also producing a strong recovery in growth and jobs. Massive government intervention during 2020 protected businesses and kept most jobs alive.

Things might not have been perfect but, as Morrison, his Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and Health Minister Greg Hunt never tired of saying, you would rather be in Australia than anywhere else.

In September and October last year it was clear Labor wasn’t ready. Anthony Albanese might have never wavered in his self-belief but the public was nowhere near the confidence needed to trust him with the top job.

This point in the cycle could well have been Morrison’s best chance. To many it looked that way at the time and now, three months on, it is as clear as the mask on your face.

As it is, Morrison appears to have faltered – a mix of being spooked by the Delta surge and its impact on sentiment and the lingering restrictions in our biggest cities. Also, there was a clear case of “finger on the election button nerves” all leaders have but seldom admit.

When Coalition MPs and some players close to the action were asked why there was a reticence in taking a chance, they would return the rhetorical question by asking why Morrison shouldn’t wait, let things settle down, allow the economy to find its trajectory and have a late March budget.

The now obvious answer to that was simple: things might get worse in the short to medium term.

There might be a new variant which was going to swamp the reopening of the economy (there was), spreading fear and crashing the existing supports of the “test, trace, isolate and quarantine” system (it did).

This event, now known as the Omicron variant, came at just the worst time. Australia’s best defence – our testing and tracing of cases – was rendered next to useless and made worse by the utter failure to properly anticipate and meet the need to have a new management strategy using rapid antigen testing.

It was the vaccine stroll-out 2.0.

With this came a cluster of associated economic unravelling. A shadow shut down swept through the economy after Christmas with people afraid of catching a highly contagious disease that, while not as severe as the Delta variant, was still putting people in hospital at record rates and brought with it daily death tolls in the dozens on the eastern seaboard.

This was not the freedom Morrison was talking about late last year when he cheered on a gift Australians were giving to themselves after two hard years of managing a difficult time in the shadow of Covid-19.

It was a sharp blow to an economy already unsteady and uneasy. Now it’s been brought to a near halt. Many workers are off sick, others are in quarantine because they are close contacts of those who are sick.

Businesses have closed, especially those in the already damaged tourism, hospitality and entertainment sectors. Supply chains are choked or cut because of a shortage of drivers and distribution centre workers.

At one stage, Morrison backed the idea of getting 16-year-old kids virtually conscripted in to drive forklift trucks. He was howled down by premiers who could spot a dumb idea without any need for guidance.

This is a much trickier electoral landscape than the one we lived through in October and November last year.

Things might yet get better. The “peak” of Omicron might be with us or about to arrive and the tail of this Venn Diagram of sickness and an economic slowdown could be already with us.

Morrison will be hoping there are no more surprises – that is, no new sudden unknown, perhaps another variant such as the BA-2 Omicron sub-variant the World Health Organisation is monitoring right now, or some exogenous economic shock.

The prime minister and Frydenberg will want to land a Budget on March 29 and then set a course for a May 7 or 14 poll.

This particular path is risky and, as Morrison admits, narrow. His footing would have been most certainly more secure and sure three months ago.

His chances of victory then would have been at least two to one. Now it’s tracking below even money.

That’s what counterfactuals are all about.

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