They would never say it, but all must surely think it.

Donald Trump, Joe Biden, Annastacia Palaszczuk, Mark McGowan and any political leader facing a COVID-19-infested election knows that disasters don’t have to bode badly for a skilled demagogue seeking to hold or win power.

Misery loves company and COVID-19 has created so much that it’s generating its own markets in empathy, sympathy and subsidy.

All are in abundant supply in Washington, Brisbane and Perth, to name only a few places where the countdown is on towards pandemic polls in the months ahead.

The markets are very liquid in Canberra too, even though Australians aren’t really meant to have an election for another two years.

Space to play or pause, M to mute, left and right arrows to seek, up and down arrows for volume.

Scott Morrison calls for COVID-19 restrictions to be eased in time for Christmas

Nearly three decades of bountiful economic growth have now come to a predictable but shuddering halt in the dismal set of national accounts for this country’s peak lockdown months of April, May and June.

Few will have missed the severity of Australia’s economic predicament detailed in Josh Frydenberg’s funereal presentation of the numbers, recited alone for 45 doleful minutes in Parliament House, aided only by a video screen full of downward dipping charted lines.

Scott Morrison, routinely dismissed by his opponents as “Scotty from marketing”, was nowhere to be seen.

But when he did emerge on the floor of Parliament for Question Time a short time later, the Prime Minister was a study in considered demagoguery made for an era of disease.

He oozed empathy, sympathy and subsidy in almost equal measure.

Words like “devastating” and “blows” variously described as “harsh”, “severe” and “heavy” dripped off the tongue, along with liberal mentions of the JobKeeper scheme.

Less obvious were the hints of an emerging re-election theme the PM appears to be market-testing in the full light of day.

“We will continue to be stronger, safer and together,” he gushed, the comment sounding suspiciously like a three-word campaign slogan for the corflute posters.

If that was a touch too slick, it came in prose as well.

“They [Australians] know that when Australia is under economic threat, then the wise and experienced hands of economic management matter and that is what the Australian people know of this Government.”

Get it? A reprisal of the old “who do you most trust?” campaign rhetorical, for an election at least a year away.

Nothing unusual in that. Any political leader worth their salt needs to be staking out their claim nice and early.

Anthony Albanese’s doing exactly the same, albeit with fewer minutes and mechanisms at his disposal when Parliament is sitting.

His is the tougher task though — to apply scrutiny to government failures and missteps, while demanding more fiscal support for more people for longer, but not too much, as it would expose Labor to claims it’s engaging in policy-free opportunism.

Winning from Opposition is never easy in Australia and for Albanese to do it in 2021 or 2022 it will have to defy all conventional logic about the benefits of incumbency.

No government has ever spent the $300bn (the Coalition’s tally of pledges, not all delivered) that the Morrison Government has flagged in cash, industry assistance, infrastructure, tax incentives and financial market interventions over the last eight months alone.

Nor will the tally end by Christmas or March simply because the Government is willing this economic crisis to a close.

That’s an awful lot of monetised empathy and sympathy to be sloshing around, regardless of whether it’s effective, well-targeted or meticulously managed in its application.

Victoria’s lurch back into heavy social and work restrictions in August is certain to inflict further pain, largely unmeasured, and with it expectations of further support.

Those expectations are likely to be met in some way or another — if not through further cash and subsidies then through accelerated income tax relief.

Uniquely, and almost by necessity, what we are witnessing is economic management guided by hunch, feel and instinct rather than metrics, knowledge, advice or ideology.

While political positioning is inseparable from the conduct of it, most of the posturing is done from a solid middle ground of broad bipartisan consensus in a 46th Parliament marked by fairly respectful and responsible debate.

Tony Abbott pondered a starkly different public policy approach to government-directed lockdowns in London this week.(AAP: Bianca De Marchi)

No matter how grim the toll of economic data or how long the recession, in their most anxious moments of uncertainty, Australians may well draw some comfort from the empathy and sympathy directed generously towards them at present, factoring in the obvious motivations of politicians generating it.

It wasn’t always this way in crises of the past.

Tony Abbott’s speech in London this week, pondered a starkly different public policy approach to government-directed lockdowns.

It also served as a reminder of a time between 2009 and 2013 when Australian politics was conducted with a ferocity unthinkable in these COVID-19 times.

Lamenting the suffering that accompanies decisions made, the former prime minister reminded us that “this is what happens when for much more than a mere moment we let fear of falling sick stop us from being fully alive”.

He concluded with a binary contrast of the demonstrated values of a generation that waged, and won, World War II with the current generation doing what it has done in this pandemic.

Sure enough, history will pass judgement on all who have led in this pandemic one day.

As Mr Abbott experienced to his own cost last year, voters get to pass their considerably powerful judgements as well.


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