View from The Hill: COVID response helped NT Labor, encouraging Palaszczuk and McGowan to stick to their scripts


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Both those pressing for states to re-open borders, and defenders of their resistance to doing so, will look for arguments to support their cases in Saturday’s Northern Territory election results.

Chief Minister Michael Gunner has taken a tough line on the NT border. With the NT COVID-free, people can’t go to the territory from COVID “hotspots” without quarantining at their own expense.

Labor’s loss of seats – while retaining government whether in majority or minority – is seen by the “open borders” urgers as carrying lessons about putting all (or most) eggs in a keep-safe basket.

It’s accepted that if he hadn’t had COVID to run on, Gunner would have been much worse off, given the NT’s pre-COVID economic problems.

But if he had taken a softer approach to the border, and there’d been a major COVID outbreak, he would have worn serious blame. With indigenous people – who, like the elderly, form a high risk group for COVID – forming about 30% of the NT community, a big outbreak could have been catastrophic.

And while the NT economy remains in poor shape, especially the tourist sector, the state is open internally (they were all hugging at those party functions on Saturday night).

Queensland premier Annastacia Palaszczuk and Western Australian Premier Mark McGowan are unlikely to see the NT result as sending a signal their border policies will be a political handicap.

That doesn’t mean Palaszczuk and McGowan can afford to rely on their performances on COVID alone when they go to the polls in October and early next year respectively. Their voters will expect more. But as things stand, restrictive border policies are popular and the NT hasn’t said otherwise.

Scott Morrison’s relative powerlessness on the border issue was illustrated at Friday’s national cabinet.

Progress is being made on specific problems, such as the needs of agriculture in border areas, and health matters.

But on the basic question of opening or closing, the premiers remained firm. Only NSW is Morrison’s ally in this battle.

While commentators see the war over borders as a sign of the federation’s dysfunction, voters in particular states read it differently.

Morrison announced at his Friday news conference national cabinet had asked the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC), including state and federal health advisers, to define a “hotspot” and consider movement restrictions relating to these spots.

He hopes such a definition would put pressure on premiers and chief ministers to limit border closures.

It is apparently trodden and tricky territory. Acting Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly told the news conference: “It is a piece of work we have had an attempt at before. And we’ll continue to try to get consensus there in AHPPC about a definition of a hotspot.”

It remains to be seen whether this committee can agree. And if it does, whether that would make any difference to what leaders do.

But when parliament resumes on Monday, it won’t be borders that will be the front of mind issue – it will be aged care.

With a majority of COVID deaths being people who lived in aged care facilities, and an absolute shocker of a performance from Aged Care Minister Richard Colbeck on Friday, the opposition has a lot of ammunition.

Colbeck, appearing before the Senate COVID committee, was asked two simple questions. How many deaths had there been of residents of facilities, and how many COVID cases were there among residents at present. He could neither remember, nor find the numbers immediately. This was appalling preparation.

Forced to defend Colbeck, Morrison said, “on occasion, I can’t call every figure to mind”.

But the PM knew such a lapse has an impact beyond its strictly objective importance.

An example from long ago makes the point. Late in the Hawke government, then treasurer John Kerin at a news conference was unable to explain an economic term. It was hardly a hanging offence. But it damaged Kerin, and the government.

With the Colbeck clip shown over and over, it quickly becomes a symbol of both the minister’s failure, and the failure of the government to do enough to protect aged care residents.

The odds are short that Morrison will move Colbeck from aged care when he reshuffles his ministry following the departure of Mathias Cormann late this year.

But Colbeck is only one player in the aged care crisis, and not the most important. He’s the junior minister in the health portfolio. The Health Minister Greg Hunt, the prime minister, the government regulator of the industry (the Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission), and advisers to government share responsibility. And it is important we don’t forget the private providers: did some of them not heed warnings?

Ultimate political responsibility belongs to the federal government.

Faced with questions about the Victorian aged care disaster, Morrison has tried to unload some of the blame onto the state government by saying the states have responsibility for public health.

That’s true and the Victorian government must be accountable, both for unleashing community transmission with the quarantine breach and for inadequacies in its health reaction. But the fact the federal government is responsible for the sector means Morrison, Colbeck and Hunt need to both admit the Commonwealth’s mistakes and also lay out a convincing roadmap for the future.

Some actions are being undertaken, and there is the complication that the report of the royal commission into aged care is still months away. But the issue is urgent.

The Morrison government is always reluctant to be seen to be pushed, and Friday’s national cabinet provided an interesting insight into this.

When the royal commission less than a fortnight ago suggested, based on evidence from Monash University geriatrician Joseph Ibrahim, that the government should set up an advisory unit including people with expertise in aged care, infection control and emergency responses, Morrison was publicity dismissive.

But the statement from Friday’s national cabinet said: “A time-limited AHPPC Aged Care Advisory Group will be established to support the national public health emergency response to COVID-19 in aged care. The Advisory Group will bring together expertise about the aged care sector, infection control, emergency preparedness and public health response.”

Take a bow, Professor Ibrahim and the royal commission.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Labor wins WA in a landslide as One Nation fails to land a blow



Image 20170311 19263 d6yd4h
Former navy lawyer Mark McGowan is set to become the new premier of Western Australia.
AAP/Dan Peled

Natalie Mast, University of Western Australia

Labor has won the 2017 Western Australian election in a landslide, sweeping aside the long-running Barnett government and installing Labor’s Mark McGowan as the state’s 30th premier. The Conversation

The ABC is predicting Labor will win 40 seats, doubling its current number of seats held and providing it with a clear majority.

The Liberals look to have held only 14 of their 30 seats, while the Nationals appear to have held five of their seven lower house seats. Several seats technically remain in doubt.

Labor’s victory is Perth-based. Thirty-five of the 40 predicted seats it won are based in the metropolitan area. Within the three non-metropolitan regions, Labor has held Kimberley and Albany, and likely picked up only three seats – Bunbury, Collie-Preston, Murray-Wellington. All, except Kimberley, are in the state’s south-west.

State-wide, the One Nation vote in the Legislative Assembly is only 4.7%. It looks like One Nation could win two seats in the Legislative Council, one in Mining and Pastoral and the other in the south-west. This is below the results expected prior to Pauline Hanson’s disastrous trip to WA.

A drover’s dog type of election?

This was an election where the vote was driven by dislike of the sitting government, rather than attraction to the opposition.

It’s rare for a party to gain a third term in WA, and the Barnett government has been trailing in the polls for some time. In particular, as the face of his government, Premier Colin Barnett is deeply unpopular across the state.

The election day ReachTEL poll of 2,573 voters, published in The West Australian, had Labor on a two-party-preferred vote of 54% to 46%. Of those planning to vote Labor, 27.2% said their main reason was that “It’s time for a change of government”, and 16.3% said “I don’t like Colin Barnett”.

ReachTEL poll, March 9.
ReachTEL

Mark McGowan: WA’s new premier

McGowan will become premier after surviving a somewhat bizarre challenge on his leadership last March by former federal Labor minster Stephen Smith.

McGowan, who has been opposition leader since 2012, has patiently plugged away at the government.

In the strained economic circumstances in which WA finds itself, it is difficult to run a campaign full of expensive promises. The most high-profile of Labor’s policies was its declaration that it would not sell Western Power, which the government hoped to use to reduce state debt by around A$8 billion.

Labor also campaigned heavily on public transport, which the government had failed to deliver on over its last two terms.

The Metronet rail network plan gained a place in the public imagination during the 2013 campaign. The basics of the plan survived Labor’s defeat at the last state election as it remained popular within the electorate, providing a clear alternative plan to the changing positions of the Barnett government.

Labor cleverly claimed it would fund Metronet by cancelling the Perth Freight Link, which includes the deeply unpopular Roe 8 extension, and diverting the federal funding from that project to Metronet.

Colin Barnett’s defeat is a tale of a tin ear

The key issues in this election have tended to be economic in nature. WA’s unemployment rates, high state debt, high cost of living, and predicted budget deficits, have not instilled confidence in voters.

The outgoing premier’s last appeal to voters was “please don’t vote for a return to Dullsville” that ended with the old argument that the unions would be in control under Labor.

Given the economic uncertainty, it was a strange plea. Many voters are more concerned with being able to pay their mortgage than take advantage of the improvements to city.

Outgoing premier Colin Barnett had become unpopular with voters.
AAP/Richard Wainwright

Barnett’s fundamental problem is that while his government has transformed Perth over the last eight years, voters are more concerned with their own economic circumstances, and the benefits of large infrastructure projects have not resonated.

It’s a hard sell to convince people that while the significant economic downturn over the last four years is due to circumstances the government can’t control, the government can nonetheless be trusted to turn the state’s fortunes around.

Brendan Grylls distinguishes the Nationals from the Liberals

Outside of Perth, Brendan Grylls appears to have saved the Nationals from oblivion.

Grylls is responsible, through the Royalties for Regions program, for differentiating the Nationals from the Liberals. While the swing against the Liberals is projected to be around 16%, the swing against the Nationals is projected to be less than 1%.

The fact the Nationals have held their ground is impressive on two fronts. The first was the threat One Nation posed outside the metro area.

The other is that the WA Chamber of Minerals and Energy spent around $2 million campaigning against Grylls’ proposal of raising the 25 cent per tonne production rental fee on iron ore to $5, which would deliver an estimated $7.2 billion over the next four years.

Grylls is the member for Pilbara, having moved from the seat of Central Wheatbelt in the 2013 election. The tax policy was high risk, particularly for Grylls himself given that much of WA’s mining happens in his seat.

While the plan seems to have worked in the agricultural parts of the state, the count will continue in the mining seats of Pilbara and Kalgoorlie, which are too close to call.

What the eastern states can learn from the result

In terms of the WA election having federal implications for the Turnbull government, this really was an election determined by local issues.

During the campaign Bill Shorten visited three times, while Malcolm Turnbull made only one fleeting visit, where he failed to deliver a plan to get WA a “fair” share of the GST.

While it is generally not opportune for a national governing party to lose at state level, only internal mischief-makers would try to blame the loss on Turnbull’s leadership.

The most significant issues that will resonate across the country will be the outcome of the preference deal with One Nation, and the ability of the Nationals to differentiate themselves so convincingly from the Liberals.

Natalie Mast, Associate Director, Business Intelligence & Analytics, University of Western Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.