It’s been welcome to see governments taking expert health advice during the pandemic. But on the issue of ultimate responsibility, situations can become tricky, as Annastacia Palaszczuk and Daniel Andrews found this week.
When an agitated Palaszczuk said on Thursday she had told Scott Morrison it was up to the chief health officer to rule on whether to allow a woman out of quarantine to attend her father’s funeral, it was a case of the adviser being “on top” rather than “on tap”.
Palaszczuk said she’d made it “very clear” to Morrison “it is not my decision. It is the chief health officer’s decision to make”.
CHO Jeannette Young later allowed Sarah Caisip to view her father’s body but not go to the funeral.
Young explained this by saying funerals – which can be attended by 100 people in Brisbane – are “very, very high risk for transmission of the virus”.
On a common sense view and the facts as we know them, it was an excessively cautious weighing of danger versus compassion.
Caisip – whose battle with the Queensland bureaucracy began before her father’s death – had travelled from Canberra.
The ACT hasn’t had any new cases for a couple of months and shouldn’t even be classified as a “hotspot”. It’s only so defined because it sits within NSW. The chance of Caisip being a COVID carrier appears minimal.
It was taking things to an extreme to refuse to allow her to be with her mother and 11-year-old sister at the funeral. Some requirement for distancing and subsequent testing of attendees surely would have been adequate.
Did the premier use the health guru as a convenient shield behind whom to hide? Or was she (rather than the prime minister) right about who had the power? And if so, is that how things should work?
Graeme Orr, professor of law at the University of Queensland, says it’s clear the law provides that only a public health officer can let someone out of quarantine to go to a funeral. “Also, under the crime and corruption law it would be highly inappropriate for a minister to intervene.”
Regardless of where the formal power rested, the affair has been damaging for the premier and the CHO, and showed that if Queensland is to keep its border closed, more flexibility is needed in the system to deal better with compassionate cases.
With the state election looming next month, it is a bad time to get constructive dealings between the Morrison and Palaszczuk governments.
After their phone conversation, Palaszczuk accused Morrison of trying to bully her, a claim rejected by his office.
Queensland government sources said the PM was belligerent, yelled and said “you will do this”; the premier had reminded him it was R U OK? day.
Prime Ministerial sources said Palaszczuk flew off the handle when the PM said “you can do this, you are the premier, it’s within your power”.
Whether or not Morrison adopted a bullying tone – or the premier heard it that way – is beside the point. Palaszczuk is a tough, experienced politician, quite able to stand up for herself.
Indeed there is not even much of a power imbalance between the PM and premier here – as premiers have been showing, the states hold many of the cards in this pandemic.
While Palaszczuk was deferring to her health official, Victorian premier Daniel Andrews was defending himself after the revelation Victoria’s curfew had not been driven by the advice of Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton.
Questioned on radio this week about the curfew, both Sutton and Police Chief Commissioner Shane Patton said recommendations for it hadn’t come from them.
Dealing with a barrage of questions Andrews, who has leaned heavily on the health advice throughout COVID, declared: “The chief health officer is not the government”. Who’d have thought?
Andrews couldn’t provide clarity on the precise origin of the curfew. But it is there, it seems, because it makes things simpler. If citizens are required to lock themselves in at night, the authorities have fewer people to chase up to determine whether they have a legitimate reason to be out. It’s a stretch.
Like Palaszczuk, Andrews is coming under mounting pressure for taking things to extremes.
Ironically, a Victorian roadmap based on expertise is being undermined by argument among experts.
Many of those with specialist knowledge are suggesting Victoria could move more quickly to ease restrictions.
Tony Blakely, an epidemiologist from Melbourne University who had a hand in the modelling, thinks Victoria could open “a bit faster” and “maybe the curfew could be dropped”.
Blakely gives the roadmap near full marks but believes it falls short on the proposed October transition by being too stringent.
A number of other experts have questioned aspects of the Andrews’ plan. Increasingly as the week went by, the state government started emphasising there was room for tweaking if the advice allowed it.
The pandemic has brought into focus the role of experts, but as it goes on we see a more complicated picture emerging than the initial “isn’t it great the politicians are following those who know what they’re talking about.”
The months have shown not just the value of experts but also how experts in a fast-moving crisis can know a lot less than they appear to. Some of the propositions the federal health advisers advanced at COVID’s start turned out to be wrong (people with COVID are not infectious when they don’t have symptoms). Experts can and do change their advice as they learn more or for other reasons (federal advisers’ views on masks evolved).
Those with credentials will differ (about “suppression” versus “elimination”, or the likely arrival or effectiveness of a vaccine).
Experts will be heroes to their admirers and villains to their critics (Sutton is the case study).
In some instances, the experts will have an eye to the politics as they give their advice.
The politicians draw on experts’ authority to fill the yawning gaps in their own, quoting them, parading them at news conferences. Then, on occasion, the decisions and comments of the experts, by now well known public figures, come back to bite the leaders.
But the longer this pandemic lasts, the harder it is becoming for politicians to just say “we’re doing what the experts tell us”, because the trade offs are increasingly so complex.
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.
Government responses to COVID-19 in Australia have received, by and large, bipartisan support. An exception, it seems, is the imposition of restrictions on interstate movement. State borders have become a lightning rod for political friction and feverish commentary. With elections in the frame, this has escalated into apparent “border wars”.
The latest salvos follow alarming coronavirus outbreaks in Victoria and, in lesser numbers, Greater Sydney.
After partially reopening Queensland’s borders mere weeks ago, Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk surprised some by reimposing a “hard” border closure effective from the weekend. As case numbers ballooned in Melbourne and instances occurred of infected returning travellers “breaching” quarantine measures, many Queenslanders anticipated toughened restrictions – and indeed welcomed them.
It should be remembered that the Queensland government’s generally successful handling of the pandemic crisis, including its readiness to close borders, enjoys broad approval. Some wondered why this latest border closure extended to the ACT as well, where there are no active cases.
But a hard line on borders to effectively “put Queenslanders’ health first” is a popular move. Support for the closures even came from a possibly unexpected source in Gold Coast Mayor Tom Tate. Amid heightened anxiety, residents here will take comfort from the seeming security of “fortress Queensland”.
In Queensland, pandemic conditions currently favour the incumbent premier – in stark comparison to Daniel Andrews’s situation in Victoria. With community transmission largely under control, Palaszczuk has played a steady hand in easing lockdown restrictions, informed by her chief health officer’s advice.
While impacts on the state’s economy and unemployment levels remain worrying – and potentially politically damaging – everything is viewed through the prism of the government’s ability to manage the crisis. These circumstances seemingly lend themselves to taking an “abundance” of caution.
This has in turn invited criticism from some business quarters, but it’s an approach that suits both the times and the premier’s style.
A recent coronavirus outbreak in Brisbane’s south tested the premier’s leadership and her government’s responsiveness, providing a reminder of the disease’s unpredictability. Subsequently, taking a resolute stance on border measures, in defiance especially of naysayers from southern states and Canberra, will only boost Palaszczuk’s standing in her (often parochial) home state. With an election less than 12 weeks away, there are, variously, more rewards than risks in unapologetically prioritising the protection of Queenslanders’ health.
But as that election nears, both the premier and her LNP counterpart, Deb Frecklington, will look to turn circumstances more clearly to their political advantage. Opinion polls show the LNP holding a slim two-party-preferred lead – yet, perhaps significantly, Palaszczuk has a distinct lead as voters’ preferred premier.
Many in Queensland see Palaszczuk as personable and a “safe pair of hands”. This reassuring attribute might be well suited to these uncertain times.
With Palaszczuk’s leadership stocks running high, Queensland voters can anticipate a presidential-style election campaign come October. Messaging has already surfaced singling out Palaszczuk as a “strong premier”, suggesting she’s the leader to make “strong decisions”. But Labor may well tread this path warily, remembering what befell Campbell Newman, the last Queensland premier who campaigned relentlessly on “strong” characteristics.
Admittedly, accentuating “strength” counters claims of being indecisive or too cautious, critiques that have dogged Palaszczuk’s leadership until now. This approach could work well politically, so long as events – or potentially the federal government – don’t turn against the premier’s handling of the pandemic. If there’s a heightened element to the crisis in coming weeks, the situation could reverse quickly for Palaszczuk’s government, leaving the premier wearing much of the blow-back.
Even Anna Bligh’s much-lauded leadership during the destructive 2010-11 cyclones and floods in Queensland didn’t translate to a long-term boost in support. But the looming state election is a more short-term prospect. The pandemic will remain front and centre, with Palaszczuk’s crisis management still very much in the spotlight.
The spread of COVID-19 has presented a political challenge for the opposition in Queensland.
The LNP’s past criticism of the Palaszczuk government over the state’s border closure has come back to bite it. Echoing their leader, throughout June several LNP MPs (supported by the prime minister no less) called repeatedly for the border’s reopening. Events since, understandably, have forced an about-face from LNP figures. They’re now advocating “tougher” border measures at the risk of appearing inconsistent.
Regardless, the opposition finds itself – ironically – having to be cautious about the limits of striking a point of difference. This much is obvious in Frecklington’s newly struck tone of resigned consensus with the government’s border position. This is a bind opposition parties are experiencing nationwide, a hard reality especially in states and territories with elections nearing.
The LNP, having gambled on criticising the government’s border restrictions, now wears the fallout. Labor has pounced on the opportunity, in early signs of a de facto election campaign. Social media posts have highlighted how Frecklington – who’s had to endure her own party’s turmoil of late – called for Queensland’s borders to be opened “early” on dozens of occasions.
Queenslanders can expect to be reminded of this “rashness” from now until the election. The LNP, meanwhile, must identify issues not necessarily coronavirus-related – such as law and order or water security in regional Queensland – to provide it some campaign cut-through.
Notably, for ten of the past 13 years, a woman has been premier of Queensland. Whichever major party wins October’s election, a woman will be leader for (likely) a further four years. With Palaszczuk emphasising – in the face of LNP criticisms – that “the lady’s not for turning” from her border stance, she gives herself every chance to remain that leader.
This week’s federal Newspoll, conducted August 5-8 from a sample of 1,509, gave the Coalition a 52-48 lead, a one-point gain for Labor since the last Newspoll, three weeks ago. Primary votes were 43% Coalition (down one), 33% Labor (down one), 11% Greens (up one) and 4% One Nation (steady). Figures from The Poll Bludger.
68% (steady) were satisfied with Scott Morrison’s performance, and 29% (up two) were dissatisfied, for a net approval of +39, just off Morrison’s record +41 in the last two Newspolls.
Anthony Albanese’s net approval improved two points to +3. Despite these slight movements against Morrison and favouring Albanese, Morrison’s better PM lead widened to 60-25 from 59-26 three weeks ago.
So far the Victorian Labor government is taking the blame for the coronavirus crisis. Three weeks ago, Newspoll polled the ratings of NSW Liberal Premier Gladys Berejiklian and Victorian Labor Premier Daniel Andrews. 57% were satisfied with Andrews and 37% were dissatisfied for a net approval of +20, down 20 points since late June. Berejiklian’s net approval also slid eight points to +34, with 64% satisfied and 30% dissatisfied.
As long as the Victorian government is blamed for the new coronavirus surge, while the federal government escapes blame, it is likely the federal Coalition will maintain its poll lead.
On Sunday, SA Senator Rex Patrick announced he was leaving Centre Alliance and would continue in the Senate as an independent.
After the 2019 election, the Coalition held 35 of the 76 senators, Labor 26, the Greens nine, One Nation two, Centre Alliance two and Cory Bernardi and Jacqui Lambie one each. In January, Bernardi resigned from the Senate, and his seat reverted to the Liberals.
Before Patrick left Centre Alliance, the Coalition’s easiest path to the 39 votes required to pass legislation opposed by Labor and the Greens was to win support from One Nation and one of Centre Alliance or Lambie.
Now the Coalition has an extra option if they win One Nation’s support, needing just one out of Lambie, Patrick or Centre Alliance.
The Queensland election will be held on October 31. A Newspoll, conducted July 23-29 from a sample of 1,000, gave the LNP a 51-49 lead. Primary votes were 38% LNP, 34% Labor, 12% Greens and 11% One Nation.
This poll was branded as Newspoll, but Newspoll is conducted by YouGov. A YouGov poll in early June gave the LNP a 52-48 lead from primary votes of 38% LNP, 32% Labor, 12% Greens and 12% One Nation.
Despite the LNP lead on voting intentions, Labor Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk’s ratings improved from the late June premiers’ Newspoll. 64% (up five) were satisfied with her performance, and 29% (down six) were dissatisfied, for a net approval of +35. Opposition Leader Deb Frecklington was at 34% satisfied, 42% dissatisfied. Palaszczuk led as better premier by 57-26.
Both Palaszczuk and Morrison had great results on handling coronavirus, with Palaszczuk at 81% well, 14% badly and Morrison at 80% well, 17% badly.
This section is an updated version of an article I had published for The Poll Bludger last Friday.
In the FiveThirtyEight poll aggregate, Donald Trump’s ratings with all polls are 41.4% approve, 54.7% disapprove (net -13.3%). With polls of registered or likely voters, Trump’s ratings are 42.0% approve, 54.4% disapprove (net -12.4%). Since my article three weeks ago, Trump’s net approval has improved about two points.
Less than three months before the November 3 election, FiveThirtyEight’s national aggregate has Joe Biden’s lead narrowing to a 49.9% to 42.1% margin over Trump, from a 50.3% to 41.2% margin three weeks ago.
In the key states, Biden leads by 7.8% in Michigan, 7.3% in Wisconsin, 6.0% in Pennsylvania, 5.2% in Florida and 3.6% in Arizona.
On current polling, Pennsylvania is the tipping-point state. If Trump wins all states more favourable for him than Pennsylvania, and Biden wins Pennsylvania and other states that are better for him, Biden wins the Electoral College by 278 Electoral Votes to 260. But the issue for Biden is that Pennsylvania is currently 1.8% more pro-Trump than the national average.
Trump’s gains come despite a coronavirus death toll that has trended up to over 1,000 daily deaths on most days. There have been over 160,000 US coronavirus deaths. However, the daily new cases have dropped into the 50,000’s from a peak of over 78,000 on July 24.
I believe Trump has gained owing to memories of George Floyd’s murder fading, and thus race relations becoming less important to voters. An improving economic outlook could also explain the poll movement.
Despite the coronavirus’ effect on the US economy, Trump’s economic approval is close to a net zero rating according to the RealClearPolitics average. Analyst Nate Silver says real disposable personal income increased sharply in April, contrary to what occurs in most recessions. This increase was due to the coronavirus stimulus, and explains Trump’s better economic ratings.
In the RealClearPolitics Senate map, Republicans lead in 46 races, Democrats lead in 45 and there are nine toss-ups. If toss-up races are assigned to the current leader, Democrats lead by 51 to 49. If Trump’s numbers continue to improve, Republicans are likely to be boosted in congressional races.
Owing to coronavirus, much of the US election will be conducted by mail voting. Trump has been castigating mail voting, and this could depress Republican mail turnout. But there is a danger for Biden and Democrats in Trump’s attacks.
As Cook Political Report analyst Dave Wasserman says, mail votes can be rejected owing to voter error. Also, while there are some states that conduct elections mostly by mail, the US as a whole does not. This means there could be errors such as voters not being sent their ballot papers in time.
If Republicans mostly vote in person, while Democrats mostly vote by mail, it is likely to distort the election night results as mail votes usually take longer to count. Furthermore, mail errors, whether by election officials or voters, are likely to cost Democrats in close races.
If Trump could get within five points in national polls, his advantage in the Electoral College and the mail issue could see him sneak another win.
After the terrible US April jobs report, the last three have indicated a clear recovery trend from coronavirus. In July, 1.8 million jobs were created and the unemployment rate fell 0.9% to 10.2%. The unemployment rate is still high by historical standards, but much better than the 14.7% in April.
Job gains in July slowed from 4.8 million in June and 2.7 million in May. The employment population ratio – the percentage of eligible Americans employed – increased 0.5% in July to 55.1%, but is still over 3% below the 58.2% low reached in the aftermath of the global financial crisis.
On July 28, I wrote for The Poll Bludger that a New Zealand Reid Research poll gave Labour a thumping 61% to 25% lead over the opposition National. A Colmar Brunton poll, released after the Poll Bludger article was published, gave Labour a 53% to 32% lead.