One of the benefits of incumbency over the past year has been the degree of political immunity our leaders enjoyed as they navigated government through unprecedented times.
As Australia confronted the global pandemic, leaders at federal and state levels were able to act and recalibrate so long as they were seen to be following expert health advice and erring on the side of public safety.
The public wanted to believe it could rely on the government for protection in dark times, and so leaders were largely inoculated against the normal cheap hits and “gotchas” of the circus.
Approval of leaders was overwhelming and state governments were returned with resounding majorities. Even during the prolonged Victorian lockdown, support for premier Daniel Andrews didn’t dip below 50%.
But the stalled vaccine distribution program may mark a shift back to normal political transmission, with the federal government facing heightened levels of scrutiny over the way Australia re-engages with the post-Covid world.
We were already in the field with this week’s Guardian Essential Report when the prime minister announced one of the two vaccines the government bet Australia’s reopening on was no longer recommended for people aged under 50. The results were already being analysed when he issued his Sunday night Facebook post that his immunisation deadline was itself DOA.
But the tide on the government’s custodianship of the crisis already seemed to be turning, with responses to a series of questions showing frustration at the speed of vaccine rollout and a decreasing willingness to accept that the blame for shortcomings lies elsewhere.
More than half of respondents say the distribution is occurring more slowly than they would like, while 20% say the speed of the rollout is too fast. Just 19% say they are happy with the current pace. Of those who are concerned that things are moving too slowly, it’s the federal government who is considered most to blame.
Public expressions of concern from GPs, aged care providers and the disability sector on access to priority jabs, poor communication and lack of planning is compounding the sense that the government is floundering with vaccine distribution.
In separate questions, there is net support for the statements “the slower than expected rollout indicates that the federal government is not doing as good a job as they claimed” (48% agree, 25% disagree); and “the federal government needs to step up and take more responsibility for ensuring Australians are vaccinated against Covid-19 as quickly as possible” (56%, 17% disagree).
To be fair, the government is right to claim that the concerns with the AstraZeneca vaccine are not its fault, but in choosing not to diversify the vaccine sources, the government has opened itself to the risk of underdelivery.
Where Australia was seen as being ahead of the world in containing the virus, we risk becoming a global laggard when it comes to the dismount. Like so much of the PM’s woes, the upbeat announcements that Australia would be at the front of the pack have become a rod for his back.
It is true that people are not sweating on access to the vaccine for themselves or their parents and Australians having taking succour from the success of the lockdown. But there is a sense in this week’s findings that the extended national staycation is beginning to drag.
Until the vaccine program has been completed, a majority of people (57%) say they see little value in the voucher program to encourage interstate travel, as they would be nervous to book a trip.
While the vaccination is an important public health measure, it is more than that: it has also become a critical plank of economic policy, a condition precedent for the reopening of borders and the movement of people that underpin becalmed sectors of the economy.
And it touches nearly every decision government is now making as people face a less secure economic future as jobkeeper and jobseeker wind back.
One third of respondents think the reduced payment will affect them personally, a majority are worried about the economic flow-on effects and two-thirds expect business to fail. Pointedly, a majority say the payment should continue until the vaccine program has been rolled out.
That’s the real problem the government now faces. With no vaccine timeline, there is no roadmap to reopening the economy, and that lack of a plan is no longer seen as an act of God – it is the result of clear choices.
People accept that there are still elements outside the government’s control, but these numbers suggest they are seeking a level of a deeper responsibility when it comes to the decisions it is now making.
As for the opposition parties, having been forced to take their medicine and fall in behind the government over the past 12 months, now is the time to start, eh, needling the government with a few well-directed jabs.
Over the next 12 months, there will be increasing pressure on the government to return to something resembling the world that was. But when it comes to political accountability, it feels like we are already back there.