Oz election 2022: Covid, climate and China
21 Feb 2022|

Big international issues shape a nation’s domestic equations.

And so the Australian election to be held by 21 May will be shaped by pandemic, decarbonisation and geopolitical rivalry.

Covid, climate and China are problems so big as to be obvious; you’re entitled to a cynical, ‘No kidding, Sherlock!’ Yet the big three are shapeshifters, as the international merges with the domestic.

Covid-19 is a global event of such encompassing magnitude that it becomes a totally domestic issue for the voters who will pass judgement on Scott Morrison’s government and Anthony Albanese’s opposition.

Relative to the rest of the world, Australia performed brilliantly: the second lowest Covid death rate in the OECD; 94% of Australians aged over 16 now double-dose vaccinated. With lots of missteps and mishaps along the way, our state and federal system adapted and delivered.

The polls, though, say the domestic reckoning is harsh.

Rather than using international comparisons, the vote on the pandemic will be on domestic competence. ScoMo has to banish SlowMo, the view that he’s too often a yard short and a minute late.

The Labor–Liberal fight of ScoMo versus Albo will be also a contest between ScoMo and SlowMo (aided by ScareMo).

The prime minister needs a blinder of a federal budget on 29 March and then much to go right when the formal campaign launches.

At the 2019 poll, Morrison delivered a ‘miracle’ win by making the dangers of the Labor opposition the key question. ScareMo will again promise safety in dangerous times. But the SlowMo bogey hurts the reassurance message. The 2022 poll takes us back to a basic of Oz politics—the vote is for or against the sitting government.

Climate change and China will play differently compared to 2019: then the government’s scare campaign with an international flavour was climate; this time it’s China.

Morrison now talks about ‘decarbonisation’ as a positive not a negative. That word ‘decarbonisation’ started to slip into the prime minister’s public utterances in 2021.

As treasurer, Morrison took a chunk of coal into the House of Representatives in 2017 and taunted Labor: ‘This is coal, don’t be afraid.’ He still loves coal, but in the decades ahead the carbon love affair must be remade. The Morrison version of the road to the net-zero future was well expressed in June with the ‘Japan–Australia partnership on decarbonisation through technology’.

Shifting language is how politicians point the way. John Howard preferred ‘climate change’ to ‘global warming’ to take the heat out of the issue. In today’s political vocabulary, ‘decarbonise’ is a verb demanding profound change.

The Liberals can’t wedge Labor as hard on climate policy—the two parties are standing as close together on the issue as they have in 15 years.

The political difference, according to the Libs, is that they’ll get us to zero-net emissions by tech while Labor loves taxes; it works as a debating point rather than an answer.

For the Libs, a carbon tax is taboo; for Labor, it’s toxic.

By saying ‘decarbonisation’, Morrison at least faces the taboo. The logic of economically efficient decarbonisation is to make clear the cost and set the price. Tax is taboo and toxic for this election. When Australia faces the need for a carbon tax in the years ahead, it’ll edge towards a serious think about broader tax reform, a discussion we’ve avoided for decades.

In these election months, the questions will be about what decarbonisation means for my job and my family and my industry and my neighbourhood. And as the domestic fuses with the international, the questions become the geopolitics of climate and security in the Indo-Pacific and the future of the planet. Tough themes to cram into a slogan.

Morrison offered a campaign glimpse in his January ‘state of the world’ speech, listing five political, economic and technological changes, all accelerating: the digital economy, the need for skills and training, hyper-globalisation and supply chains, decarbonisation (yep, ‘decarbonisation’ was the word he used), and ‘sharper geopolitical competition’.

Jagged geo-jostling is what the voters have been watching for a while.

In the 2019 election, the big chill with China had just set in. Three years on, we’ve hit permafrost.

The relationship has changed because China has changed. The Indo-Pacific has understood hard messages from Xi Jinping. Quad 2.0 had two leaders’ summits last year and AUKUS was born in September. Fear of China’s ‘repression and aggression’ might just be enough to forge a new world order.

After the Quad foreign ministers’ meeting in Melbourne, Michael Shoebridge saw a sense of ‘common, positive purpose’, a contrast with ‘the last five years, when China had seemed to have the momentum’.

This is a foreign affairs stoush with significant domestic dimensions, as set out in ASPI’s new report on China’s influence in our states and territories, city councils, universities, research organisations and non-government organisations.

Australia hasn’t flinched at Chinese trade coercion, and the five-year decline in Australians’ views of China has hit a record low. Election stress now strains the bipartisan Labor–Lib unity ticket on facing China.

Being strong on security and alliance is a government vote-winner, and that means painting the opposition as weak. ScoMo became ScareMo to argue that China prefers Albo.

Trouble is, ScareMo got pushback from Canberra’s wise owls, pecked by the head of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, Mike Burgess, and savaged by Dennis Richardson, former head of the Department of Defence, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and ASIO, who sees no Lib–Labor division on China.

Richardson’s scornful disdain was masterful, with anger expressed as puzzled sorrow: ‘Why would any sensible government seek to create circumstances which could work against our own national interests, for party political purposes? It is a long, long time—many decades—since we have seen a government do this. And it’s dangerous. And it’s best avoided.’

In May’s election, a China scare campaign could scare away the votes of Chinese Australians who will have a large say in deciding crucial seats in Sydney and Melbourne. In a piece headed ‘Coalition facing a Chinese burn’ on 12–13 February, The Australian reported Liberal fears that the government faces a backlash from Chinese Australians because of ‘empathy for their mother country, if not communism’. The threat of such voter punishment saw the prime minister and minister for multicultural affairs front a special briefing for Australia’s Chinese media on 8 February.

Setting up for the election, the federal budget will have Covid-19 at its centre, while climate and strategic rivalry will do framing duty.

If we’re smart and lucky, this will be one of the federation’s rare pandemic elections (following the Spanish flu election in December 1919). Covid might be an electoral one-hit wonder—not on the horizon in 2019, a decisive factor in this poll, and something we’re living with three years from now.

By contrast, decarbonisation and strategic competition are generational. They’ll be with us for many elections to come.