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The Covid-19 pandemic transformed Australian society and the world seemingly overnight. But suddenly politics looks very different too. The virus effectively wiped the political slate and took all kinds of pressing issues off the agenda. At the same, time major Government messages displayed a kind of bipartisanship perhaps reserved only for times of true crisis. On this episode of Seriously Social renowned political journalist and academic Michelle Grattan shares how the virus has changed Australian politics and industrial relations and how it might change the landscape into the future.


Ginger Gorman:    Hello there. You are listening to Seriously Social. This is the podcast where we use the lens of the social sciences to help us consider how COVID-19 is impacting Australian society, our relationships, human connections and societal structures. We get experts from the social sciences to delve into all those nagging pandemic questions, whether it’s aspects of your own life that you’re wondering about or perhaps queries about the wider community.

And before we dig right in, may I just say that our next guest is sitting in a busy newsroom and you may hear a little bit of background noise.

With me on the program now is political journalist, Michelle Grattan. Michell has been a member of the Canberra Parliamentary Press Gallery for more than 40 years. She’s a Professorial Fellow at the University of Canberra and Chief Political Correspondent at The Conversation website and a Fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia.

Michelle, thank you so much for joining me.

Michelle Grattan:  Hi, Ginger. It’s a pleasure.

Ginger:                  Michelle, how had COVID-19 transformed Australian politics?

Michelle:               It has transformed it amazingly and at many levels. We’ve seen the hyperpartisanship that’s characterised in a very negative way Australian politics in recent years really disappear. Now, that’s not to say there’s not some partisanship and as we move through this crisis and move to the other side, that partisanship is re‑emerging. But it is not the sort of destructive partisanship that we saw before.

And of course, we’ve seen other issues completely pushed to the side during this crisis. The whole national debate, the preoccupation of the public is on what’s to be done, how great the threat is, how do you mete it, how serious the health threat was likely to be, and of course, we’re not completely through that yet, but we’ve done very well on it. But now, how to deal with the economic threat.

So, really, this has just galvanised the attention of decision makers, federal and state and of the community. And of course, it’s changed structures too. We’ve seen the emergence of the National Cabinet, which is federal and state leaders. And they’ve been meeting constantly, a little less frequently at the moment, and they’ve acted in a very united way, which has also embraced and allowed for differences within that unity and that’s why that structure has worked. And of course, it’s now going to be enshrined in a long-term sense.

Ginger:                  Michelle, I just want to go back to what you said and split these two things that you’ve mentioned into two almost. Let’s first of all talk about the idea of bipartisanship. This is something that many people have complained about in Australian politics for a long time and some commentators have said it’s led to apathy. Could this moment in history possibly be a positive thing in that we’re not going to see so much senseless bickering into the future?

Michelle:               I think it’s very hard to say how things will work out in five years or 10 years, whether when we put this behind us, things will return to that degree of partisanship. I think we have to also distinguish between what I’ve called hyperpartisanship and the question of partisanship.

Of course, in a democratic system, we are going to have partisan debates. That’s what democracy is all about. And if everyone agreed, you’d question the extent to which we had democracy.

Ginger:                  Yes.

Michelle:               But as you say, if trivial arguments dominate and often descend into little more than slanging matches and name calling, it is very hard to get decent policy and it does, I think, annoy the hell out of the community. And that’s what we had for quite a long time.

Ginger:                  I’ve got to say, Michelle, as a punter, it’s almost been a relief to have the lid lifted on that kind of endless bickering that you sometimes get when you tune into parliament.

You said something else really interesting there that pushing COVID aside for a second, we’ve seen all these other issues pushed off the agenda, things like religious freedom, indigenous recognition, anticorruption. There was a whole lot of stuff before the pandemic that was very much in the public conversation, which has evaporated.

Michelle:               Well, that’s right and it’s not quite clear what’s going to happen to those issues. For example, I think that there’s no chance now that we’ll see the referendum on indigenous recognition, which certainly the Minister, Ken Wyatt, had hoped to run in his term. It was always, I thought, a bit of a longshot that there would be enough agreement to put a referendum forward with a reasonable chance of success, but now that’s really gone.

And as for religious freedom, well, that legislation was probably more trouble, frankly, to the Government than it was ever worth. And so, if that disappears, it won’t matter much. Whether it will disappear for good is another matter. But certainly, no one’s talking about these issues at the moment.

Ginger:                  Is this a concern though where we’re seeing some things, like the robodebt almost mentioned in passing and the crisis is being used to mask certain issues, if you like.

Michelle:               Well, as for the robodebt, I think that that is being given attention. And the fact that it was such a problem really caused the Government to say, “Well, let’s give all the money back. Let’s not argue about this.” And of course, that was prompted by the court action.

So, I don’t think that the robodebt will be something that’s forgotten. I think it will be regarded as a really bad program and a total overreach and that the Government has rightly got its comeuppance on this.

Ginger:                  Although a cynic might say, Michelle, that a good crisis can be helpful to the incumbent government. Is that what’s happening here? Do you think it has actually presented itself as a kind of opportunity to the Morrison Government?

Michelle:               Well, it is an opportunity, but whether the Government can take maximum advantage of that opportunity is another matter because there are all sorts of difficulties in doing so. Now, clearly, the prime minister wants to try to get some reform out of this very bad situation and get some positive aspects. He’s talking industrial relations and he’s set up a process there.

And it has meant that because the Government and the employers and the unions have had to talk through this crisis and have been brought together in a compulsory sort of way by circumstances, there is some opportunity to make progress on certain issues. But how far they will get on those issues is another matter. There are all sorts of ambit claims floating about.

Now, on other issues, like tax reform, again, there’s pressure to do something. There’s a desire by the Government to do something, but actually translating that desire, that seizing of the opportunity into hard outcomes to landing real reform is something that’s much harder than just aspiring to it.

Ginger:                  I read your really interesting article on The Conversation website about how Christian Porter, the Industrial Relations Minister, and Sally McManus from the ACTU have had this strange blossoming of their relationship. What can you tell us about what that might mean?

Michelle:               Well, they are the odd couple. There’s no doubt about that. Christian Porter, of course, in his former life, a state prosecutor, he’s quite legalistic often in much of his language and approach. Sally McManus had been seen as the industrial militant when she came in and gave an interview saying that people should be able to break bad laws or that she condoned people breaking what she saw as bad laws. Peter Dutton called her a lunatic and the Government was really hyperventilating.

Anyway, during the crisis, both Porter and McManus obviously had roles to play as certain immediate industrial relations changes came in for the course of the pandemic and they found they got on quite well. And they have built a relationship of trust, I think, because they are both straight talkers in private because they feel that there are some changes that can be made and some areas of agreement that can be achieved. And they see the benefit of translating this situation into longer-term advantage for the industrial relations system.

Now, again, I would stress that this shouldn’t be exaggerated. There will be limits to this. But it is an example of two people with quite different points of view and quite different politics, obviously, being able to say, “Well, where do we agree? Where do we disagree? What can we get out of this that’s going to be useful for our respective constituencies?”

Ginger:                  If we just zoom out for a minute, Michelle, and look at the broader picture, how do you think this might affect Morrison’s government perhaps in the next election because often we see that a crisis actually is favourable to the incumbent government, if they handle it well. And by all accounts, Morrison perhaps didn’t handle the bushfires so well, but has been doing a pretty good job at keeping this pandemic under control, especially in contrast to other countries, like Brazil and the United States.

Michelle:               We’ll get one real-time tested. This of course in the Eden-Monaro by-election, which is coming out in early-July. And there you have quite an interesting situation because that’s bushfire territory. So, people down in Eden-Monaro were very critical as we saw with them not wanting to shake the prime minister’s hand and so on, of his performance there. On the other hand, as you say, we’ve had this good handling of the pandemic.

For the longer term, it’s not easy at this point to make that judgement because I think that the attention now will be on how the economy comes back and the extent to which the economy does come back, the speed of that, if we still have high unemployment by the time of the next election, then that’s difficult for the Government.

So, we are quite a long way, of course, from the election. Early-2022 is the due date. It could be late-2021, but a lot can happen in that time. So, the prime minister is well set up at the moment and I think if there was an election today, there’s no doubt that he’d win it and probably win it handsomely. And there’s no doubt that Labor and Anthony Albanese are having trouble cutting through. But there’s a long way to go.

Ginger:                  And I saw that you were reporting Morrison talking about getting the economy out of ICU. So, the Government obviously does have intentions to try and move this on quite fast and almost kickstart the economy again now.

Michelle:               Well, that’s right. And while it’s said that he doesn’t want to extend or broaden its JobKeeper package, it’s obviously producing additional measures for particular sectors, for the housing industry, for the arts. And I think tourism too, quite clearly will come. So, it is throwing quite a lot of money out there.

Of course, it saved quite a lot of money or not having to spend the money due to the miscalculation of the JobKeeper program, which was out by some $60 billion, which leaves a lot of leeway. It doesn’t want to spend anything like that, but it does have a few billion up its sleeve to put out to particular industries. And it has shown itself willing to do what it takes to try and get the economy going as fast as possible.

Ginger:                  One of the other fellows of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia, Professor Richard Holden, commented in one of our other episodes of Seriously Social that in fact, the Government had acted very fast to stop the economy kind of spiralling out of control and that, really, the Government had implemented some fiscal policies, which seemed more like left-wing Labor policies than of a conservative government. But he actually applauded the Government’s measures. How would you respond to this issue?

Michelle:               I think the Government did absolutely the right thing. Its whole idea was to keep the workforce as far as possible connected to the businesses they worked for. And I think that that was a sound program, a sound concept. It did take a little while for it to reach the conclusion that wage subsidies were the way to go. It resisted that initially, but then thought that this would prop up the economy as much as you could and then get it back to functioning as quickly as possible.

Yes, of course, it does go against the liberal approach and it’s notable that some of the Government supporters on the right were swallowing very hard when this idea and program was put forward. They didn’t like it at all and there have been criticisms from the right that the whole health threat was exaggerated, that the Government spent too much, that it overreacted and so on.

But of course, the thing is, just taking the claim of the exaggeration of the health threat that if the Government had not acted so strongly with shutting down things, not that it shut everything down, but to shut down what it did shut down, then the health situation could have got massively out of control very rapidly.

So, it is interesting that after this is over, the criticism might be not just from the right, but others too that the Government in economic terms did more than it had to do. We don’t know that yet, but that could be the criticism. If so, it would be an absolute repeat, of course, of what happened when Kevin Rudd’s government put in a very large stimulus package, or two of them, but the second one was very large. Nothing like we’re seeing now, but still large in its time and what did the coalition say? They said, and they’ve been saying for a decade or more, “You did too much. You spent too much.” Well, everything seems to happen twice.

Ginger:                  You mentioned there the bushfires. And I just want to dig into that a little bit more with you. What do you think Morrison learnt from the fires that allowed him to respond to the pandemic in such a different way? He seemed to pivot very fast.

Michelle:               I think he learnt that you had to act quickly when you faced a crisis situation. Now, with the fires, he thought it was okay to go overseas to take a holiday because that had been planned and he didn’t anticipate either that things would get as bad as they did in terms of the fires or that people would react so strongly against him when he appeared not to be behaving as a national leader should. So, in personal terms, he gained some political sensitivity, some savviness, I think.

In terms of political structures, and this is quite important, he concluded during the bushfires that the states had the power. The Commonwealth really didn’t have a lot of direct power. So, when it came to the pandemic where this question of power distribution was actually much more important because it covered a whole range of things and more states, he did set up this new structure, which I mentioned earlier of the national cabinet, which dealt with this question that the states actually had the power and the commonwealth didn’t have a lot of formal power.

So, he dealt the Commonwealth into the whole political situation, the decision-making situation in a more direct way and he brought the states together to get at least maximum consistency of measures. Now, there wasn’t consistency. The borders, for example, [was one of the] differences. But there was consistency to the greatest extent that it could be achieved. And I think that was what he learnt out of the bushfires and it meant that he’s dealt with this crisis in a much better way in structural terms.

Ginger:                  And we have actually seen a remarkable amount of cohesion especially when you, say, compare the way that the crisis was handled in the United States. Mainly, we saw state and territory leaders in a very strong, forceful way coming out with consistent messages, which is obviously why we’ve managed to keep the pandemic so under control.

Michelle:               Well, that’s right and, of course, there are number of reasons for that. You’ve got a fewer states, but also, you’ve got a less fractured political system. We talked about partisanship and hyperpartisanship before. And of course, we often see … state divisions and fights over all sorts of things, but I think compared to the United States, and especially in a crisis, you see the inherent unity in our federalism where in the United States, you just see it all over the shop, really. So, in terms of the way leaders behave, governments behave and the community cohesion, I think you’re looking at two very different situations.

Ginger:                  Michelle, I’m going to let you go in just a moment, but before I do that, how do you think this pandemic is going to affect politics into the future?

Michelle:               I think, in the next year or so, it will keep the debate very much focused on job creation, the problems of particular sectors trying to get things back to normal, trying to define what that normal is in our current climate will depend on how things evolve overseas too in both economic terms and in health terms.

The huge question will be when the Australian borders can be opened, the national borders and how that is done, what sort of conditions are put on people coming in. And flowing from that will be what happens, well, most immediately, of course, to our education export industry with the question of the students, but also to our immigration program. We’ve had huge numbers of people coming in, both permanent migrants and temporary workers, and that’s now not happening. Well, that has a lot of flow-through effects. So, how is that all going to work out in the next two or three years?

So, I think that these non‑core economic issues will continue to be pushed to the side. They’ll come back to an extent, but I think that the attempt to return the country to prosperity, how long that takes, what form that prosperity takes will be the dominant political issue in the next one to possibly more years to come.

Ginger:                  Thank you so much for your time.

Michelle:               Thank you very much, Ginger.

Ginger:                  Thanks again for listening to Seriously Social. If you like what you’re hearing, don’t forget to subscribe, share our podcast with your friends and on your social channels and rate us wherever you get your podcasts from.

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