(Image: Tom Red/Private Media)

It’s the first day back at school for our politicians and despite the shadow of the pandemic hanging over parliament, there will still be room for the usual playground antics.

No, not even COVID-19 can stop the scandals and Muppet Show theatrics of our current cabinet.

We’ve already had an early taste, with Peter Dutton attacking Western Australia’s lockdown only to have the PM contradict him within hours.

With the polls still close and the Canberra press gallery still seizing on them, we’re also set for an interminable year of early election speculation.

The government will continue with disingenuous denials, the opposition will continue scrambling to be on war footing, and the media will continue to see everything through the prism of what it means for the polls.

The first Newspoll of the year on Monday — with the two parties tied on 50-50 despite Morrison’s strong edge as preferred PM — was a stark reminder that the government’s seemingly unassailable electoral position is based on a one-seat majority.

Federal Liberal sources are already sounding concerns about the numbers they are seeing in Queensland, where the strong performance in 2019 was key to their upset win and will be difficult to maintain. Hence the recent flurry of photo ops of the PM in Queensland.

ALP leadership speculation is shaping up as another focus, although it’s unlikely to amount to much right now. Bill Shorten’s recent pot-shot about Labor’s “tiny” policy agenda already looks dated given the government’s virtually non-existent one.

The PM has actually been upfront about that, announcing that the priority is COVID. The tone was set yesterday, with the prime minister’s National Press Club speech. It was a classic Scotty From Marketing exercise: lots of spin without much substance.

His comments that he wanted to get Australia to net-zero emissions “preferably by 2050” were hailed by some as “his strongest formulation to date”. But that’s not saying much given he is coming off a very low, barely discernible base.

Elsewhere it was more of the mealy-mouthed responses we have seen from the PM of late. On Craig Kelly’s dangerous COVID misinformation, Morrison smart-arsed that “he is not my doctor and he’s not yours”. That stood in stark contrast to the earnest statesmanlike image he wants to project for the upcoming COVID election — one which will be all about the jabs.

How the government handles the vaccine rollout is the big unknown this year. But they will be buoyed by the Essential poll in The Guardian this morning showing two thirds of Australians have faith that the vaccine will be rolled out efficiently and safely.

Of course, the pressure will be on to live up to that confidence and any errors will be judged harshly.

The other big unknown outside the government’s control is the shaky global economy. Our fortress mentality on COVID might not be enough to weather the inevitable downturn no matter how well our economy is performing at the moment. Much will depend on the fallout when JobKeeper is finally totally withdrawn in March.

All the government can hope is that we continue to look better than the rest of the world. It could well be the 2021 election slogan.