Scott Morrison Josh Frydenburg cash

For a long time the prevailing political orthodoxy was that Scott Morrison had had a good pandemic and only needed to get Australians vaccinated to roll to an easy election win later this year or, less likely, in the first half of next year. After all, every government that had gone to an election since the start of the pandemic had coasted to victory.

The only fly in this particular ointment was that Morrison’s government remained, stubbornly, the only one that continued to poll at level pegging with or even behind the opposition, despite the apparently obvious flaws of Anthony Albanese. Still, who believes polls these days anyway?

Then February arrived and, bit by bit, everything went bad for Morrison. Most particularly, the vaccine rollout.

As of yesterday, we’d just passed 1.9 million vaccinations, nearly a month after we were supposed to reach 1.8 million. Vaccinations via primary care have ramped up to more than 40,000 a day, but the vaccine rollout actually controlled by the Morrison government, for the aged and residential disability care sector, actually slowed down last week, from an average of 4700 a day to fewer than 4000 a day — despite assurances that the rollout to the hitherto-ignored residential disability sector were about to ramp up.

And the Indian outbreak has again focused attention on the government’s refusal to take its quarantine obligations seriously.

All of that piles enormous political pressure on the forthcoming budget, which was originally intended to begin charting the course back to fiscal discipline off the back of an economy performing significantly better than anyone dared hope — due, in part, to the government’s strong fiscal stimulus last year.

Now it has to be a good old-fashioned pre-election spendathon budget, with the government aiming to put out multiple major fires. Consider what’s been announced, dropped ahead of the budget, or which some diligent journalists have ferreted out.

  • More than half-a-billion on distractions from the government’s climate inaction, for hydrogen and the carbon capture scam, plus another $100 million for oceans
  • $10 billion over four years on aged care
  • Multiple media stories about increased childcare subsidies worth $5 billion a year plus further superannuation concessions for women
  • An extension of the low- and middle-income tax offset (LMITO) for another year, costing about $7 billion for one year.

Plus, naturally, whatever extra spending will be needed to expedite the arrival of more vaccines in Australia.

Each of these is to address a problem of the government’s own creation: Morrison’s refusal to take action on climate while the rest of the developed world is ramping up efforts; his government’s failure on aged care during the pandemic (as well as decades of underfunding for the sector by previous governments); the absence of women from the 2020 budget and Morrison’s wretched mishandling of gender and workplace issues in the wake of the Brittany Higgins and Christian Porter allegations; and his tax cuts skewed toward high-income earners that required a political fix to avoid alienating low- and middle-income earners — meaning the government is now stuck with having to retain the LMITO every year or risk a political backlash.

Don’t underestimate the political impact of throwing money at problems. There’s no such thing as a budget bounce, but governments can spend their way out of trouble. John Howard — before Tampa and 9/11 put him in the box seat for the 2001 election — needed to spend billions on the Liberals’ core constituencies to bring them back onside, and in doing so clawed his way back to competitiveness with Kim Beazley’s opposition.

Then again, the same strategy didn’t work for Howard six years later, and his government died projectile-vomiting money in all directions, to no effect. Maybe voters have only a limited appetite for being bribed by governments they think are out of touch.

The worst-case scenario is that the tens of billions in extra spending doesn’t restore the government’s fortunes, and it has to hang on into 2022 and try another, early pre-election budget ahead of a late election. Then we’ll know they’re in real trouble.