The month of May saw the Treasurer hand down his third Budget.
It was a big-spending statement that sought to neutralise trouble areas for the government while offering handouts to myriad interest groups. Gone was the mantra of previous Coalition Government of ‘reducing debt and deficit’ and ‘running budget surpluses’, leaving many commentators to conclude that the Morrison Government is clearing the decks for an early election in late 2021.
Although Newspoll still has the Opposition marginally ahead on a two-party-preferred basis, the current environment is fertile ground for incumbent governments. The Queensland, Western Australian and Tasmanian Governments have all been either comfortably or decisively re-elected, while even the scandal-plagued New South Wales Government received a swing towards it in a recent by-election. After a rocky start to 2021, the Government would want a calm and steady couple of months to accompany the Budget before it opts to head to an early poll.
Meanwhile, the prolonged lockdown in Victoria is giving rise to fresh calls for JobKeeper or a similar scheme to be reinstated. Yesterday it was revealed that the Federal Government would provide a support payment of $500 per week for people who have been unable to work during the state’s lockdown. To be eligible, a worker must demonstrate that they have lost shifts directly because of the lockdown and have exhausted their leave entitlements. In addition, an applicant must have fewer than $10,000 in savings and if they work fewer than 20 hours per week the payment is tapered down to $325 a week.
The Prime Minister and Treasurer are reluctant to provide extensive financial support for three reasons: first they’re concerned about adding to the enormous sum of money already spent during COVID; secondly, in their eyes, they believe the Victorian lockdown is due largely to the state not having a stronger contact tracing system similar to New South Wales; and thirdly they’re concerned that reinstating JobKeeper would encourage other state governments to pursue unnecessary lockdowns that are a drag on the economy. On the other hand, the Victorian Government argued that they’re simply trying to avoid a repeat of what the state (in particular Melbourne) endured last winter and that the slow rollout of the vaccine has given them no other choice.
Either way, what is clear is that the pandemic is still far from over. Until a sufficient number of Australians are vaccinated, the threat of lockdowns and restrictions on day-to-day life will remain. The Federal Government would no doubt see a speeding up of the vaccine rollout as a priority moving forward. Not only does it assist in transitioning more quickly to a post-pandemic way of life, but it will also provide political cover should any further state government opt for the lockdown path in the future. Bottom line is that COVID-19 will continue to dominate the political landscape for some time to come.