A couple of COVID-19 casualties: The slogans the Coalition has used against Labor

It’s impossible to know whether the temporary changes to our lives brought about by COVID-19 will persist once the pandemic has passed.

It will be fascinating to see if we continue to diligently wash our hands for 20 seconds, swerve around fellow shoppers to maintain social distancing while doing the groceries, or hold virtual coffee dates and dinner parties.

Inevitably, some of our old pre-COVID habits will creep back. We’ll relish our renewed freedom to scratch our noses, sit in the park, go to the beach, and pop into the supermarket at the last minute to buy toilet paper.

There are some things however that are more likely to change than others, particularly in the political world. Here are just three.

Labor’s debt and deficit ‘disaster’

This year’s federal budget, originally scheduled for May, was meant to be the Morrison government’s shining moment, confirming the budget was back in black, thanks to a healthy surplus.

This would have reinforced the frustratingly persistent view in the community (at least from Labor’s perspective) that Coalition governments are always the better economic managers, a view that helped PM Morrison to clinch the federal election in 2019.

‘Debt and deficit disaster’ was the devastating phrase deployed by opposition leader Tony Abbott during the Rudd and Gillard years to constantly remind voters of this perception.

The Treasurer and PM have authorised emergency spending that dwarfs anything Labor initiated to combat the GFC. Photo: AAP

Mr Abbott claimed the $51 billion spent by the Rudd and Gillard governments to save the Australian economy from the global financial crisis was irresponsible and unnecessary. At the time it left the new PM Abbott with a budget deficit of $19 billion and net debt of $153 billion when he won government.

But by comparison, in the face of a global health crisis, Scott Morrison’s Coalition government is spending $213 billion to keep the economy from collapsing, and net debt is expected to hit $507 billion this year – more than three times that inherited by Mr Abbott from Labor – before increasing even more next year.

This turning of the tables essentially destroys ‘debt and deficit disaster’ as a political weapon to be used against Labor. If anyone from the Coalition unwisely tries to deploy it, they should be laughed out of Canberra.

Coalition stopped (some) boats

Similarly, the Coalition is no longer in a position to crow about having ‘stopped the boats’.

Yes, we know the phrase – yet another from the Abbott Handbook – refers to Australia’s Border Force turning back unscheduled maritime vessels from attempts to smuggle asylum seekers to our shores. However, the very same Border Force also reportedly declined to stop the one boat that probably ever posed a real threat to Australia – the Ruby Princess.

The Ruby Princess made a mockery of border protection. Photo: ABC

This debacle makes it highly implausible for the Coalition to ever again boast about stopping the boats, or accuse Labor of being dangerously soft on borders.

Labor’s superiority on health

The federal opposition may benefit from the above two rhetorical weapons being removed from the Coalition’s arsenal, but Labor may emerge from Australia’s COVID-19 phase with a new impediment – it may no longer be viewed as the better party to manage health issues.

Over the past four weeks, Guardian Australia’s Essential Poll has tracked an 18-percentage point improvement in satisfaction with the government’s handling of COVID-19 (to 63 per cent). Even before that spike in approval, Essential had already found that more people (34 per cent) thought the Coalition would be better than Labor (29 per cent) at managing a major health risk.

This would be the logical result of the nation’s health response to the virus being coordinated through the National Cabinet, of which the Coalition PM Scott Morrison is the figurehead. This is despite health being the responsibility of the state and territory governments.

In fact, if there was one thing that should change in Australian politics as a result of the coronavirus, it should be for decision makers to learn from and build on the success of the national cabinet.

Less politics, more goodwill and better coordination may sound like naïve wishful thinking, but national cabinet has shown these ambitions can be achieved.

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