It’s always foolish to make new year predictions — and much the same can be said of new year resolutions. The former invariably turn into false prophecy, the latter frequently fail in the implementation stage.
What can be said of 2021 fairly safely is that Australia faces its most uncertain future for seven decades.
In January 1942, the Pacific War had just begun following Japan’s attack on the US at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii in December 1941. This meant Australia was at war with Nazi Germany and its allies (and had been since 1939) and was now at war with Japan.
The Labor government at the time, led by one-time pacifist and appeaser John Curtin, had no idea what the future would hold and could only prepare for the worst. There was a widespread belief that Japan would attempt to invade Australia.
We now know that was not planned — but it was not understood to be the case at the time.
Moreover, to conquer Australia, a land-based attack is not necessary since the subjugation of the nation can be achieved by interdicting sea and air routes.
In the event, Australia’s short-term future was secured following the victory of the US Navy over Japanese forces at the Battle of Midway in June 1942. The end of hostilities was still three years away but Japan’s military might had been diminished.
Something similar might occur in 2021, in that what looks to be a grim situation might dissipate by mid-year.
However, Australia is dependent on international developments over which it has little, if any, control. The COVID-19 pandemic might be brought under control by a vaccine in the short term or this may not be the case.
As in the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-20, Australia has done well to manage the current virus. This is primarily, but not completely, due to the advantage at times such as these of being an island continent. In addition, Australia is well governed and possessed of a good health system.
Nevertheless, an immigrant nation that trades goods and services on international markets is dependent on the rest of the world. Right now we don’t know the short to medium-term effect of COVID-19 on the economies of Asia, the Americas or Europe with which we trade and from where immigrants, tourists and international students predominantly come.
In view of this, it’s difficult to predict what will be the state of the economy at the end of the year after the expected winding down of the various stimulus packages that were introduced in the first half last year. It’s against this background that the political climate should be judged.
Australian elections are usually fairly close, with the winner picking up about 51 to 52 per cent of the total vote after the distribution of preferences. In view of this, it’s unwise to predict outcomes. However, it makes sense to estimate which political parties have a path to victory.
Right now the Liberal Party’s leadership — with Scott Morrison as Prime Minister and Josh Frydenberg as his deputy — is as stable as it has been since the days of Robert Menzies and Harold Holt in the 1950s and early 60s.
There is tension within the Nationals, the Liberal Party’s Coalition partner. But most Nationals realise that, without being part of the Coalition in government and opposition, they are just another minor party. This suggests that the Coalition will survive and Morrison will not be forced into minority government.
There are several political journalists who will accept a Coalition government provided it is led by someone such as Malcolm Turnbull rather than the likes of Morrison or Tony Abbott.
But the evidence of the 2013 and 2019 elections is that Abbott and Morrison have the ability to hold or win seats in marginal electorates, particularly in Queensland (outside of Brisbane), western Sydney, northern Tasmania and Western Australia.
For most of the time an opposition leader’s lot is not a happy one. Only seven of them have attained government at an election since the end of World War II, namely Robert Menzies (1949), Gough Whitlam (1972), Malcolm Fraser (1975), Bob Hawke (1983), John Howard (1996), Kevin Rudd (2007) and Abbott (2013).
So it’s understandable, especially at a time of pandemic, that Labor leader Anthony Albanese is having trouble getting his message through against the evidently popular Morrison.
As prominent Labor politician Joel Fitzgibbon has pointed out, Albanese’s central problem turns on the fact that Labor’s policies, which appeal to its membership base in the cities, have significantly less appeal in the outer suburbs, regional and rural areas where Labor needs to hold, and preferably win, seats.
Labor’s problem is that it wants to appeal to the inner-city green left and in the process hold off challenges from the Greens in Sydney-based seats such as Grayndler (held by Albanese) and Sydney (held by frontbencher Tanya Plibersek).
This makes Labor less attractive to its one-time support base among mining, agriculture and manufacturing workers and their families.
At issue is what should be Labor’s policies with respect to climate change, rural production, industry and more besides, including social issues.
On available evidence, Labor is losing support among social conservatives, many of whom are religious believers of migrant background.
When the Labor Party splits it usually does so over policy matters and the inability of its leadership to manage disagreement. This was the case when Labor split over conscription for overseas service during World War I, over economic policy during the Depression and over attitudes to communism in the mid-50s. A split in contemporary Labor over policy is unlikely but not impossible.
The Liberal Party also has challenges from the Greens (supported by Labor preferences) in some of its economically well off electorates. But the Liberal Party held its nerve in 2019 as evident when the Treasurer comfortably defeated high-profile Greens candidate Julian Burnside QC in the Melbourne seat of Kooyong.
It’s probably more than a year to the next election and it’s impossible to predict what the international or national economic situation will look like then.
Morrison and his leadership team give the impression that they have been campaigning since election night May 18, 2019. Right now, they have a clear path to victory by repeating, with an aim to building on, the 2019 tactics.
But since elections in Australia turn on economics and the future economic situation is so uncertain, it’s not time for crystal balls. All we know is that we don’t know much at all.