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How COVID infected the election

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If not for the pandemic, it is possible that the most spectacular of these campaigns – Monique Ryan’s victory over Josh Frydenberg in Kooyong – would have never gotten off the ground.

It was during one of Melbourne’s lockdowns that University of Melbourne politics professor Ann Capling started holding Zoom meeting with the other women who formed the nucleus of Voices of Kooyong. These were women determined to do something purposeful in lockdown. Instead of making sourdough, they took on a baked two-party system.

“We could see the two-party system was in decline,” says former ALP campaign strategist Kos Samaras, whose RedBridge Group provided polling to the teal campaigns. “The pandemic simply accelerated it. It made people less tolerant of the bullshit on both sides. They just went bang.”

Independent Monique Ryan basks in the glow of a successful election campaign in Kooyong.Credit:Luis Enrique Ascui

When they thought their government wasn’t serious – whether because it didn’t secure enough vaccines quickly enough, didn’t anticipate the rush on rapid antigen tests or, more recently, because the prime minister spent six weeks indulging in campaign stunts for the TV cameras – they reacted savagely.

Frydenberg rejects the idea that the pandemic was a cause of his government’s demise and, potentially, the end of his political career.

“I don’t think you could draw that conclusion from the election result, about being a pandemic result,” he said. “I think people understand that the federal government pulled out all stops.”

Morrison in his concession speech linked the disruption and unhappiness associated with the pandemic to the disruption in our national politics.

Outgoing Prime Minister Scott Morrison is embraced by his wife, Jenny, after conceding defeat.

Outgoing Prime Minister Scott Morrison is embraced by his wife, Jenny, after conceding defeat.Credit:Mark Baker

“This has been a time of great upheaval over these past few years,” he said. “And it has imposed a heavy price on our country and on all Australians. And I think Australians have felt that deeply.

“We’ve seen in our own politics a great deal of disruption, as the way people have voted today, with the major parties having one of the lowest primary votes that we have ever seen. That says a lot, I think, about the upheaval that has taken place in our nation. I think it is important for our nation to heal.”

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The truth is most likely somewhere between Frydenberg’s and Morrison’s positions. To pinch a line from former prime minister Julia Gillard: the pandemic doesn’t explain everything, nor does it explain nothing.

Sources with knowledge of the Frydenberg campaign says his internal polling tanked at two critical junctures. The first was November last year, when Morrison travelled to Glasgow with a begrudging commitment for Australia to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. The second was at the start of this year, when summer holidays were cruelled by COVID, a shortage of RATs and not enough people to pour beers and make takeaway coffee in coastal towns.

Both of these frustrations were coloured by our pandemic experience.

“People were not watching Netflix,” Huntley says. “They were working really hard to hold it together; educate their kids and look after their community. People got organised and got serious.”

When they perceived their government wasn’t serious, the reaction was visceral.

Reed says there is another way that the COVID crisis shaped Saturday’s result. When a nation has upended how it lives and works to endure a once-in-a-century pandemic, it has less reason to fear change.

The government warned that electing independents to parliament would result in chaos.

Whether it does or not, we have all seen worse.

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