Support for the prime minister and his government continues to surge, as the public endorses the fragile political consensus that has delivered the successful response to the global health crisis.
Like a scorpion that has trained itself not to strike, the government is thriving politically by throwing away the political playbook.
Working with state governments, civil society and actively engaging the Australian public has fundamentally changed the way people see government, increased public trust and galvanised “Team Australia”.
I have argued previously that much of this success is counterintuitive: the PM has been forced in a crisis to change his modus operandi, expand the pool of advice and influence and put a pause on the culture wars.
But he’s done so with his signature verve and the public has responded by according him his highest ever approval and nominating him as their preferred prime minister by a factor of 2:1 (including a quarter of Labor voters):
That consensus is beginning to fray as the government moves to reopen society and deal with the economic shock that the pandemic has unleashed. Like an internal game of chicken, the government is now forcing itself to resist every temptation to revert to politics as usual.
Schools are emerging as the political flashpoint because interests are beginning to diverge: the federal government wants to start lifting the shackles but the state governments run the systems. The direct funding needs of independent schools only clouds the situation.
In the world of politics as usual, the way to resolve complex issues is to use the media megaphone to define the context on your terms and portray the other side as the enemy of the public interest. That was Tehan’s reflex on Sunday when he let it rip: Victorian premier Daniel Andrews was “taking a sledgehammer to education” that was going to hit the disadvantaged hardest.
Even if it had been delivered with a level of finesse beyond Tehan, it was a risky play. Separate findings in this week’s Essential report show the public strongly split about reopening schools.
But beyond the issue, the school backflip shows the tenuousness of the current consensus and this government’s public standing.
There is a high degree of national unity on the health response, but beyond that, it starts to fragment. A whole series of divisive issues are closing in on the government, not the least the long-term level of unemployment support, a payment likely to be going to a far larger proportion of the population.
The government resisted strong public support for increasing Newstart when it was $40 dollars per day. Now it has doubled that amount, it will be even harder to wind it back, with the vast majority of voters rejecting a return to Newstart.
Then there will be the calls from business to deregulate the labour market, calls from the labour movement to protect local jobs, calls for tax cuts to kickstart the economy and more stimulus to protect jobs and demands from every industry affected to be considered a “special case”. At every turn, the public consensus will be threatened and if it breaks, politics will resume its normal, depressing transmission.
And here’s the twist that was apparent in the Tehan retreat: to maintain support the Scott Morrison needs to keep consensus, not just through the health crisis but through the economic crisis as well.
That would require maintaining the unity cabinet for another 18 months; it would require continuing the deep engagement with civil society from across the spectrum; it would require continuing to take advice from experts (even on climate change) and giving the public credit to act on evidence. It would require pushing back at vested interests and calling a halt to the culture wars.
In short, it would require separating government out from politics and letting elections look after themselves.
If Morrison were really, really ruthless he would see unity as his most potent political weapon and announce he would not be competing in the Eden-Monaro byelection: a Labor minister has resigned due to illness and now is not the time for a partisan fight.
Flying high in the polls and poised to win the first byelection from government in a century: this would be the ultimate scorpion’s dilemma for the PM. But not to strike would entrench his dominance.
• Discuss the results of the latest Guardian Essential Report with Peter Lewis and the Guardian’s Paul Karp in Australia at Home’s Political Geekfest at 1pm on Tuesday