MOSCOW (Sputnik), Jonathan Rowson – Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s approval rating fell to an 18-month low this week, with the ruling coalition now polling neck-and-neck with Labor ahead of the 2022 federal election, as public discontent mounts over the country’s slow COVID-19 vaccine rollout and another round of local lockdowns.
In the survey, which was conducted by Newspoll, 51% of Australians said they were satisfied with the prime minister, down from 55% last month.
Additionally, support for Morrison’s coalition appears to be dwindling, as 53% of respondents said in a two-party preferred vote that they would support Labour, compared to 47% for the coalition.
Despite having registered just over 38,000 cases of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, a fraction of the case totals seen in the United Kingdom or the United States, several states have again been plunged into snap lockdowns as Australia attempts to curb the spread of the highly infectious Delta variant.
Sydney, in the state of New South Wales, has been under lockdown measures for almost seven weeks after cases of the Delta variant were identified.
In spite of the tough restrictions, the state registered 390 new locally acquired cases on Friday, a new single-day record.
© REUTERS / PETER NICHOLLS
Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson greets Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison during an official welcome at the G7 summit in Carbis Bay, Cornwall, Britain, June 12, 2021.
Earlier this week, Victoria state Premier Dan Andrews announced that a stay-at-home order would be extended until at least August 19, as the disease continues to be transmitted locally.
Discontent with the country’s COVID-19 response appears to be building, particularly as Australia’s vaccination programme lags behind other developed countries.
Back in March, when Australia was registering between four and 20 new cases of the disease per day, Morrison used the slogan “it’s not a race” to stress that his government would launch its vaccination programme carefully and safely.
Since then, 14.7 million vaccine doses have been administered in Australia, enough to give two shots to only 29% of the country’s population.
This places Australia 35th out of 38 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development member states when it comes to vaccination coverage.
With the recent surge in cases of the Delta variant, Morrison is now urging his country to “go for gold” as the race for vaccines heats up across the globe.
Australians Frustrated by Slow Vaccine Rollout
Australia’s health regulator has so far approved four COVID-19 vaccines for use: AstraZeneca, Pfizer/BioNTech, Johnson & Johnson, and Moderna.
Canberra initially appeared to put all its hopes on the AstraZeneca vaccine, as according to government data, 53.8 million shots of the vaccine have been secured. This includes 50 million doses manufactured in Australia by the CSL biotech company.
Vaccine production at CSL fell significantly in the summer, from one million doses per week in May to 232,000 in the week beginning 7 June, according to data cited by The Guardian.
As a result, large portions of the Australian population still do not have access to vaccines, given that the available doses are currently being prioritised for frontline health workers and those with disabilities, Matthew Norman, a digital freelance marketer living in South Sydney, told Sputnik.
“If you are over 18, but do not fit into the criteria of disability, healthcare worker, emergency services worker, carer etc., then you are not yet eligible for a vaccine”, Norman remarked.
© REUTERS / STRINGER
Protesters march through the city centre during an anti-lockdown rally as an outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) affects Sydney, Australia, July 24, 2021.
Large portions of the Australian population have been left dissatisfied by the country’s low vaccination rate, Norman noted, adding that many would have liked to have seen the mass vaccination programme launched much earlier than it actually was.
“[The] government didn’t think that getting vaccines into the country and then into arms was important. I’d like to see him justify that to the families of people who have died and tell them ‘it’s not a race’. They lost their race, and maybe they could have still been with their families”, the digital freelance marketer said.
In addition, the Australian government has seemingly had difficulties getting additional supplies of vaccines from abroad.
Back in April, Canberra and Brussels clashed after Australian officials accused their European Union counterparts of blocking shipments of 3.1 million AstraZeneca doses, a claim the EU denied.
As many countries across the globe secured vaccine deals in the summer of 2020, the Australian government only signed an initial agreement for 10 million doses of Pfizer/BioNTech’s vaccine in November, with further agreements being signed this year.
However, Australia has been at the back of the queue as Pfizer/BioNTech prioritised fulfilling orders to customers such as the European Union and the United Kingdom, and, according to media reports, Pfizer doses are in short supply in the country.
This means, according to Norman, that the Australian government can no longer pursue a policy of trying to fully eradicate COVID-19, as has been attempted in New Zealand, where no locally transmitted cases have been registered since February.
“If life is to return to normal (inter-suburb, inter-state and international travel is very high on the agenda of Australian citizens) then the only solution to this is a quicker rollout of vaccines. The only way that eradication could have worked is if every country in the world was heading for the same approach, but they aren’t,” the digital marketing freelancer commented.
© REUTERS / AAP Image/Bianca De Marchi
A member of the public is seen getting a test for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at the Crossroads Hotel testing centre following a cluster of infections in Sydney, Australia, July 16, 2020
The lack of Pfizer vaccines could also have an impact on the number of people coming forward to be vaccinated.
The AstraZeneca vaccine has been publicly linked with the development of rare, potentially deadly blood clot disorders, and 47% of Australians surveyed in an Essential Report poll, published on August 3, said that they would be willing to get the Pfizer vaccine but not the AstraZeneca vaccine.
On the other hand, 14% expressed their total unwillingness to get either vaccine, and 24% said that they would be willing to get either shot.
Despite the media and political furore, a team of researchers from the Netherlands, Spain, and the UK said in a fresh Lancet study published earlier in August that individuals developed blood clot issues after receiving the AstraZeneca vaccine at a “similar” rate to people who received Pfizer/BioNTech shots.
Could COVID-19 Response Lead to Morrison’s Exit?
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s much-lauded COVID-19 response has been viewed as a major reason for her re-election victory this past October. Ardern gained a huge mandate to govern, allowing her to form the country’s first single-party government in more than 20 years.
Australians are set to go to the polls again by May 2022, the deadline for the Morrison government to hold the next federal election, and Labour is continuing to pile the pressure on the leader in an attempt to win back power, John Wanna, an emeritus professor of public administration at the Australian National University (ANU), told Sputnik.
“Morrison has been under sustained attack from the Labour opposition in Parliament and in their press statements for some months now. They are trying to tarnish his image as a no-nonsense leader”, Wanna said.
The Australian opposition has attempted to place responsibility for the country’s sluggish vaccine rollout squarely on Morrison’s shoulders, when in fact much of the blame lies with the state governments, Wanna said.
© REUTERS / POOL
FILE PHOTO: New Zealand Prime Minister Ardern participates in a debate in Auckland
The political expert also said that Morrison should not be blamed for the imposition of local level lockdowns.
“The federal government opposes harsh lockdowns. All the lockdowns we have had have been imposed by state premiers. They claim it is purely on the chief health officer’s advice, but clearly, the premiers are orchestrating the border closures and restrictions on their communities”, Wanna remarked.
The federal government was likely to blame for the failure to secure enough vaccine doses to quickly immunise the country’s population, Wanna noted, adding that “supply issues have been a big part of the problem”.
Australians who work overseas have also expressed disapproval with the country’s new travel rules that require them, if they return home temporarily, to jump through numerous bureaucratic hoops to apply for an exemption to leave the country.
Large numbers of Australians living abroad have decried the tough measures, saying that they will prevent them from returning home to visit family members.
Despite the building dissatisfaction with these new travel rules and the slow vaccine rollout, Morrison likely has enough time to boost his ratings before the May 2022 federal election, the ANU academic said.
“A lot of Labour’s strategy is driven by focus group research, plus a priority is to damage Morrison who pulled off an unexpected victory over them last time in 2019. Having said that, the election is probably nine months away and if things improve by summer (New Year), Labour’s attacks will be less effective”, Wanna said.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison arrives at Haneda airport in Tokyo, Japan, November 17, 2020.
The political expert also said that the leading opposition party will likely be unable to criticise the government over its handling of the economic crisis linked to COVID-19, given the signs of optimism in the Australian economy.
The Australian prime minister has shown an apparent ability to bounce back from polling crises before.
In January 2020, Morrison suffered a massive hit to his personal approval rating as Australia was devastated by a series of unprecedented bushfires, but the prime minister clawed this back through the early part of the pandemic.
As a result, Australia’s political future hangs in the balance, and a clear frontrunner has yet to emerge nine months out from election day.