Australians have changed their tune on the Morrison government’s handling of the pandemic, a new report finds, as support for Canberra’s approach slips.
The research published on Tuesday by the Australia Institute shows that Australians are increasingly backing the more assertive approach taken by the states, as the federal government’s vaccine program continues to blunder and it faces renewed scrutiny over financial support for lockdown-impacted workers.
The findings come from a paper that analysed voter polling around what level of government they think is doing a better job of managing COVID-19 since August 2020.
It shows that while the states have had strong support since the think tank’s polling began, with 31% saying state governments were doing a good job compared with the federal government’s 25%, the gap has widened over the past few months.
Significantly, the July survey found that only 16% of respondents believe the federal government is outperforming the states, which saw approval ratings surge to 42%.
A quarter of respondents said both levels of government were doing a good job, while 17% were unsure.
Western Australia saw the biggest change in sentiment, with 61% of people saying the McGowan government was doing a good job compared with 11% for the federal government.
The gap was narrower in Victoria where residents are currently undergoing a fifth lockdown, with 34% responding that the Andrews government was doing a good job compared with 25% nominating the federal government.
The survey’s results also show that state border closures remain overwhelmingly popular; 77% of voters remain in favour of the measures.
Across all states, state border closures continue to command strong support, with 40% of people strongly supporting shut borders and only 18% opposing them.
Support for strict border closures remained highest in Western Australia and Queensland.
The polling aligns with outcomes of recent state elections, which have favoured incumbents tasked with managing the approach to the pandemic. WA, Queensland and Tasmania all returned sitting premiers to the top job over the past 12 months.
The paper’s release also comes as the premiers of New South Wales and Victoria clash over the state’s approaches to a new raft of lockdowns, with Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews defending his choice to extend a hard lockdown in the state in contrast to his NSW counterpart Gladys Berejiklian, who has been criticised for delaying lockdown measures.
On Tuesday the NSW government announced 78 new COVID-19 cases, Victoria announced nine and said it was extending its lockdown for an additional seven days, and South Australia announced it would go into a lockdown that will last at least seven days after it recorded five cases of the Delta strain.
Bill Browne, senior researcher in the Australia Institute’s democracy and accountability program, said the pandemic had begun to shift the power dynamic between state and federal governments.
“Australia’s states are sometimes disparaged as relics,” Browne said, “dependent on the federal government, and unnecessary for a country the size of Australia.”
However he said the states and territories had become more prominent on the public stage during the pandemic with “strong, strict and decisive responses,” which have in turn won popularity with the public.
“The unprecedented support for Australia’s premiers is one of the standout stories of the pandemic,” he said.
Browne said the renewed public belief in state governments was a “political opportunity” for the states to take a greater leadership role, including on climate change, federal-state financial arrangements and reform of national cabinet.
“This renewed public belief is a huge political opportunity for our political leaders and community. It represents a once in a lifetime opportunity – the question of course is whether they can take it and what they choose to do with it,” Browne said.