If the word of 2020 was ‘unprecedented’, there’s probably more than a few people hoping to see 2021 be a little more predictable.
‘Normal’, or even ‘COVID normal’, might be some way off – but when it comes to Australian politics, for better or worse, this year will likely be more regular and formulaic.
The year 2020 saw the federal Coalition government flip (albeit temporarily) from penny-pinching frugality into big-spending socialist mode, pouring money into welfare, wage subsidies and child care before quickly flipping the switch to “snapback”.
Parliament saw potentially the most constructive and least oppositional opposition in recent memory in Labor, as Anthony Albanese largely put aside petty politics to rubber stamp the government’s crucial health and economic bulwarks.
Politicians contracted COVID, Zoomed into the chamber via video, and sang songs about washing their hands.
But in 2021, the stage is already set for politicians to return to the old classics, with brewing fights on industrial relations and climate change, and potential leadership change on the horizon.
Heck, we might even get another federal election.
Here’s what to look out for next year.
Industrial relations fight
Christian Porter’s omnibus industrial relations bill sets up yet another bare-knuckle brawl on workers’ rights v bosses’ rights, which is likely to dominate at least the early stages of 2021.
The government has framed the situation as pesky “red tape”, such as overtime pay and different rates of casual pay being an impediment to post-pandemic job growth; Labor says giving employers an easier path to cut workers’ pay during a pandemic is bonkers.
The unions have signalled they’re up for a big fight on this, flagging strikes and saying “nothing is off the table”.
Labor flat out rejected the bill in its current form, arcing up over a clause thrown in at the last minute that could sideline the Better Off Overall Test (BOOT), a crucial safeguard to stop employers paying below legal minimum conditions.
Australian politics loves an IR fight, and this has the potential to spark the kind of bitter brawls not seen since WorkChoices or the Waterfront dispute. Strap in, this will be large.
The perennial issue of the past decade and a half is set to rear its ugly head again. Many questions linger.
Will Scott Morrison commit to net-zero emissions by 2050, like all our major partners have?
Will Anthony Albanese commit to a 2030 target, which he’s resisted so far? Will the bombs lobbed by maverick Labor MP Joel Fitzgibbon, who spectacularly quit as a shadow minister over his disdain for the party’s climate policy, force the ALP into softening its stance?
And the wildcard, how will a new US President Joe Biden influence Australia’s climate plan?
Mr Biden, who has committed to making climate a central focus of his presidency, is recommitting the United States to net zero, leaving Australia as a global pariah on that scene.
The incoming POTUS is also pushing other nations to harden their environmental ambitions through a series of international summits on the issue.
Mr Morrison has repeatedly told he won’t be wavered by other leaders – “our policies … won’t be set in any part of the world other than here”, he said in October.
But even since Mr Biden’s election, Australia quietly shelved its plan to use dodgy Kyoyo ‘carry-over credits’ to meet emissions goals.
With the devastating Black Summer bushfires only a year ago, the spectre of climate change and what it does still looms heavy over Australia.
It’s an issue that we need to resolve, as soon as possible.
Much of Australian politics will roll on from COVID and back into normal business, but the distribution of our virus vaccines will be an unbelievably key issue in 2021.
The government has continually set out a timetable of first doses in March and nationwide inoculation by October, and with logistics around distribution and supply being gradually locked in, things seem on track.
But questions remain over how many of the three COVID vaccines Australia currently has supply deals for – AstraZeneca/Oxford, Pfizer and Novavax – will actually be approved by our Therapeutic Goods Administration, and when.
Additionally, decisions on which people would get which type of vaccine, if more than one is approved, are still being made.
Mr Albanese stirred the pot this week when he lit a fire under the government and the TGA, calling for the Pfizer vaccine to be approved faster and rolled out ahead of schedule.
That candidate is currently being administered in the United Kingdom and US, after those countries gave emergency authorisation in the face of spiralling COVID emergencies.
But in Australia, where the virus has been effectively eradicated, we are taking it slower and doing more checks.
The TGA will work through the festive period to do further safety checks on the various vaccines, but don’t be surprised if the speed of the vaccine rollout becomes a major political issue in 2021.
Speaking of Mr Albanese, the whispers about his leadership won’t go away.
His poll numbers consistently lag behind Mr Morrison, and some Labor types are already quietly resigned to losing the next election (more on that in a minute).
‘Albo’ says he’s confident of winning, and some other Labor types believe the gloss will come off the Prime Minister once the immediate emergency of the COVID pandemic is in the past.
They’re not giving up, but the likes of Tanya Plibersek, Jim Chalmers, Chris Bowen and Richard Marles are being talked about as possible replacements, if the polling doesn’t turn around.
Labor isn’t the only one in this position, with Nationals leader and deputy PM Michael McCormack also facing persistent talk about his hold on power.
He has survived a few leadership scares in his brief time as Nats leader, but Barnaby Joyce – the man he replaced – continues hanging around, and current deputy David Littleproud clearly has eyes on a promotion.
If there was a betting market in Parliament House, it’s tricky to pick who the bookies would tip as the first leader to face a spill in 2021.
This is the trickier one.
A Prime Minister gets to choose the timing of an election, but minimum election periods are mandated by a series of tricky laws in Australia.
The timing means Mr Morrison can call an election any time he wants from August 2021 to May 2022.
The PM has repeatedly called himself a “full-termer”, saying he has no plans to call an early election.
But political strategy says that the longer he waits, and delays calling an election while in a clear election-winning position, the more chance there is of some scandal erupting or Australians going cold on his party.
Labor believes the sheen will come off Mr Morrison, so it is in no rush to head to the polls and would like to wait as long as possible.
If an election doesn’t happen in 2021, that makes early 2022 obvious. That means basically every move made this year, every decision, every tactic, will be geared with that election in mind.
In other words, we could be effectively in an 18-month election campaign.
It’s going to be a long year.