Daniel Andrews and the PM are locked in an Argentinian tango on coronavirus, but their grip is starting to slip | Katharine Murphy

This time last Saturday I was in my kitchen with my husband, scrolling through clips of Donald Trump yapping about his cognitive test. Person, woman, man, camera, TV.

The prevailing view among the American liberal media at the moment is Trump, sinking in the polls, has lost his marbles – that he’s going out of his mind prior to voters moving him out of the White House in November. Perhaps this assessment is right. I really hope so, for the sake of the world.

But from this distance, Trump doesn’t look that mad, at least no madder than usual. In politics, backroom types talk about the importance of raising the salience of an issue. Trump looks like a politician fully intent on raising the salience of cognitive function, by whatever means necessary. The objective is to ensure voters are thinking about cognitive function by the time the campaign debates roll around.

Trump is trying to lay a trap for his opponent, Joe Biden, who I gather is reasonably gaffe prone. It pays to remember Trump is a politician who doesn’t care about consequences. He doesn’t care if talking about senility cheapens the presidential office, or the national discourse, or if it leads to people speculating 24/7 about whether he, and not Biden, is the one who has lost his mind. It’s all a success if his primary message sticks, if you remained engaged with this sideshow, wondering.

I can testify from another hemisphere that Trump’s core message about senility – the definitional question he’s hammering about Biden – is carrying far and wide. There is a trap set there, visible, for the Democratic contender to walk into just as the presidential race reaches the decisive point.

Doubtless this is an entirely eccentric way to open a column about where Australia currently stands in the Covid crisis, but the point I want to make by starting with Trump and his ceaseless antics is to illustrate a quick and vivid compare and contrast.

When it comes to this pandemic, it has been all politics in America. Because Trump is the president, and because the country is so polarised, that’s all there is. Trump clearly isn’t capable of enlightened collaboration in the service of a cause higher than himself, so it’s all conflict. The federation creaks, and the country seethes, because he feels he will benefit from the creaking and the seething, because Trump benefitting from chaos is the only objective. Everyone else can fend for themselves.

It has been different here. From that critical moment back in March where Scott Morrison and the premiers gathered in a football stadium in Parramatta and made the decision to work together rather than turn on each other, there has been a genuine effort to put the people of Australia first.

But we’ve reached a critical point in the pandemic now where that bedrock of esprit de corps might start to crumble, where the protagonists might creep back to politics as usual.

The why of this is reasonably easy to fathom. Australia was obviously very successful during the first wave of infections in flattening the curve. That success lulled many people into thinking we somehow dodged the horrors unfolding elsewhere. But the virus persists, and it will go on persisting until there is a vaccine or a more effective treatment. This is a crisis without an endpoint.

Because Australians had dared to hope because of the early success, the current setbacks are harder for people to deal with. It’s basic human psychology. If you go on a punishing hike up a hill, if you are fully intent on making the summit, you will keep climbing doggedly without much complaint. But if you reach a plateau that you think is the summit and exhale in relief, but then the summit looms again before you, unconquered, it is harder to summon the resolve to keep on slogging.

People in Melbourne are tired, and people elsewhere are on edge. The resilience of the nation is being tested, and that shift in the public mood makes leaders nervous. So two basic human emotions: nervousness and frustration, lurk behind mini eruptions like the one we’ve seen this week between Scott Morrison and Daniel Andrews.

Let’s map the various dimensions of the passive aggressive eruption. The “Victorian wave” (as Morrison puts it, just so the attribution is clear to anyone listening) began with failures in the enforcement of compulsory quarantine – a state responsibility. Officials have been telling me for some months there are underlying weaknesses in the public health infrastructure in Victoria, and those weaknesses became more obvious once the virus jumped the fence.

Those failings were then compounded by non-action at the federal level. A range of stakeholders have been telling Morrison for months that he needed to create a pandemic leave entitlement, otherwise people in marginal, insecure employment (and there’s a lot of those people) would continue to work when they shouldn’t – which is exactly what has happened.

The terrible scenes earlier this year at Newmarch House in western Sydney should have prompted more action federally to fortify aged care homes. To be clear, I don’t think Morrison has done nothing on aged care – I think there’s been close attention on that most vulnerable of sectors from the outset. But the underlying weaknesses in the sector have been exposed during the crisis, and a sequence of outbreaks in aged care in Victoria has been one of the factors in this second wave. Aged care is in the commonwealth’s wheelhouse.

So no leader, or system, has been perfect in this crisis. Mistakes, and misallocation of resources, happens. This week, we watched Morrison and Andrews flirt with the idea of turning on one another to try and blunt the inevitable blowback from an anxious public, and then decide against it.

It was like a scene in a western, where two men sit at a bar with guns pointed at one another under the table, reserving the option to shoot, knowing the only way the shooting can be avoided is to keep guns trained on one another; knowing the only way to preserve the peace is mutually assured destruction.

Australians have marked leaders up during this crisis for putting their needs before partisan slugfests. Morrison and Andrews are sharp enough operators to know they will pay a big price if they are seen to revert to politics as usual, but equally, neither will want to wear sole blame for a substantial second wave.

As well as the Argentinian tango between Morrison and Andrews making for complicated dynamics, a number of the state and territory leaders are facing elections over the coming months. Given the current climate, there will be one issue on the ballot in these contests: whether the premier or chief minister is managing the pandemic competently.

The other moving part to watch is the return of Labor to the federal fray. Labor hasn’t been absent, but the party has taken the decision over the opening months of the pandemic to be cooperative wherever possible – this being a genuine crisis rather than a staging post on the way to the next election.

But Anthony Albanese and his crew are beginning to sharpen their spears. Labor has gone on the offensive about failures in aged care. There has been more muscling up on the economic supports. Labor is also prosecuting the involvement of the Australian Border Force in the Ruby Princess debacle. The accumulation of actions and decisions during the crisis leaves Labor with a concrete record to prosecute.

This coming period will be an important test for Albanese, because muscling up in the current climate is much more difficult than it looks. There is a clear difference between lobbing cheap partisan shots, and a sober effort to keep a government accountable, and voters know the difference when they hear it.

So the tone has to be right; measured and precise, not carping. To cut through, Albanese will also have to be loud enough and nimble enough to command attention when the governance processes imposed during Covid have worked to marginalise opposition leaders as a deliberate design feature. When Morrison suggested the pandemic be managed through the national cabinet back in March, the premiers said fine, but no opposition leaders.

As well as these complexities, Albanese is also dealing with a prime minister who does not like scrutiny, and is well practised at turning inquiries back on the questioner. Morrison is a pragmatic and fleet-footed operator, but there is one constant about our prime minister. When adversity strikes, when there’s a case to answer, Morrison prefers to be the man who wasn’t there.