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Australian Premier Defends Using Taxpayer Funds to Poll Reaction to Lockdowns, Restrictions

Premier Daniel Andrews has defended the use of taxpayer funds to gauge public sentiment during the world’s longest COVID-19 lockdowns in the state of Victoria.

The state leader was responding to revelations that a research firm, QDOS, was hired to test the community’s reaction towards restrictions like the five-kilometre travel radius, curfews, shutting down industries, childcare closures, and the differences in sentiment between the regions and metro areas.

QDOS, which has received $2 million (US$1.32 million) worth of contracts with the government, carried out polling on a daily basis online, as well as via focus groups fortnightly—both in Melbourne and regionally.

The results would be sent to the Department of the Premier and Cabinet, providing “real-time” analysis of the mood of the people, according to documents obtained by The Australian newspaper. The data was also what compelled Premier Andrews to deliver daily press conferences with updates on COVID-19 with over 120 consecutive appearances.

One briefing note on Aug. 5, 2020, revealed that a focus group in Colac, Victoria found residents were likely to “jump to the defence of the government and Dan Andrews” using reasons like: “Unprecedented times,” “Doing his best in really difficult times,” “‘Listening to the experts,” “Really difficult decisions.”

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An empty Bourke Street is seen in Melbourne, Australia, on Oct. 17, 2021. (Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

Another focus group in Mornington on Aug. 4, 2020, found that while the hotel quarantine episode took some “gloss” off the government, there was still “strong support” for the Andrews government and a “broad acknowledgement of the good job he and the government are doing in very difficult circumstances.”

“People have become less likely to freely offer support for Dan ­Andrews, but if he is criticised by one person, a bigger number stridently come to his defence,” the note said.

“We can reasonably conclude that the government and the primary spokesperson, Dan Andrews, still have credibility and the confidence of the people who will trust, support and follow the decisions that need to be taken.”

The documents also revealed surveys were carried out on the public’s perception of health measures like handwashing, social isolation, sneezing into the arm, masks, and working from home.

The government was revealed to have engaged QDOS more frequently during tighter lockdowns.

The city of Melbourne in Victoria held the world record for the most locked-down city in the world.

Premier Denies Polling Was Done for Political Reasons

Premier Andrews said the surveys were carried out to gain insight into public health information and not for political purposes.

“If the message doesn’t get through, people die. We had a wildly infectious virus and no vaccine,” he told reporters at Parliament on March 8.

“We made very difficult decisions. They were not popular. They were designed to be effective in keeping people safe, and that’s exactly what we did.”

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Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews, Health Minister Martin Foley and Victorian COVID-19 Testing Commander Jeroen Weimar arrive at the daily press conference on July 27, 2021 in Melbourne, Australia. (Darrian Traynor/Getty Images)

The Victorian government said polling was generally carried out for political leaders and health officials, including Victoria’s Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton, federal Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly, then-federal Health Minister Greg Hunt, then-Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Victoria’s Health Minister Martin Foley, and Acting Premier James Merlino.

“This community feedback helped us understand the most effective health message carriers,” the spokesperson said in a statement to AAP.

“Programs like this are not unusual in emergency situations, and we expect all levels of government were conducting research to help shape health communications.”

Victorian opposition leader John Pesutto said he did not buy the premier’s reasoning.

“This was about telling Daniel Andrews and his government what politically would work for them,” he said.

“We went through lockdowns and smashed businesses, destroyed many livelihoods and put people through deep periods of distress, and yet he was spending their money, our money, on political polling.”

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