The view from Billinudgel

ScoMo is no Gladiator
The Coalition’s win in NSW only highlights the PM’s shortcomings


On the eve of the crucial budget, the trailing Coalition government finally had a shred of hope: New South Wales.

The fairly comfortable re-election of Gladys Berejiklian, following nail-biting opinion polls, gave the federal Coalition the hope that perhaps its own leader – a fellow Cornstalk, no less – could pull off the same trick: a last-minute swing, delivering an improbable victory.

But for many reasons, the contrast is greater than the hope. For starters, the federal Coalition is starting with polls not on a knife edge but on a year-long malaise, and an electorate that has clearly given up on it. And its members are still struggling with their legacy of division and dysfunction, which shows no real signs of abating – the row over One Nation preferences is only the most recent and obvious problem.

Then there is the Opposition: while Michael Daley was still something of an unknown quantity before shooting himself in both feet in the final week, Bill Shorten is known and stable (though he may not be popular). Shorten is also a considerably smarter campaigner than Daley ever was.

But the big difference is quite simply in the respective leaders. Berejiklian is the quintessential moderate, able to resist the hardline right in her party room – they have never threatened rebellion, let alone desertion to the minor parties. She runs a reasonably tight ship, if not an always completely happy one.

And she is widely perceived, as John Howard has noted, to possess both competence and integrity. The first quality may be questioned, especially by some of the victims of her grandiose infrastructure projects. But the second is largely accepted: Berejiklian is regarded as fair dinkum.

ScoMo is self-evidently not. Many voters hardly recognise him, and don’t particularly want to. Those who do know him are largely unimpressed; they see him not as fair dinkum but as a bad actor trying much too hard. As he clamps his baseball cap on and appears ostentatiously munching a pie, voters know he is pretending to be just like them, except that he is prime minister.

Australians like a touch of gravitas in their leaders. Bob Hawke was something of an exception: his larrikin image was well known and accepted, but his ability was unquestioned. But among the successful conservative prime ministers, there has always been a measure of being a bit above the mob. 

Robert Menzies and Malcolm Fraser both cultivated a certain sense of superiority, and John Howard made up for it by talking, on the whole, soberly and with authority. Morrison has chosen the worst of both examples: he has abandoned the high ground, and when he mixes with the public it is always with careful orchestration and is thus usually unconvincing. Gladys Berejiklian he is not. And as for his colleague across the ditch, Jacinda Ardern? Forget it. Comparisons, as Dogberry said, are odorous – and so are ScoMo’s chances.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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