September 2, 2021

Federal politics

Morrison’s path to victory

By Russell Marks
Image of Scott Morrison pictured with his family after winning the 2019 election

Scott Morrison pictured with his family after winning the 2019 election. Image via Facebook

Pollsters are describing remarkably different scenarios about the Coalition’s election chances, as the PM tussles with the states over lockdowns

For a year now, Scott Morrison’s Coalition has been steadily losing ground in two published opinion polls: The Australian’s Newspoll and Roy Morgan. William Bowe’s The Poll Bludger tracks the two-party preferred results of those polls. On a graph they look for all the world like the government is heading for defeat at the next election, due by May 2022. More and more of us, apparently, are intending to take our vote away from the Coalition and give it directly to Labor. Both companies did August surveys that give Labor an election-winning 54–46 lead, and neither company has put the Coalition in front since November.

A narrative has emerged to explain these polls. COVID-19 had initially worked for Morrison, giving him a second chance at disaster leadership after his appalling failures during the 2019–20 bushfire season. By the middle of last year, the government was consistently and comfortably leading Anthony Albanese’s Labor opposition. But Australians are increasingly frustrated with Morrison’s un-leaderly go-missingness and his babbling ineptness.

Newspoll and Roy Morgan are causing no end of grief for the Coalition’s natural allies in the Murdoch media. Andrew Bolt and co are also frustrated with Morrison, mainly because he hasn’t stayed the “conservative” course: against their advice he’s kept international borders practically shut, dumped a huge bucket of debt-financed stimulus all over Australia’s beautiful budget surplus, and hasn’t morphed into either Peter Dutton, Tony Abbott or John Howard. In reaction, Bolt and co have slid off into alt-right absurdity, stumbling around in the weeds of Australia’s democracy with imbecilic pests like George Christensen, Pauline Hanson and Craig Kelly.

The old psephological adage – the one that assumes war and disaster work for incumbents – looks like it’ll be shown up again. Remember, it didn’t work for James Scullin’s Labor Party, which lost a landslide election at the height of the Great Depression. Or for Robert Menzies and Arthur Fadden, who lost the reigns to John Curtin’s Labor on the floor of Parliament House eight weeks before Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. Or indeed for Billy McMahon, for whom Menzies’ war in Vietnam was playing so badly by 1972 that Gough Whitlam’s Labor swept to power on a promise to end it. In 2021, the government’s majority is the thinnest imaginable. Is Anthony Albanese about to become prime minister?

Morrison’s path to victory is a one-word slogan: reopen. Victorians and Sydneysiders are sick of being locked down. National cabinet agreed at the beginning of July to a four-phase game plan to return things to normal. Announcing the plan, Morrison said the first “lockdown” phase would end when the proportion of the population that is fully vaccinated reaches a level to be determined by the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity. A month later, the Doherty report predicted that a shift to “phase two” – when we would begin to live with COVID-19 kind of like we live with influenza – could realistically only take place once vaccination rates reach 70 or 80 per cent. That was a long way off in July: at that point just two million Australians had received their second dose.

The Murdoch stable got on the front foot early, warning “recalcitrant” states against extending lockdowns unnecessarily and presenting the national plan as Morrison’s victory over premiers Dan Andrews, Annastacia Palaszczuk and Mark McGowan. In New South Wales, Gladys Berejiklian apparently took that as vindication of her opposition to locking down at all. To borrow some cricketing terminology, if the plan required patient line and length bowling, then Berejiklian responded to a growing cluster of Delta variant cases in Bondi with a series of full tosses and half-trackers, egged on from the grandstands by Morrison. She waited nine days – and for the cluster to reach 65 cases – only to announce a limited lockdown of just four council areas. She quickly and inevitably lost control of the outbreak, with the number of daily new cases rising to 100, then 1000 and beyond.

In Murdoch-land, Berejiklian is a hero who had avoided Victorian-style lockdowns, and even the “snap” three, five and seven-day lockdowns that Queensland, South Australia, the Northern Territory and New Zealand had used to successfully contain potential outbreaks. In the real world, however, the NSW premier let the Delta strain loose in Australia. It quickly spread interstate, and is now in Aboriginal communities in western New South Wales well before their populations have been vaccinated. Neither Berejiklian nor Morrison has accepted responsibility for any of this. On August 19 she claimed her state was simply the first that was learning to “live with” COVID-19, as others would eventually need to. From Perth, McGowan called her out. “Just because the NSW government has comprehensively failed doesn’t mean we should deviate from the measures and the plan that has been put in place,” he said. “We all need to stick to the plan.”

Morrison, who plays politics and only politics, hasn’t wanted to lay any blame at Berejiklian’s door. The Murdoch press has done its best to berate and belittle McGowan, but Western Australia is the one state where News Corp has no daily tabloid newspaper. In March this year, McGowan’s Labor romped to re-election on an incredible 14 per cent swing, increasing its existing 10-seat majority to 23 and decimating the state’s Coalition. Western Australians, it seems, were happy to remain COVID-free under a government that was prepared to keep making hard decisions. That is, a government that was governing. In October last year, Queenslanders had also endorsed Palaszczuk Labor’s response to COVID-19.

The regions of Queensland and Western Australia are where Morrison won the “unwinnable” 2019 federal election. Labor won’t find most of the nine seats it needs to form a majority there. Rather, Labor’s path to victory is in the Tasmanian seats of Bass and Braddon, the Melbourne seats of Chisholm and Higgins, Boothby in Adelaide, Reid in western Sydney, Robertson on the NSW central coast, and Swan in Perth. These were the seats Shorten Labor failed to win in May 2019. Longman and Leichhardt in Queensland may also be crucial. Is victory achievable?

Yes, according to Newspoll and Morgan. Morgan has reported clear majorities for federal Labor in Tasmania, Victoria, Western Australia and South Australia all year, and in New South Wales since Berejiklian let the Delta strain loose, dooming that state to a lengthy lockdown and dozens of deaths. But Newspoll and Morgan were also the companies that got it so spectacularly wrong in 2019.

Resolve Strategic is the newest entrant in Australia’s political punditry market. Its research on behalf of Nine’s newspapers doesn’t report a two-party preferred figure (so it’s not captured in Bowe’s line graphs that currently show Labor charging ahead to certain victory). What it does show is that 40 per cent of NSW voters and 45 per cent of Queensland voters would still give Morrison’s Coalition their first preferences, and that the most recent trends in New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland and indeed nationally all favour the government. Morrison is clearly preferred over Albanese, and close to half of us still think he’s doing at least a “good” job as PM, compared with barely a quarter of us who think Albanese is performing well as Opposition leader. On leadership, the other polls agree: even after everything, a lot more of us like Morrison than Albanese. According to Resolve, we think the Coalition is better at economic management, national security, health and aged care, education, infrastructure, industrial relations, jobs and wages, crime, cost of living, foreign affairs, border control and, significantly, the whole COVID-19 thing. Alarmingly, we even think the Coalition is better on the environment and climate change. We think the Morrison government is communicating better, has a more unified team and is more focused on the right issues than Albanese Labor.

Does Resolve have a better grip on the situation than its established competitors? Run by Jim Reed – a Coalition booster who cut his psephological teeth at lobbying firm Crosby Textor – the agency hasn’t been tested in an election yet, and it also pocketed more than $1 million from the Morrison government last year in what looks like one of umpteen examples of Morrison’s “mates first” approach. Instead of trying to calculate a two-party preferred figure, Resolve Strategic asks people: “Regardless of who you would like to win the next federal election, who do you think will actually win?” While the government has taken a hit over the past couple of months, 40 per cent still expect Morrison to be PM after votes are counted, compared with just 26 per cent who believe Albanese will occupy the Lodge. Betting companies, which have notoriously been far more accurate than pollsters, also have the Coalition as firm favourites.

Morrison has done almost everything badly since he emerged as the Liberals’ compromise candidate out of the ashes of the party’s culture war over Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull. As McGowan keeps pointing out, Morrison repeatedly misleads: even at a 70 or 80 per cent vaccination rate, the removal of all restrictions and border closures – which is what Morrison and Berejiklian consistently imply – is not what the Doherty Institute or the national cabinet plan envisages. But last month Morrison became Australia’s longest-serving PM since Howard, which was something nobody could have predicted when he took over three years ago. After its 2019 defeat, Labor jettisoned most of the policies that distinguish it from the Coalition, consigning it to a battle of personalities that it must lose. Morrison will surely time the election to take advantage of the shift to phase two, once the 70 or 80 per cent vaccination threshold is reached, which is likely to happen by Christmas. The old adage about incumbents finding success in times of trouble may yet claim another result.

Russell Marks

Russell Marks is a lawyer and an adjunct research fellow at La Trobe University. He is the author of Crime and Punishment: Offenders and Victims in a Broken Justice System (Black Inc., 2015). 

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