April 14, 2021

Federal politics

Fallow the leader

By Russell Marks

Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Image

Is the electorate willing to give Scott Morrison time to do better?

As the southern capitals brought out their doonas and settled into the 2019 footy season, very few believed that the Liberal­–National government would be returned at the May 2019 election. It had been doomed to a chapter titled “Embarrassing and Weird” in the book of single-term Australian administrations, which also includes Campbell Newman’s in Queensland (“Defective and Mad”) and the Country Liberal Party’s in the Northern Territory between 2012 and 2016 (“Farcical and Nasty”), until it had been saved in the nick of time by Malcolm Bligh Turnbull.

To enter politics with that middle name must take a special kind of courage. The persistence of “Bligh” is a curious family tradition, adopted not because of ancestral ties to New South Wales’s fourth governor but in a strange and enduring honour to him. William Bligh is most famous, now, for the ignominy of having endured not one but two coups – the first as captain of the Bounty, the second at the hands of Macarthur’s rebels. That the name may have been the primary factor in the defeat of the Republican movement Turnbull led in 1999 has never been conclusively disproven. Perhaps Turnbull hoped that his own deposing of the “mad monk”, Tony Abbott, had inverted any curse the name carried. It wasn’t so. Even as the government’s poll numbers were trending upwards in August 2018, its mad Right – led by Peter Dutton – organised a nonsensical coup that left Scott Morrison as prime minister and immediately lost the government 5 percentage points in the two-party preferred stakes. Craig Laundy, Kelly O’Dwyer, Christopher Pyne and Julie Bishop all threw in the towel.

So nobody, least of all the new PM himself, expected Scotty from Marketing to still be PM when the votes were counted. He can’t smile without smirking. He runs his government in the same way he apparently ran Tourism Australia – on a “don’t ask, don’t tell” basis, with minimum accountability and maximum greasiness. But a peculiar thing had happened after those first few bottom-scraping post-coup polls. Whatever else he was, he seemed comfortable with himself. The gap between government and Opposition began to narrow at a faster rate than at any time since 2016. Queenslanders loved him. Victorians didn’t hate him. It had taken a quarter of a century, but the Liberals at last had their revenge on Paul Keating’s Labor for stealing the unlosable 1993 election.

There’s been water under the bridge since May 2019. And over it. And fires, sports rorts, a pandemic, a recession. And now a movement and a moment that has exposed Morrison’s want of depth and accountability like nothing else, and which has generated what is apparently the first major crisis for the Morrison government. Its two party-preferred numbers have never been lower, and are heading south. For obvious reasons, women especially are turning against it.  

Is the Coalition genuinely at risk of not being returned for a fourth term? Implied in the opinion poll trends – assuming they remain credible enough to talk about – is that the electorate is preparing to replace Morrison’s government with a Labor Party led by Anthony Albanese.

Does anyone really believe that? Incumbency is powerful inertia, especially when the incumbent has blue stripes and the support of News Corp. The election of a Labor Opposition to the government benches requires more than mere Coalition scandal and incompetence. It requires a long lead time, during which the electorate is introduced to a potential Labor PM and has time to visualise him in the role. It almost worked for Whitlam in 1969, but Labor needed another three years of hellish jungle war, a jingle and Billy McMahon to finally crash through in 1972. It worked again in 1983 because Bob Hawke had been the de facto Labor leader for a decade, albeit from outside Parliament. It worked in 2007 because Howard was old, WorkChoices was bad and Kevin Rudd was a Sunrise favourite. And it was supposed to have worked in 2019: Bill Shorten had been famous since Beaconsfield, the polls seemed to say nice things about Labor’s version of the “Fightback!” package, and the Libs had been farcical.

Will it work in 2022 (or later this year, if Morrison still wants to go early)? Despite some valiant efforts by the ALP, nobody knows much about “Albo”. But its bigger problem is that nobody very much cares. And the reason for that probably has a lot to do with the fact that nobody is anticipating or even imagining Prime Minister Albanese.

I spent the formative years of my political consciousness as part of a vocal minority trying – and failing again and again – to end the Howard government. A similar constituency sought the same result for the Abbott government and was spectacularly more successful. And the years between them were dominated by a relentless, vitriolic and at times frightening campaign to smack the Labor impostors out of the ministerial offices.

But I can’t detect much of a movement dedicated to engineering the end of the Morrison government. Of course there are small groups of people trying – in GetUp!, the ALP, the Greens and some of the unions. But their spark hasn’t caught fire like in 1996 or 2007 or 2013. Perhaps the most surprising thing about both COVID-19 and the present iteration of the #MeToo movement is that neither issue has become party-political. This is despite the fact that most of the present crop of sexual harassers and offenders – alleged and confirmed – are Liberals. The movement isn’t claiming that parliament would suddenly be a safer place for women to work if the Coalition no longer occupied the government benches. To make such an absurd claim would no doubt detract from the movement’s force, though that hasn’t stopped practically all other social movements from collapsing into the well-worn grooves of Australia’s two-and-a-bit party system.

Rather, the overarching demand seems to be: do better. Translated into electoral politics, this suggests that if Morrison does ever find a way to do better, his government will be re-elected. It may also suggest that we’re prepared to give him some time to do better, even if that takes more time than an electoral cycle allows.

There are any number of reasons to vote Morrison’s government out. Its cruelty toward those who need the most kindness – refugees, social security recipients – makes Howard’s administration seem almost benevolent by comparison. Its unwillingness to be accountable is often breathtaking. Its economic policies seem designed to entrench a dual-class society of property owners and lifelong renters. Its disdainful disregard for justice belies Australia’s self-proclaimed egalitarianism. But Australians have already lined up on these issues. Half the nation is, apparently, comfortable with – or at least not outraged by – them. They won’t change anyone’s vote.

Nor, I suspect, will a Labor Party led by Anthony Albanese. At various times Eddie McGuire and Dan Andrews have been floated as potential draftees, probably by only half-serious desperados staring down a fourth and perhaps a fifth term in Opposition. Labor knows it has no obvious circuit-breaker in its ranks. There’s no modern-day Hawke it can pluck from the ACTU, no Rudd it can draft in from breakfast television.

I could be dead wrong about all of the above, of course, which is the prerogative of the political pundit. But “do better” is at least an original demand, in the sense that it’s rarely if ever been achieved. Who knows? Perhaps it will change what parliamentary and electoral politics can’t.

Russell Marks

Russell Marks is a lawyer and an honorary research associate 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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