Opinion

John Hewson
Scott Morrison’s safety word

Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s window of flexibility in choosing a date for the next election is closing fast. There had been widespread speculation through this year that he would try to go in November on the back of a successful vaccine rollout and early opening up of our economy. Even Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese has been arguing in recent weeks that Morrison may have called a date upon his return from the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow.

Yet earlier this week, Morrison announced on Newcastle radio – as he launched a two-week campaign swing through key electorates in New South Wales and Victoria – that the election would be “next year”.

This doesn’t provide much more certainty. If he wants a joint house/half-senate election, Morrison must go by May 21. This timing is complicated by the South Australian election, which is scheduled for March 19. Parties generally seek to avoid the risk of antagonising and confusing voters by running concurrent state and federal elections. Even if the federal election were to be held in May, the SA poll would eat into crucial campaigning time, also risking fallout and contamination carrying over to the federal election. There is also the downside of running two sequential elections with a lockdown-weary electorate who just want it to be over.

All up, Morrison will be reluctant to go in December, wanting to avoid being accused of “booing Santa” – although December elections have previously been popular. Nor will he want to go in January, the traditional holiday month for most Australians. February is also unlikely. We’ve never had an election in February and the campaign would again run into South Australia’s.

To be clear, Morrison has been in campaign mode ever since the previous election. His daily routine is focused on capitalising on the politics of an issue or location, with carefully crafted events, stunts, press releases et cetera. His strategy is always to seek to control the narrative and thereby attempt to create fear and uncertainty about any alternatives. This has become increasingly difficult to achieve over the past year or so, with the agenda being mostly driven by global issues over which Morrison has little direct influence but to which he has been under constant pressure to respond – most notably the pandemic and climate change.

There should be little doubt that Morrison has had to “evolve” his positions and messages on both. Early on in the pandemic, Morrison seemed intent to run on how he had “led the world” in both his containment of the virus and in managing the economic consequences. This option faded as more accurate comparisons were made and he completely stuffed the vaccine rollout.

Morrison obviously wants to run on his management of the pandemic, although his most recent messages have evolved to be more about success in containing the infection rate and leading the world in vaccine coverage, leading to success in opening up our economy. He is obviously hoping to skate over the weaknesses of his so-called national cabinet, and the failures of the vaccine rollout, and the fact that the states did most of the heavy lifting. It has been demonstrated that incumbent state governments have been advantaged in their elections, but this sentiment is unlikely to be translated as support for the Coalition federally.

Morrison has made a complete mess of the other big challenge, an effective climate change response. The game played with the National Party, ostensibly to gain their support for a net-zero target by 2050, came without the crucial medium-term goals necessary for effective action. It also seems that the “price” for support from the Nats was to somehow and strangely omit agriculture from the plan, even though that sector is most at risk from extreme weather events driven by climate change and most likely to be the biggest beneficiaries of an effective and fair transition to a low-carbon Australia.

In putting together a climate package, Morrison was also seeking to balance the concerns of the Nats-type voter against those of the so-called inner-city progressives. He holds a number of seats where climate is likely to be a dominant focus of what is becoming a very strong movement of independents challenging government members and others. This movement could easily determine the election outcome, with independents collectively holding the balance of power in a hung parliament. Morrison’s failure at COP26 to support a harder line against fossil fuels revealed an each-way bet on climate that could cost him significantly electorally.

The hypocrisy of Morrison’s significant shift on electric vehicles has to come close to the strategy that Labor took to the last election, which he criticised as “ending the weekend” and stealing voters’ utes. Morrison’s new policy probably won’t be accepted by many voters nor help him terribly much. It raises more questions than it answers.

Beyond these issues – which to be fair are tough for Morrison – he will rely on the polling edge the Coalition maintains on economic management, arguing that they managed the economic and social consequences of the medical responses to the pandemic by supporting key groups and sectors, generally cushioning the recession, and being able to open up the economy expeditiously, including our international border. Here he will rely on selective global comparisons of growth rates and comparisons with our pre-pandemic numbers. Most of this will be but a blur to the average voter.

Part of the campaign dry-run this week has seen both Morrison and treasurer Josh Frydenberg testing arguments on the economy and slogans that might, in the end, define their campaign. They readily stick to the view that they have been a world leader in terms of their overall economic policy response, as well as trying to create the impression that they have improved on where we were pre-pandemic.

For example, the claim that Australia has avoided the feared “tidal wave” of small business collapses and insolvencies under state government-imposed lockdowns, with the rate of forced company closures almost half that of pre-pandemic levels. Frydenberg has declared the government’s economic record as the key aspect of the Coalition’s re-election strategy. His op-ed this week was headlined “Surging economy to be the key election battleground”. He boasted of how many jobs he had saved by spending big. The hope is that voters will have forgotten all the talk about being “back in black” or the scare campaigning over debt and deficits.

The main check on the government’s enthusiasm about strong headline numbers is that they don’t reflect the experience of so many people and so many small businesses and towns. If you don’t believe me, go for a walk in the business section of your suburb or through any significant regional towns. Moreover, workers are concerned about the security of their employment, and home owners are nervous about a possible housing market shakeout, especially if the Reserve Bank raises interest rates earlier than they had been suggesting they would.

And what about the opposition? Although they have maintained a significant poll lead on a two-party preferred basis since the last election – indeed, they have increased it to be 54-46 in a recent Newspoll – Albanese has been constantly criticised for his inability to cut through and to lead on key areas where the Morrison government has been found wanting. Albanese’s poll standing has been consistently poorer than Morrison’s and he has trailed as preferred prime minister.

Labor has certainly taken a clear position on a national integrity commission, but this has not resonated widely. Labor has jettisoned almost all the defining policy positions from the previous election, in areas such as tax and climate, wanting to avoid being a big target for another scare campaign. I would say that in making this judgement, they have underestimated the fact that Bill Shorten’s lack of popularity was an important factor in their loss. Shorten never had a net positive poll standing – so the strapline, “If you vote Labor you get Shorten” resonated.

Morrison’s usual approach to the opposition, beyond just wanting to ignore them, is to create fear about their alternative policy prescriptions. He has a knack for scare campaigns, hoping to wedge them issue by issue. Morrison has been testing a new line this week about how Labor would constrain lives by legislation, regulation and compulsion.

He is counting on being able to sustain a fairly smooth transition to freedom post-vaccination, yet the jury is still out on this. Even with high vaccination rates it is yet to be seen how the people accept high case numbers and hospitalisations as the international border is opened and travellers arrive without quarantine.

Another particularly worrisome recent initiative by the Morrison government is its attempt to fix a problem that doesn’t exist by bringing in voter identification laws. This is a very Trumpian move in the direction of voter suppression.

As much as the government will seek to control the election narrative, voters may have other ideas. The major weakness of the Morrison government is on the issue of integrity and accountability, where they have created a very sizeable trust deficit. There have been many aspects to this, stretching from the wastage of public money on various pork-barrelling efforts, with rorts for sports, car parks and regional programs, to the failure of Morrison or his ministers to deliver an acceptable legal framework for an effective national integrity and anti-corruption commission.

More broadly, Morrison has denied responsibility in key areas such as quarantine, aged care and even at times the vaccine rollout and lockdowns – all of which have blown up in his face. He has sought to blame others, especially the states.

It seems reasonable to see Morrison as he sees himself – as the “chosen one” tasked with leading his Not-So-Quiet Australians out of the policy wilderness in which they have been forced to wander since they elected the Coalition back in 2013.

I suspect that the key word that will emerge in the campaign will be “safety”. The safety of your job, the safety of your lifestyle and wellbeing, safety from global geopolitical forces, and, the big one, safety in our national security.

In saying this, Morrison will attempt to focus national security discussions on defence issues and China, which will fail to recognise that our biggest national security issue is climate change.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 13, 2021 as "Scott Morrison’s safety word".

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John Hewson is a professor at the ANU Crawford School of Public Policy and former Liberal opposition leader.