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As the government and opposition make sense of the NSW election result, it is clear the federal poll will be a contest between an unpopular leader and an unknown one. By Karen Middleton.

How authenticity will decide the election

NSW Liberal premier Gladys Berejiklian celebrates her election win with Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
Credit: AAP Image / Mick Tsikas

The result in last weekend’s New South Wales election may have delivered a largely status quo government in the nation’s most populous state, but it also sent a few messages to Canberra.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten have responded to what happened – and what has happened federally in the week since – and directed their operations accordingly.

After the emergence of video from September showing NSW Labor leader Michael Daley telling a meeting in the Blue Mountains that Asians with PhDs were coming to take Australian jobs, Shorten moved swiftly to distance himself from the sentiment.

He also made it clear to NSW Labor that while federal Labor was campaigning to win government by presenting as a united team, it did not want the NSW party running a messy leadership ballot that reminded voters of the old days of leadership stoushes.

The NSW party leadership then deferred the contest and pressed the vanquished Daley to stand down from his position to avoid becoming a further distraction, from which vantage point he realised he could not win a ballot and undertook not to recontest it.

On the Liberal side, the success of One Nation in NSW – which, along with a resurgent Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party, thumped the Nationals in seats along the Murray–Darling Basin – reinforced Morrison’s initial inclination not to antagonise its supporters.

He had been facing questions in the wake of the Christchurch mosque shootings about whether Liberal and National voters should direct their preferences away from One Nation due to its position on Muslim immigration.

Morrison’s first response was to decline to give a straight answer and instead appeal directly for One Nation supporters to give their first-preference vote to the Coalition.

The pressure intensified when One Nation officials were revealed to have been seeking advice and support from American gun lobbyists the National Rifle Association (NRA) and contemplating watering down Australia’s gun laws.

Later this week, after discussing the issue with former prime minister John Howard, Morrison firmed up his position and conveyed his view to Liberal Party officials.

“My recommendation to them – which they’re accepting – is that One Nation will be put below the Labor Party at the next election by the Liberal Party,” Morrison said on Thursday.

“Now, this is a decision which is based on our strong view about the sanctity of Australia’s gun laws and to ensure that at no stage that those things should ever be put at risk. And it’s very important, having been the party that introduced those laws, that we ensure that they are forever protected and there can be no compromise when it comes to those issues or any trading on the issue of those gun laws.”

Morrison said he had followed a similar “considered process” to the one Howard had followed when he had ordered One Nation be put last on Liberal and National how-to-vote cards 20 years ago. He said he had waited to see what the party’s reaction would be to the NRA revelations contained in the Al Jazeera television documentary “How to Sell a Massacre”.

As the federal election approaches, the major parties are concerned about preference flows from those who vote first for One Nation or other minor parties and independents, which tend to scatter in all directions rather than flowing evenly on to one or the other of them.

Optional at the NSW state election but compulsory federally, that preference allocation can secure seats for candidates who come second.

The only way to increase the certainty in that equation is to lift your primary vote. The primary vote for both major parties at the NSW election was diabolically low.

Shorten has more to lose than gain by chasing One Nation voters and opted for a values-based distancing from the minor party’s views.

Morrison initially calculated that his political interests were best served not in promising to put One Nation last on how-to-vote cards but in appealing to its supporters directly for their first-preference vote.

“People shouldn’t vote for One Nation, they should vote for the Liberal Party,” Morrison said earlier this week. “I’m in the business of attracting the primary votes of Australians.”

Social researcher Rebecca Huntley, author of the Quarterly Essay Australia Fair: Listening to the Nation, told The Saturday Paper she believed that was a political mistake.

Speaking on Wednesday, before Morrison’s change of heart on preferences, Huntley said Morrison was viewed as “a salesman, a marketing guy” and that voters were looking for a sign he was principled.

She said the unforeseen twin events of the atrocity in Christchurch, which again drew Australia’s gun laws into focus, and the revelation that One Nation had spoken to the NRA about relaxing them, possibly in return for funding, had provided Morrison with an immense political opportunity.

But Huntley argued that merely offering strong criticisms of One Nation and caveated undertakings about where it might be placed on Liberal how-to-vote cards was unlikely to cut it with voters.

“He has to be prepared to lose something for his principle,” she said.

“They’re looking for statements of principled leadership and this could be one of them for him … He’s got an opportunity here. It’s on a platter.”

It was also an opportunity to align himself closely with Howard, upon whom praise is being heaped again for tightening the laws in the first place.

Conversely, Huntley said, failing to do it could go badly. “I think it could be the last nail in the coffin if he doesn’t play it well.”

Morrison’s change of heart on where to put One Nation – with specific reference to Howard’s advice, although with less clarity and force than Howard’s 1998 version – came on Thursday.

Bill Shorten had already been seeking to highlight Morrison’s initial choice.

“Sometimes in politics you have no choices,” he said earlier in the week. “There is the right thing to do and you just have to do it.”

Morrison has not gone as far as Howard, in that he has only decreed One Nation should be lower than Labor on Liberal how-to-vote cards – a move that will not apply to Nationals nor reportedly to National-identifying Liberal National candidates in Queensland, where the party is merged.

His move aims to make a value statement to those who support strong gun laws but not one that will be heard too loudly in regional Queensland.

Speaking before Morrison’s preferences declaration, qualitative pollster Tony Mitchelmore, of research company Visibility, said voters were increasingly wise to tricky strategising.

“They’re less engaged in politics than ever before but they’re not idiots,” Mitchelmore said. “They’ve got emotional IQ.”

He said political leaders need to show voters more respect and not become the story themselves, as Michael Daley became spectacularly in NSW.

Rebecca Huntley said Daley was faring alright while he was an unknown quantity, albeit possibly still not well enough to win.

But the final-week video revelation and his inability to remember key details on education funding in a leaders’ debate two days later combined to create a negative impression.

“The combination of those things in the last week suddenly put some labels on Daley when people had none,” Huntley said.

The labels were not flattering: racist and lazy. “He had no identity and in the last week of the election, he gave himself the wrong identity,” she said.

It was the end of his quest to be premier.

The problem for Daley lay not just in the content of what he said in the Blue Mountains video, although that was damaging enough to be deemed responsible for losses in several seats with sizeable Chinese–Australian populations.

Federal Labor sources have told The Saturday Paper that while the multicultural community, particularly in Western Sydney, reacted “viciously” to Daley’s comments, they blamed him for them, not the Labor Party.

The problem for Daley, however, was that it drew NSW voters’ attention to the fact they had little idea of who he really was at a time when they needed to know.

Tony Mitchelmore says voters thinking about abandoning a government tend to follow a two-stage process.

First, they size up the incumbent government and decide whether they are happy with it. If they have no concerns, that’s largely where the process ends.

If they are unhappy with those in office, voters then examine the alternative – the opposition – for any reason not to support it instead.

If they can’t find one, or at least not one that outweighs their desire to boot out the government, they’ll be prepared to vote for change.

Mitchelmore says that’s where, in the final few days of the campaign, Michael Daley stumbled and fell. “Labor was doing well while the voters’ minds were just focused on the first question,” he says. “That last week was all about the second question.”

Huntley says Shorten is less vulnerable to that kind of destabilising mistake just by virtue of longevity.

“He’d have to do something to undermine that fundamental thing, to say that he was unstable,” she says. “He would have to have a Mark Latham handshake moment.”

The federal contest sets one leader who has held his post for six years against another who has been there for not much more than six months; the first disliked and the second still introducing himself.

In less than a fortnight, it will be on in earnest.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 30, 2019 as "How authenticity will decide the election". Subscribe here.

Karen Middleton
is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.