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As election day neared, Scott Morrison proved to be relentless on the chaotic campaign trail, despite what the polls predict for his prime ministership. By Karen Middleton.

Election 2019: the final hours

Prime Minister Scott Morrison
Credit: Tracey Nearmy / Getty images

The men’s and women’s Bridgenorth Australian rules teams have turned out in club colours to the Parrot Park clubhouse, just outside Launceston. It’s Tuesday night, and the prime minister of Australia is downing a Boag’s XXX ale, chatting with the owner of the best mullet he’s ever seen.

Parrots club legend Jarrad Cirkel is showing off an almost perfect version of the famous haircut from the decade taste forgot and Scott Morrison is laughing, listening, in no hurry.

With his wife, Jenny, nearby, Morrison is relaxed and happy to linger – a contrast to the frenzied daytime schedule he’s been keeping in the final days before the election.

This clubhouse visit has run an hour over time as the prime minister chats, standing behind his wife, his arms wrapped around her.

Morrison has already done what he really came to Parrot Park for – earlier promising the crowd they will be getting $250,000 to upgrade their home ground, nestled on the Tamar River in the highly marginal Labor-held seat of Bass.

The announcement has won him new friends, though it’s not clear whether they will see the money if his government is not returned in Saturday’s election.

Rustling up a gift of his own, “J Rod”, as Cirkel is known, presents a Parrots guernsey to the delight of their visitor. In return, Morrison signs the guernsey on Cirkel’s back: “ScoMo”.

Then someone passes the PM a ball and he’s out the door and onto the dark oval, leading an entourage that includes grumbling cameramen who scramble for the tools they thought they had downed for the night. Morrison pegs the Sherrin towards the posts, misses, goes again.

The Parrots are playing the Scottsdale Magpies this weekend. It is surely a coincidence that a couple of weeks before, the Labor incumbent MP for Bass, Ross Hart, promised the Magpies $150,000 to upgrade their own club.

Perched on a railing, the Parrots run a critique on Morrison’s style.

“Here he comes again,” one says.

“Sco! Have another go!”

And Morrison does, and punts it through the middle.

Acknowledging his on-field limits, the prime minister concedes the team is unlikely to give him a start.

“Nah, you’ve got a guernsey,” one bloke offers. And then, after an exaggerated pause: “If you’re not doing anything on Saturday.”

They all laugh at the political joke.

It reminds me of a grey day 23 years ago, when another prime minister found welcome company in Tasmania near the end of his campaign.

Paul Keating spent the last real day of his prime ministership before the 1996 election in Tasmania, in that case facing an election he knew he was about to lose.

In Hobart, Keating vowed to build a home for the symphony orchestra, turning his back on the television cameras to offer a passionate exposition interweaving three great loves – architecture, classical music and politics.

His pledge was tinged with pathos, because losers don’t get to keep their promises, and this was one he genuinely cared about.

After Hobart, Keating travelled on to Tasmania’s north to sit down among schoolchildren too young to vote, ending his prime ministership telling them that if they believed in themselves, they could do anything.

 

The tail end of Scott Morrison’s campaign looks different from Keating’s, as he bolts around the country, refusing to concede to what the polls suggest is coming.

As campaigners go, Morrison is a good one, energised by the process and seeming more comfortable in this surreal environment than the man he replaced, Malcolm Turnbull.

The consensus among professional observers is that he has – at the very least – saved some electoral furniture. At best he’s created the possibility of an unthinkable victory, although simmering unhappiness remains in some Liberal quarters about how he got there.

Morrison seems more comfortable with small talk than his opponent, Bill Shorten, but there are other distinctions in this particular electoral contest.

Shorten has had six years working towards this moment, Morrison just under nine months. Despite that duration, Shorten remains the less popular of the two.

But the Labor leader has laid out a program for government, a combination of themes, ideals and policy measures, a sketch of what he thinks Australia should be, underpinned by some redistributive changes that not everyone will enjoy.

In contrast, Morrison is selling a brand. And although he’s an effective marketer, it’s a brand that doesn’t have a product.

Aside from tax cuts and an underwritten home-loan scheme that he confirmed was devised after he called the election, his campaign lacks a policy agenda and is based on warning against change.

 

On Monday morning, at a housing construction site in Caddens, near Penrith, in Sydney’s west, I asked Morrison what, if anything, he wanted to change about Australia.

The prime minister had declined The Saturday Paper’s request for an interview, along with a number of other in-depth interview requests from other organisations, so I posed the question at a news conference.

“I want to make the country more prosperous and more secure,” Morrison responded. “I want to make sure that the environment is cleaner and greener for future generations. Australia is the best country in the world and the only thing we can do is make it even better than it is today. That’s what I’m focused on, and the people who make that change the most are the people of Australia themselves.”

The prime minister didn’t say how he would achieve this. After that, it was what he didn’t want.

“I don’t share Labor’s reckless spending agenda,” he said. “Reckless spending is not a vision. Bill Shorten is trying to sell you a pup on that. Reckless spending is not a vision, it’s a burden on both current and future generations. This idea of politicians coming along and saying, ‘Give me all your money and I’ll solve all your problems’ – that’s what Bill Shorten is saying. It’s what I heard Kevin Rudd saying all those years ago. We’ve heard it from Labor time and again. No. I want you to keep your money, because you’re going to continue to change Australia for the better.”

Morrison then spruiked the newly announced home-loan promise and rattled off statistics on how many new businesses he would build and jobs he would create.

“That’s how Australia gets stronger,” he said. “That’s how Australia is able then to support and resource the important services and hospitals, schools and roads that Australians need. That’s how you continue to make Australia the wonderful country it is and keep the promise of Australia to all Australians.”

While telling Australians he wanted them to keep their money, Morrison has been handing out enormous amounts of it, eye-watering pork-barrelling that the other side has sought to match, leaving government departments scrambling to calculate how much they are on the hook for when all this is over.

As polling day approached, the Liberal campaign focused more and more on scare tactics, with flyers warning that Labor would put up people’s rent and introduce a death tax – neither of which is true.

Morrison took a new swing this week courtesy of a full-toss question from The Australian, challenging independent candidates to declare which party they would support in a hung parliament – a move meant to make voters hesitate.

This election is increasingly an exercise in whatever it takes. There was The Daily Telegraph’s bungled attempt to wrong-foot Shorten using an anecdote about his mother, then Shorten’s play this week to drag Morrison’s Christian faith into focus and use it to highlight the prime minister’s social conservatism, especially on same-sex marriage.

“Well, I actually think the meanest commentary I’ve seen in the election is actually the propositions that are being advanced that gay people are going to go to hell,” Shorten volunteered, apropos of something else entirely.

He was alluding to Wallabies rugby player Israel Folau’s controversial social media post weeks earlier that had reignited debate on both free speech and homophobia but had nothing to do with the election. Morrison had been asked about it on Monday and declined to give a direct answer.

“You know, I cannot believe in this election that there is a discussion even under way that gay people will go to hell,” Shorten continued.

“I cannot believe that the prime minister has not immediately said that gay people will not go to hell. This country needs to really lift itself and the political debate and coverage needs to lift itself.”

Morrison waved the issue away.

“I’m not running for pope, I’m running for prime minister,” he said, later issuing a more direct statement that he did not believe gay people were going to hell – an acknowledgment of the political damage such left-field issues can do.

The Liberals’ campaign has centred almost entirely on Morrison, an approach dictated by both the man and the circumstances. Other prominent Liberal faces are a reminder of the bloodletting that saw his party change leaders twice in three years.

 

As the final week began, the pace picked up on both sides.

After his Brisbane campaign launch a fortnight ago, Shorten had almost seemed to be tapering, with early FM radio interviews and only single mid-morning events in Sydney and outside Melbourne.

This week, it accelerated, though Morrison won the underdog’s prize for the greatest distance travelled in the shortest time.

After Sunday’s low-key Liberal launch in Melbourne, he flew to Sydney to begin an incredible same-day national crisscross.

For the travelling media, Monday began with bags in the hotel foyer at 6am.

These are dark mornings at the manic end of the election road. The previous night’s WhatsApp group message – the communication method of choice on both sides – emphasised punctuality because this is Sydney, and congestion, people.

Advance destination information is scarce because they fear protesters. It’s a daily guessing game – piecing together hints of arrival times and onward air travel, which is arranged around getting TV correspondents back on the ground and in place for evening bulletins. In Sydney, the campaign media pack eventually deduced we were headed to the electorate of Lindsay, in the western suburbs.

Monday was Scott Morrison’s birthday – Bill Shorten’s the day before – but Morrison pronounced it deferred, spending the early morning live streaming on Facebook and giving two commercial television interviews, all of which we watched on our phones from the moving bus.

Election campaign media buses are alive with technology – television and digital cameras, live-transmission backpack units, laptops, modems and many, many phones.

Bags are a mess of wires protruding from portable battery packs because power points only exist at the end of the day, wherever and whenever that is.

By the time Morrison’s C1 car pulled up to Sunset Street in the new suburb of Caddens, we had been briefed on his route up the hill for a doorstop news conference in the backyard of a half-built four-bedroom home.

The backdrop behind the prime minister was meant to illustrate the optimism of the previous day’s home-loan assistance announcement, with a churning cement truck and workers laying the concrete slab for another new house.

As planned, Morrison jumped out of his car at the estate to meet local candidate Melissa McIntosh and a couple of hand-picked young would-be-home owners. The group took the hill on foot, walking up the middle of the road.

The phalanx of cameras swept backwards ahead of Morrison as he chatted to Nathaniel and Therese, the first-names-only sample couple who told him they were getting married and wanted to buy a house, eventually.

The couple later told me they had nothing to do with the house they were visiting. It was just for the event.

There are few people living in these half-built streets for now. The bystanders were mainly from the Metricon and Simonds building companies.

Employees told me both companies had been pressing hard for the home-loan announcement.

Metricon seemed especially interested. Nine of its company cars were parked in the street.

At the top of the hill, the tangle of people and cameras rounded the corner and threaded itself through the front door of a house in Midnight Avenue.

After the backyard news conference – punctuated by an unfortunate, unscheduled whine suddenly emerging from the concrete truck – and a quick private chat with the folks in attendance, Morrison was off and we were legging it back down the block to the bus.

 

While Morrison and Shorten both fly on RAAF planes, their media teams must wrangle the trailing contingent on a commercial charter flight.

The political staff are calm and professionally friendly. These days they carry bags of fruit, protein bars and biscuits for their charges because meals are regularly missed and hunger breeds irritation – just another campaign enemy.

After the Lindsay visit, we took off from the nearby Richmond air base but were not allowed to know where we were headed.

Journalists on board used the GPS on our phones – which still works in flight mode – to track ourselves flying west.

Back in 1996, Keating took the media on what was cynically dubbed a “magical mystery tour” with scant destination information.

In 2004, on Labor leader Mark Latham’s campaign, we had to look out the window to work out we were flying south – to Tasmania, as it turned out, where Latham was keen not to alert angry loggers to his impending arrival.

The secrecy of the 2019 campaign, though, has been – literally – off the charts.

A couple of hours after takeoff from Sydney, our dot on the map neared Adelaide with no telltale drag of descent. Soon after that, it was out over the Great Australian Bight. We were headed to Perth – a five-hour flight – with no official word of confirmation. It’s a strange, captured feeling.

Upon landing, we went to another half-built house in the outer suburb of Dayton, in the marginal Labor-held seat of Cowan.

Morrison met tradies and their families in a kitchen remarkably similar to the one on the other side of the country. The Liberal Party put on afternoon tea and there was a chocolate birthday cake. Nobody sang. No time for that.

Then there was another news conference out the back, Morrison flanked by the candidates for Cowan and Stirling.

A highly orchestrated party-faithful gathering followed at the Camfield Hotel near the new Perth stadium, where blue-shirted campaign volunteers half-filled a room, and frontbench senator Michaelia Cash warmed the crowd at glass-shattering volume, introducing assembled ministers, MPs and candidates by name, many of whom aren’t sure they will be going back to Canberra.

Retiring former foreign minister and Turnbull ally Julie Bishop was also there. Her presence was an important statement in itself, which Bishop added to with an impromptu news conference.

“It’s been very energetic, very dynamic, and he’s certainly leaving nothing to chance,” she said, carefully, of Morrison’s campaign.

After revving the crowd with his own stump speech, Morrison was off again. Just four-and-a-half hours after landing in the west, we were bound for South Australia.

But the media flight missed the Adelaide airport curfew by minutes and was diverted to Edinburgh air base, near Elizabeth, about an hour north of the city.

We arrived at our hotel at 1am local time – 19 hours, three states and two near-identical news conferences after the day began.

The next day, there was another half-built house, this time in Ashford, in the marginal Liberal-held seat of Boothby. Its actual owners, Hernek and Meenu Singh, were there to greet the prime minister, whose wife, Jenny, had joined him on the campaign.

The Singhs migrated to Australia from India in 2015 with their two daughters.

The Liberal Party had contacted them the day before and asked them to participate, confirmation of how little of this past week was pre-set.

From there, the Morrisons headed for Tasmania, ahead of the main media contingent. The prime minister was accompanied by advisers and his chief sounding board, Western Australian MP Ben Morton, plus a pool TV crew, photographer and reporter who distributed the resulting material to everyone else.

It amounted to another roads announcement, followed by the Morrisons eating berry crumble in a Burnie cafe and chatting to diners.

Back in Adelaide, the rest were driven to the beachside suburb of Glenelg to file various news pieces and then back to the airport, bound for Launceston.

There, more money was distributed on roads and building restoration before the visit to the Bridgenorth Parrots and a moment to exhale.

If Morrison believes he is going to lose, he is determined not to let it show, although the final week of his campaign also did not reveal the frisson and anxiety that surface when victory is clearly within reach, signals that had begun flickering in the other camp.

As the caravan rolled on, I jumped off, and Morrison hurtled through another multi-state day, taking in two locations in regional Victoria and ending up back in Sydney ahead of a National Press Club address in Canberra on Thursday.

“I’ve given up wondering where we’re headed,” a cameraman had said to an RAAF officer somewhere over western New South Wales earlier in the week, as the dirt turned red below.

“We end up where we end up.”

By now, Scott Morrison may not be wondering either.

All that’s left to be determined is whether the polls were right and the end really is the end.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 18, 2019 as "Election 2019: the final hours". Subscribe here.

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