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As Australia enters what may be an election year, Scott Morrison’s approval is high rather than solid, while Anthony Albanese has strategy rather than tactics. By Karen Middleton.

Morrison, Albanese get ready for 2021

Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese sits across from Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
Credit: AAP Image / Lukas Coch

With a single sentence, John Howard summed up the politics of 2020.

“In the end,” the former prime minister said, “the public, when threatened, want their leaders to defend them against the threat.”

His observation, made during recent remarks to the Menzies Research Centre, frames the contest between Scott Morrison and Anthony Albanese heading into what may be an election year.

Howard’s thesis seeks to explain the popularity of incumbent leaders in Australia and the spectacular demise of another across the Pacific.

A bungled Covid-19 response alone cost Donald Trump a second term, Howard said.

Voters expected their leaders to protect them and Trump hadn’t met expectations.

“And that is why you’ve had the phenomenon of Scott Morrison’s approvals,” Howard said, pointing to the prime minister’s handling of the pandemic in Australia.

The perception that Morrison deftly handled the pandemic has gone some way this year to countering the negative public sentiment after he holidayed in Hawaii during last summer’s bushfires and suggested he had no role because he didn’t “hold a hose”, says the director of Sydney University’s Sydney Policy Lab, Professor Marc Stears – a specialist in strategic communications, democratic inclusion and community engagement.

“The doubt stays there, but it needs to be reignited by something,” Stears says. “[Voters] will cut someone a break. If they see it again, they will smell it and react. I’m pretty sure Morrison knows this. He can’t afford another Hawaii and he’ll be battling hard to avoid that.”

Stears, a former speechwriter for the Labour Party in Britain, says Morrison correctly diagnoses that people don’t want “a slick person in suits” right now.

“They want someone they think they can identify with,” he says.

Since the day he won the prime ministership, Morrison has based his image on John Howard, wanting to be seen as attuned to the priorities and concerns of everyday Australians.

“People have consistently underestimated Morrison as a political fighter,” Stears says. Many had warmed to the so-called daggy dad image.

“[But] his plain-spoken everydayness comes across to some people – especially on the left – as fake and unbelievable.”

It is this niggling sense of insincerity that Labor seeks to exploit as it rolls into 2021, wrestling with the tribulations of its own leader, Anthony Albanese.

“He’s been quiet,” Stears observes of Albanese. “There have been bits of criticism around some labour market stuff and ‘Australians left behind’. It’s all fairly muted.”

Being opposition leader is a tough gig when people want unity, not opposition, says Stears.

“Nobody wishes the prime minister ill in the middle of a pandemic,” he says. “Everyone’s onside for a bit.”

That sentiment is reinforced by Tony Mitchelmore, from qualitative research and communications specialists Visibility, who has previously done work for Labor.

He says the pandemic is behind Albanese’s lack of connection, “not necessarily negative personality traits”.

But some in Labor remain uneasy about whether Albanese can deliver a respectable election result against the man critics dub “Scotty from marketing”. For all the wincing resonance of that label, even among some Liberals, Morrison’s salesmanship got him across the line last year, against the odds.

Few in Labor outside Albanese’s inner circle seem convinced their party can win the next election, an attitude one confidant of the opposition leader dismisses as “defeatist bullshit”, “disloyal” and “egotistical”.

But, having survived the end-of-year danger period known as the killing season, Albanese’s challenge is to refine his waffly messaging and sometimes-snarky media engagement, recapture public attention and reintroduce himself in 2021.

When Australians are fatigued from the relentlessness of disaster and plague, that is no small task. “People are exhausted, emotionally, just from the year,” Mitchelmore says.

Albanese is partly hamstrung by his past image as a political brawler. At a time when social research suggests people want pacifying, they don’t necessarily turn to a brawler for reassurance.

But some among Labor’s traditional supporters want less to be soothed than to smash the government. They think Albanese is not brawler enough.

An amalgam of these criticisms – that he both grates and doesn’t cut through – has some in wider progressive circles urging change, of either the approach or the leader.

University of Canberra political historian and associate professor Dr Chris Wallace argues that Albanese has prioritised strategy too much over tactics while Morrison has done the opposite.

“To be a leader, you’ve got to have followers,” Wallace says of Albanese. “To keep your followers, you’ve got to have visible wins.”

She notes Albanese plays a long game and that he believes he has a winning strategy. But, she argues, he isn’t getting enough traction on the way.

“I think Morrison’s had an armchair ride this year,” she says. “He cleverly handballed responsibility for the pandemic to the premiers and he got the credit, pretty much. Albo’s resentful about that but he failed to hold the government to account.”

Observers warn that Morrison risks adopting a self-congratulatory tone amid early signs of hubris.

Having decided that Albanese is unelectable, the prime minister and his colleagues have already begun aiming potshots at would-be replacements, including primarily shadow treasurer Jim Chalmers.

Albanese presses on, trying to highlight a few key policies and present himself as seeking to improve people’s lives.

Polls put Morrison well ahead. While he seeks to emulate Howard’s success, though, Morrison lacks his conviction and agenda for reform.

The closest Morrison has come is introducing industrial relations legislation in the final parliamentary fortnight of the year before hastily withdrawing its most contentious element – the watering down of the better-off-overall test, which could have led to some workers being worse off.

Its unexpected inclusion had given a drifting Labor opposition reason to fight, reintroducing the idea of “working families” – a vivid reminder of the WorkChoices overreach that became Howard’s fatal political mistake.

But elsewhere there is little sign of structural reform from the government. Morrison is cutting taxes but has no visible agenda to address the changing economy, lift persistently low wages or transition the energy sector away from fossil fuels.

Electorally, Tony Mitchelmore says this may not matter. Voters can sense what Morrison wants for the country, he says, even without a policy agenda: “Prosperity. Personal and national prosperity.”

“One of the long-term problems for Labor if you think about brands and brand values,” Mitchelmore says, “is that I think the Liberal Party owns prosperity. And the Labor Party has always struggled on prosperity.”

Mitchelmore says while Albanese has rightly identified fairness as a key theme in his “vision” speeches, “that’s not prosperity”.

Others involved with political messaging echo the sentiment. They suggest a need to emphasise both fairness and opportunity.

Mitchelmore says victory for Morrison lies in managing voters’ expectations, while victory for Albanese relies on Labor presenting a viable alternative if he fails.

Here, the economy is central. What’s important is not only statistics but also any perceived difference between the official numbers and people’s lived experience – known as the “felt economy”.

As the year ended, Josh Frydenberg unveiled the mid-year economic and fiscal outlook (MYEFO), just two months after the delayed budget. Seeking to boost confidence without raising expectations too high, he insisted the economy was “rebounding strongly”.

There was, the treasurer cautioned, a “very tough road ahead” but “Australia’s economic comeback is under way”.

Tony Mitchelmore says people expect to be able to feel improvement, even as the cost of living rises. But optimism will fade if they don’t sense Morrison’s promised “v-shaped” rapid recovery.

“If that doesn’t happen, then he’ll get the blame for that,” Mitchelmore says. “The threat for Morrison is people think everything’s riding high.”

But in reality, the economic turmoil is nowhere near over. The real challenge begins in 2021. The new year is due to deliver a further reduction of the JobSeeker supplement. The moratorium on rental evictions is set to be lifted, along with extended loan deferrals. The JobKeeper wage subsidy is slated to end in March. And a trade war with China is accelerating at alarming speed.

Australians will want reassurance that there is a path forward for the economy. Some observers say whichever leader can first and best articulate what Australia’s economy now is and how the nation can adapt and thrive will capture strong public support.

Albanese has sought to do that with his ideas for rejuvenating manufacturing. Along with his defence of the low-paid, his emphasis on childcare support aims to fill out a key message: “no one held back, no one left behind”.

Whether he needs a plan to propel people, not just avoid holding them back, remains in question.

Morrison and his government have been working all year on redesigning the economy to ensure greater self-sufficiency. But he has also not drawn a picture of the pathway back.

“In terms of what is the vision for the country,” Marc Stears says, “… neither leader is coming out with a post-Covid vision, and the demands [for] that are going to grow.”

The public will also be watching closely how Morrison manages the biggest challenges waiting for him in 2021, which Stears says are vaccine distribution, figuring out how and when to reopen external borders and addressing big structural challenges, including climate change and the instability of work.

While Morrison’s approval rating is high, the support is not firm. And unlike state leaders, he has not yet translated it into a better vote for his party. Albanese’s approval is low, along with Labor’s primary vote. After preferences the Coalition is still only ahead 51 per cent to 49 but Morrison has out-campaigned Labor before.

Marc Stears says Morrison looks likely to run on reassurance.

“You can play that game for a while,” Stears says. “But in the end, these big structural problems aren’t going to go away.”

Former Howard government Foreign minister Alexander Downer is also offering the government free advice: beware the complacency of early success with the pandemic.

“It won’t guarantee they will win the next election,” Downer warned in The Australian Financial Review. “The public don’t reward governments for good performance, they only punish them for mistakes.”

That is the natural extension of John Howard’s crisis thesis: to be re-elected, leaders must meet public expectations and ideally exceed them.

If Australians feel like the health crisis is subsiding but the economic crisis is not, Howard’s dictum will not just capture 2020, but 2021 as well.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 19, 2020 as "Marketing forces".

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