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As Scott Morrison moves to an election footing, he is basing his strategy around trust – hoping to relate it to economics rather than honesty. By Karen Middleton.

Inside Scott Morrison’s election strategy

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his senior ministers in question time last week.
Credit: AAP / Mick Tsikas

Announcing his emissions reduction plan last week, Prime Minister Scott Morrison rolled out a new slogan. “At the election, there will be a clear choice on ‘who do people trust with the right economic plan to see Australia through this?’ ” Morrison said. “That’s what it’s all about at the end of the day.”

Trust surged back into focus this week in ways Morrison likely did not anticipate, after French President Emmanuel Macron branded him a liar for how he handled the cancelled $90 billion French submarine contract. Backing the French president, former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull insisted Morrison lies constantly, conjuring the image of Morrison’s loyalty pledge just days before taking his job.

The prime minister’s pre-election pitch before leaving for the G20 in Rome and the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow was lifted from the Coalition election playbook of 2004. Then, prime minister John Howard opened his campaign by asking: “Who do you trust?”

In 2004, it was a stunning choice. Ministers faced new accusations of dishonesty over what had been labelled the 2001 “children overboard” incident involving asylum seekers. Howard’s poll figures had plunged. The tempo around trust was high.

For the prime minister to launch a campaign with trust at its heart seemed audacious in the extreme. But Howard knew what he was doing. On the advice of then Coalition pollster and strategist Mark Textor he linked “trust” directly to economic management, framing it around consistency and reliability rather than honesty. He won.

Morrison hopes to replicate that result – to cast trust as Howard did and link it to those negative characteristics voters identify in his opponent.

Labor is also zeroing in on Morrison’s negatives, positioning itself as a benign rather than exciting alternative.

Morrison did not directly acknowledge that his trust pitch was borrowed from 2004, but his treasurer did. At the private weekly party-room meeting of Coalition MPs, Josh Frydenberg recalled the 2004 campaign, when he was an adviser to Howard. Then, as now, the Coalition was behind and seeking a fourth term.

Frydenberg described how trust was used to emphasise Coalition strengths: the economy – specifically interest rates – and national security. “And the result in that election is now history,” he told them. The Coalition triumphed, securing a 1.8 per cent swing.

But in 2004, the strategy specifically targeted Howard’s opponent, Mark Latham, who was seen as volatile and unpredictable.

In a 2004 interview with The Bulletin magazine, Textor explained his strategy on “trust”. “The thing about dishonesty is its effect,” Textor said at the time, adding that acting inconsistently was where it hurt most. While honesty was important to people, “the most important thing is a kind of consistency honesty … ‘Are they being true to their word on that?’  ”

In 2021, some in the Coalition argue the current opposition isn’t being clear about what it would do in government. The opposition argues it’s Morrison not being true to his word.

But some of those who study voter sentiment and advise political parties and other organisations doubt the validity of the comparison. They are surprised, to put it mildly, that Morrison is focusing on trust. They say he hasn’t done the groundwork – nor gained Howard’s steadfast reputation – to so easily “flip” it. As a Labor source also puts it, “Albanese is no Latham, but Morrison is no Howard.”

Tony Mitchelmore, the managing director of political and corporate researchers Visibility Consulting, who has previously done research for Labor, says he thinks it’s a different situation. “I can’t see him flipping it like Howard flipped it.”

Retired social researcher Hugh Mackay also questions a 2004 rerun. “I thought it was a very dangerous thing for him to borrow that,” Mackay tells The Saturday Paper. “That’s his problem, isn’t it? That people regard him as slippery, a master of spin and not to be trusted.”

Mackay argues the contests are different. “Even people who were detractors admired Howard’s ability to plug away and be persistent,” he says, contrasting him with “loose cannon” Latham. “In general, people did have a view of him as a man of some personal integrity … which is something Morrison completely lacks.”

Others have also told The Saturday Paper they think it’s a risky strategy for Morrison, with “trust” questions having surfaced more than once in the past couple of years.

They began with his secret Hawaii holiday during the Black Summer bushfires and re-emerged around his explanations on vaccine availability during the Covid-19 pandemic. They have potentially returned with Macron’s searing attack this week.

Asked on the sidelines of the G20 meeting in Rome if he thought Morrison had lied to him about the submarines, Macron said: “I don’t ‘think’. I know.”

Earlier, United States President Joe Biden also delivered a public backhander, saying he thought Macron had been told and describing the handling as “clumsy”. Morrison was stung by the criticism.

The next day News Corp newspapers carried two leaks designed to support Morrison’s twin arguments. One was a private text message from Macron to Morrison asking if there was good or bad news about the contract. The other was a classified US security document that suggested Biden’s office knew the French were in the dark.

Morrison has not denied involvement in the leaks, appearing to justify their publication in defence of his personal reputation.

In a blistering National Press Club address on Wednesday, France’s ambassador to Australia, Jean-Pierre Thébault, called the leaking “an unprecedented new low” in “truth and trust”.

Following the leaks, Labor’s shadow Foreign minister Penny Wong test-drove a campaign line, linked to Labor’s existing slogan “On Your Side”. On radio, she asked: “Do you know whose side Scott Morrison is on? His own. He’s on his own side.”

The past fortnight has seen the shape of the looming election campaign become much clearer. Both Labor and the Coalition are refining their negative messages about the character of the other’s leader.

Social researchers say Morrison has an issue with “shiftiness”. But it’s not as potent as the sense of him having been “absent and ineffective” at key times during the pandemic, in contrast to state leaders. People in focus groups are starting to criticise Morrison spontaneously, with sentiments like “nowhere to be seen”. He is also being described as reluctant to take responsibility.

For Anthony Albanese, it’s a different kind of absence – a lack of political impact. He has successfully suppressed his past brawler persona, but nothing has replaced it.

“He’s not disliked,” Tony Mitchelmore says. “He’s unknown … He’s really struggling for cut-through.”

Mitchelmore says the pandemic has made the challenge much greater for an opposition leader, especially with the prominence of state and territory leaders.

He says they have taken up much of voters’ limited bandwidth for absorbing politics. In response, Labor is intending to lean heavily on the formal campaign period, when opposition leaders are elevated to equal status with prime ministers, and voters pay more attention.

Some researchers say that while Albanese is seen as “straightforward” and “genuine”, voters aren’t sure he’s got what’s required to lead the country. He isn’t mentioned unprompted negatively or positively, except as “better than [Bill] Shorten”, his predecessor.

“He doesn’t seem untrustworthy and he’s probably likeable,” Hugh Mackay says. “But there does seem to be a lack of confidence and an attempt to be too polished, too smooth.”

Compared with Morrison, Mackay says, Albanese is seen as weak.

“If you put pictures of Morrison and Albanese side by side, Albanese’s would be faint,” he says. “… Who is he? What does he stand for? With Morrison, it’s very clear – jutting chin, the winning smile. It’s a very strong presence, even if you don’t like him.”

Mackay suggests all the negatives may prompt a surge in voting for independents.

Recent Coalition social media advertisements portrayed Albanese as “flip-flopping” and indecisive. Labor advertising has described Morrison as a man who “doesn’t have a plan” on pandemic recovery, “only an excuse”.

Looking for other analogies with elections past, some Coalition MPs compare the current contest to 2019, when they also won from behind.

Labor hopes it’s a rerun of 1996, with the opposition replicating Howard’s successful small-target strategy.

Hugh Mackay believes Labor should look further back for instruction. He questions the decision to abandon any policy that might allow the Coalition to rerun its lethal 2019 strategy, saying it has left Labor looking like it believes in nothing.

Mackay says Labor’s strategy is fuelling the impression that they’re still figuring things out: “They’re looking a bit meek. They’re not looking muscular and confident.”

Tax remains dangerous policy ground for Labor. The Coalition began running social media ads on Tuesday, harking back to the 2019 campaign and asking, “Where does Albanese stand on the retiree tax?”

Another challenge for Albanese is a view that after the massive upheaval of the pandemic people are instinctively seeking stability.

Ben Oquist, executive director of The Australia Institute, says there is a global hesitation about change. He makes the observation after attending the biennial Global Progress conference of progressive think tanks in Rome last week, and believes it poses a particular challenge for political parties seeking to unseat governments.

“One way over this hurdle is for Labor to prosecute a message for safe change,” he says. “You still have to make the case for change if you want to change the government. Yes, you can campaign on Morrison’s poor performance. But you still need to make the case for change.”

Economic management remains Labor’s key vulnerability and Morrison’s significant weapon. While trust will become dangerous if a picture of dishonesty fixes in voters’ minds, Tony Mitchelmore says the economy probably outweighs it.

“Would I worry more about someone who’s a liar or someone who’s going to wreck the economy?” he suggests voters will ask themselves. “I still think more people are going to worry about someone who’s going to wreck the economy.”

Last week, Morrison linked his net-zero emissions plan with his pitch on trust, saying it was about guiding Australia through a challenging time. “What this is a real choice of now,” Morrison said, “is the economic plan of the government – the Liberals and the Nationals … and how we intend to realise those opportunities, that economic plan, to secure Australia’s future through this time. Or the economic plan, if they come up with one, of the Labor Party.”

More than a climate action plan, he was laying out a plan to win the election. At the end of the day – at the end of the term – that’s what it’s really all about.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 6, 2021 as "Trust issues".

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