As the Coalition and Labor assess which seats they may win or lose at the election, character is becoming the central plank of the campaign. By Karen Middleton.

Election map: the seats where it will be won

Last Sunday, Labor launched a new online attack advertisement against Scott Morrison.

The 16-second video on Facebook and Instagram opens on a now-familiar image of the prime minister posing with fellow holidaymakers in Hawaii, extending his thumb and pinky in a shaka sign.

The ad’s voiceover suggests Morrison “seems to make mistake after mistake, from stupid ones like going to Hawaii in the bushfires, to dangerous ones like the bungled vaccine rollout”.

“In an uncertain world, do you really want to be worrying about the next Morrison mistake?” it asks.

It’s the latest salvo in an increasingly personalised and willing pre-campaign ahead of next year’s federal election.

It comes amid a barrage of Liberal Party social media ads, including several featuring Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese and the words “flip-flop”.

“Fail to get behind the vaccine rollout,” the most recent one says, showing Albanese with a frozen expression somewhere between defiance and indecision.

“Fail to promote the AstraZeneca vaccine. Flip-flop on JobKeeper. Play politics and undermine the pandemic response. Anthony Albanese. All politics. No plan.”

Both leaders are using the word “plan” with increasing frequency.

Newspoll findings on their characteristics, published in The Australian this week, provide a clue to their language choices and reflect what the parties’ own research suggests. Newspoll has Labor still ahead of the Coalition but Morrison ahead as better prime minister, although slipping slightly.

It has Morrison rating higher than Albanese on being experienced, being decisive and strong, and on having a vision for Australia.

Albanese outrates Morrison – just – on understanding the major issues and being trustworthy. He also rates higher on being likeable, caring for people and being in touch with voters. On arrogance, Albanese scores 38 to Morrison’s 60.

These indicators help explain why, even this early, the campaign is getting personal. Like the published polls, the major parties’ research suggests a tight contest, with seats vulnerable on both sides. Electoral boundary adjustments to reflect population shifts will see the Liberal-held seat of Stirling abolished in Western Australia and a new Victorian seat, Hawke, created – notionally Labor, based on previous voting patterns and giving Labor an effective two-seat head start. But it still has the greater task. To take majority government, it needs to win seven seats without losing any.

In Victoria, Liberal polling suggests they will regain the seats of Corangamite and Dunkley, although Labor believes its popular incumbents can hold on. The Liberals are also doing well in the regional Victorian seat of Indi, which became an independent stronghold under former MP Cathy McGowan and successor Helen Haines. This is despite a big pro-independents push across the country, spearheaded by businessman and environmental campaigner Simon Holmes à Court.

The news is worse for the Liberals in the outer-eastern Melbourne seat of Chisholm, held by Gladys Liu, where Liberal polling has Labor ahead. Labor’s polling reflects that and suggests it is also an outside chance in the Liberal seat of Higgins. More remotely, it is eyeing retiring speaker Tony Smith’s seat of Casey.

In Western Australia three Liberal-held seats – Swan, Hasluck and Pearce – would fall to Labor on both parties’ current figures. In Swan, incumbent Liberal Steve Irons is retiring. Hasluck is held by Indigenous affairs minister Ken Wyatt and Pearce by former minister Christian Porter, increasingly likely to quit politics before the election.

In Tasmania, Labor hopes for both Bass and Braddon. Current Liberal figures suggest only Bass would go. In South Australia, the Liberal seats of Boothby, where Nicolle Flint is retiring, and Sturt, are vulnerable. In Queensland, Longman and Herbert appear most at risk for the Liberals currently, although others, including Peter Dutton’s seat of Dickson, are on narrow margins. Military veterans’ anger over the handling of the Afghanistan withdrawal could increase pressure in Herbert, based around the garrison city of Townsville.

Liberal research suggests that Queensland Labor premier Annastacia Palaszczuk’s support is strongest among male voters, something that could further complicate the federal Liberals’ chances in Herbert. Morrison and his colleagues have railed against Palaszczuk for her closed-border policies.

Complicating the research in New South Wales is the fact that the Liberals have not preselected candidates, amid speculation the delay is designed to allow a head-office re-endorsement of all incumbents to protect some under threat. The Liberals fancy their chances in regional Paterson and Hunter, where outspoken pro-coal Labor incumbent Joel Fitzgibbon is retiring, and possibly in Shortland.

Labor is hopeful in the central coast seat of Robertson, held by Morrison inner-circle-member Lucy Wicks. But the expected preselection of former Liberal state minister Andrew Constance in the south coast seat of Gilmore has Labor worried. It appears less concerned about the possible Liberal preselection of television personality Erin Molan in the seat of Eden-Monaro, believing incumbent Kristy McBain can hang on.

In Sydney, Liberal MP John Alexander is retiring from the seat of Bennelong despite Scott Morrison’s pleas to reconsider, increasing its vulnerability.

Labor’s Julie Owens is retiring in Parramatta but anger in south-western and Western Sydney over the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic may make Liberal gains more challenging there.

The Liberals are concerned about their grip on Lindsay in the city’s far west, held by Morrison factional supporter Melissa McIntosh. Considered an outside risk are the Liberal-held seats of Reid and Banks.

Morrison and Albanese have underscored what their parties’ research shows with their travel schedules over the past fortnight. While the need to shoot promotional material with candidates can also shape itineraries, campaigning in seats you already hold is often a sign of trouble.

Morrison kicked off a sandbagging blitz last week in Chisholm and Higgins and began this week in Lindsay. On Thursday, he was in Reid.

Albanese also visited Chisholm and Higgins. The week before, he visited Fitzgibbon’s seat of Hunter. Before that, he swung through a series of safer Labor frontbenchers’ seats and visited Liberal-held Banks and Reid, in Sydney’s west, and deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce’s regional NSW seat of New England.

Late this week, Albanese was in Parramatta. The deputy leader, Richard Marles, was campaigning in the Central Coast Labor seat of Dobell with Labor MP Emma McBride. The shadow treasurer, Jim Chalmers, appeared with Labor MP Anika Wells in her Brisbane seat of Lilley, and shadow Environment minister Chris Bowen was in Gilmore with Labor’s Fiona Phillips. Sandbagging all round.

Ahead of parliament’s final fortnight for the year, both major party leaders have been refining their messages. Criticised for his small-target strategy, Albanese says Labor is preparing “alternative plans for the country”, rolling out a revamped proposal to upgrade the national broadband network.

He says Morrison has “given up governing” and is “running a scare campaign”. He said, “Scott Morrison has said that he has no regard for what he has said yesterday, so why would you trust him today?” Chalmers went further, calling Morrison “the liar from the Shire”.

Morrison is portraying Albanese and his colleagues as unreliable and weak. “They’re good at whingeing, they’re good at whining, they’re good at sledging, but they weren’t that good at building,” he said on Wednesday.

He wants to harness the residual lockdown anger, particularly in Melbourne and Sydney, and turn it against Labor.

“I think Australians have had a gutful of governments telling them what to do over the last couple of years,” Morrison said. “… The Labor Party loves telling people what to do. And the only thing they like doing more than that is taxing.”

He is emphasising “strong economic management”. Unprompted, he also brought up mandatory vaccinations. “Businesses can make their own choices under the law, but we’re not about telling them what to do or telling Australians what to do.”

That line may have something to do with separate campaigns running online. Other parties are also cranking up their social media ads, which are cheap and potentially have huge reach.

In the week from November 9, Labor spent $2396 on its two anti-Morrison ads. The Liberals spent $3864 on 31 different ads, a mix of attacks on Albanese and Labor and promotions of vaccination rates, the economic recovery, Morrison and government policies.

Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party launched a South Park-style series of 90-second cartoons featuring Hanson playing a schoolteacher to a class of recognisable political opponents. It spent $1471, including on several other ads that condemned vaccine passports and mandatory vaccination.

The same week, the Clive Palmer-funded United Australia Party outlaid $61,307 – more than 15 times as much as any other party – on two online video ads. One was a 15-second plea for support because “Liberal, Labor and the Greens have all sold out”. The other was a 30-second warning from leader and former Liberal Craig Kelly – who is also strafing voters’ mobile phones with political text messages – about mandatory vaccination.

Morrison knows well that half-truths flourish online, having employed them successfully in 2019. Working hard to neutralise every political problem, he can’t afford to fall victim to his own campaign tricks. And with the electoral map the way it is, he also can’t afford any more mistakes.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 20, 2021 as "Election map: the seats where it will be won".

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