In the final week of the campaign, Scott Morrison is relentlessly on message. He is focused on housing and older voters, following a playbook almost identical to the one he used in 2019. By Karen Middleton.
Can Scott Morrison pull off another ‘miracle’ win?
There is a familiarity to Scott Morrison’s final campaign week. An official launch on the last Sunday before polling day, a pitch to first home buyers, then multiple press conferences on new housing estates in a final cross-country blitz. It’s familiar because this is the 2019 campaign’s final week on repeat. It is almost exactly the same.
Despite a pandemic that has up-ended the economy and taken almost 8000 Australian lives – the majority in the first five months of this year – Morrison is following a campaign playbook written a year before the pandemic even began.
He has not wished to engage on issues around the ongoing Covid-19 situation, with Australia’s rising death toll and one of the world’s highest infection rates, because he knows Australians are so tired of it. Instead, he says he is “putting the pandemic behind us”.
In the unfenced backyard of a newly built home at the Armstrong Creek housing development, south of Geelong, Morrison tells journalists, “The crisis and urgency of those times gives us the opportunity as a government to move into another gear.”
In 2019, the Liberal Party’s campaign launch was in Melbourne and the first new housing development Morrison visited afterwards was in western Sydney. Then came a transcontinental dash to an almost-identical display home in the suburbs of Perth, then back to the eastern states via another half-built backyard in the marginal seat of Boothby, on Adelaide’s outskirts. At the mid-point of 2019’s final week, Morrison visited the Bridgenorth Parrots’ Aussie rules club in Launceston, in the Tasmanian seat of Bass, kicked a footy with the kids on the oval in the dark, and punted a goal.
That time, he was confident and relaxed. Now, there is a touch more urgency about him, but no sign he thinks the battle is lost.
Last weekend, Morrison unveiled his first home buyers policy at his campaign launch in Brisbane. The next morning he went to the Springfield Rise suburban housing development near Ipswich, in the marginal Labor-held seat of Blair, where the Liberal candidate is a real estate developer.
The long-distance dash was to Darwin, with a two-hour stopover to chat to retirees at a community hall in Cairns, in under-threat Leichhardt, on the way. There was a visit to another newly built, unoccupied home in another housing development at Zuccoli, on Darwin’s outskirts, in the marginal Labor-held seat of Lingiari, and a drop-in on more retirees. Then Morrison flew to Geelong and the Labor-held seat of Corangamite, for another chat to first home buyers at Armstrong Creek and another news conference in a dirt backyard. He then gave a speech in Melbourne and flew to Tasmania, where he ended the day kicking a ball with the Devonport Strikers under-eights soccer team. This time, though, the imagery was slightly different.
Having described himself earlier in the week as “a bit of a bulldozer” and vowing to change if re-elected, Morrison provided an unfortunate visual metaphor, accidentally crash tackling young player Luca Fauvette to the ground on Wednesday afternoon – a substantial achievement in a non-contact sport.
At a news conference on Thursday, he laughed off the incident. “Luca’s in great shape, and he probably came off a little better than I did last night because I hit the ground with quite a thud,” Morrison said. “But he’s a great sport and he’s a great kid.”
These final, frenzied few days before the verdict are testament to the closeness of this contest, despite what the polls have long suggested.
On the Morrison campaign, they are also testament to the prime minister’s self-belief and to his capacity to talk and talk and talk, relentlessly pushing his themes at every opportunity.
There are glimpses of the pressure he is under in that urgent tone and the attempted wholesale clean-up of the things about him that are annoying voters. These include the “bulldozer” character confession and insistence he can “change” and that there are other “gears” people haven’t yet seen.
There was also an admission in the final televised debate that securing Covid-19 vaccines was a race after all. And this week, in a fiery interview with Nine’s Tracy Grimshaw on A Current Affair, he added that he shouldn’t have downplayed the heroism of firefighters during the bushfire crisis by reducing it to “holding a hose”.
“Certainly that wasn’t a comment at the time that was helpful,” he said.
The Morrison brand has become problematic. But as he always does, he is looking for ways to talk his way around it. And he is very good at the talking.
He barges through the fire of journalists’ questions but picks and chooses which ones he takes, acknowledging and accepting them from certain members of the travelling media pack and shunning others. The latter category includes this correspondent, who tried for four days to ask him a question and was forced eventually to interrupt and name the subject of the inquiry – “on Covid-19, prime minister, Covid-19” – then wait for others more in his favour to grab hold of the issue instead.
Pummelled with questions about the virus, deaths and infection rates, he says he will not be providing the whole population with a fourth booster shot because “that is not the medical advice”.
Eventually, he turns even this issue into a political message, narrowcast at the freedom brigades who took to the streets earlier this year, protesting mask mandates.
“I’d add this about Covid,” Morrison says. “We’re living with Covid. I’ll tell you what we’re not going back to, we’re not going back to those daily press conferences of people talking about Covid every day and putting the threat of shutdowns and lockdowns and interfering in people’s lives again. I’ll tell you, that’s not what I’m going to do if I’m re-elected on Saturday. I am not going to drag Australia back into those times again.”
An interview request lodged by The Saturday Paper the previous week was met, as it was in 2019, with polite refusal by Morrison’s staff. It was, The Saturday Paper was told, “a numbers game” – in other words, this newspaper was not considered important enough for the prime minister’s time. Except it really wasn’t just a numbers game, because he made time on Tuesday to record an interview for Squiz Kids, a podcast produced by former Liberal staffer Claire Kimball’s online magazine The Squiz and aimed at a cohort not old enough to vote.
In fact, we are in good company in our inability to secure words with the nation’s leader. This election, Morrison also refused interview requests from Guardian Australia, declined appearances on the ABC’s Q+A and Insiders programs and did not give the traditional final-week address to the National Press Club, the first major-party leader in 50 years not do so.
Morrison wants voters to make their decisions based on the leaders’ performances, but he is setting the terms of that assessment. Those terms involve applying different tests for himself and his opponent. He wants to speak in generalities about his own performance as prime minister and that of his colleagues – emphasising that they “saved Australia”, not the mistakes they made in the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, or the blunders during the 2020 bushfires, or the huge spending on local sports facilities in target Coalition seats.
He urges voters to judge his opponent, Anthony Albanese, by a different measure. He is portraying the Labor leader’s long stint in government, mostly in the portfolio of Infrastructure, as equating to a lack of experience, and encourages media focus on Albanese’s public presentation – on how he speaks, how he reacts to things, whether he seems confident or hesitant, whether he can remember numbers on demand.
While this has worked to a point, it hasn’t worked entirely, as evidenced by Morrison’s sudden pivot this week to an insistence that he will “change” if re-elected. Even this is a complicated message, though. He is at once saying he will change but also that it has been the right approach for the pandemic period.
“I know Australians know that I can be a bit of a bulldozer when it comes to issues,” he says. “But over the last few years that’s been pretty important, to ensure we’ve been able to get through some of the most important things that we’ve had to do and land some really big security agreements.”
He say that he will change the way he does things after the election, because “we are moving into a different time”.
He says he already possesses more appealing characteristics but that voters haven’t been able to see them yet. He is working hard in these final days to try to demonstrate this allegedly hidden side.
Despite the very bad press he received from attempting to force bushfire victims to shake his hand back in 2020 – or maybe because of it – Morrison is concentrating on his conversations with the vetted guests at campaign photo-ops and they are coming easily.
At the CareFlight medevac aircraft hangar in Darwin, he chats to Jordan Sing, who’s in the third year of an avionics apprenticeship.
Morrison is interested in Sing’s work and manages to get the young bloke chatting as he talks up the Coalition’s plans for boosting skills training. As he prepares to move on to a group of nearby flight crew, Morrison sticks out his hand and Sing hastily wipes his own on his shirt before grasping it, avoiding imparting unwanted grease.
He is happy to meet the prime minister, happy that the prime minister is interested. As he moves around, Morrison praises and marvels and cracks jokes at his own expense.
Earlier, in the satellite town of Palmerston, at a new, federally funded community hall, Morrison has a cuppa with retirees who meet for games and morning tea. He chats, poses for photos and has a go at indoor bowls.
The previous day, in Cairns, he was persuaded to a quick game of darts against his MP, Warren Entsch, who whistled up this stopover gathering with members of the local independent retirees’ association, who meet in the darts club hall.
Entsch’s darts hit the outer ring, but Morrison almost hits the bullseye.
“You don’t show up the boss,” Entsch says, chuckling quietly, afterwards.
The prime minister rolls out his lines at these events and manages to make what he needs to say relevant to whomever he is with.
In Cairns, among self-funded retirees, he is talking about how tropical north Queensland is a really important part of Australia’s recovery. He parlays this into a spiel about young people trying to get into the housing market, in line with the policy he has just announced.
“I’m sure you’ll have grandchildren and children and perhaps even great-grandchildren,” he says. “… But those who are looking to buy a home, you know it’s tough when you’re looking to buy a house. It was tough when we did it 30 years ago. I’m sure it’s tough when you did it. It’s always been tough.”
He explains how he wants people to be able to access their superannuation to buy a home. His policy is to allow them to access up to 40 per cent of their super up to $50,000 to buy their first home, whether newly built or existing, from July 2023. In contrast, Labor’s policy is for the government to underwrite the loan and to leave superannuation where it is.
Morrison is looking at his notes a lot because he can’t recall all the details of yesterday’s policy announcement off the cuff. But he doesn’t cop any media questions about forgetfulness.
In the one-on-one conversations he has in Cairns, and at other events, he is quick with his responses, making sure he gives each person his full attention. Jenny Morrison moves around separately. She is warm and makes a good impression.
But when it’s time to go, he gathers her up and they are off.
As they head for the door at the darts club, the group’s president, Jill Lord, tries to say farewell and thanks for coming.
But Morrison reaches for Jenny’s hand as their host is mid-sentence and they are gone before she gets out her thank you. The caravan moves on.
In Devonport, after the unfortunate incident on the soccer field, Morrison is asked if he’s spoken to young Luca Fauvette. He has.
“He’s got a story to tell his mates today,” he says. “And I suspect a yarn he’ll be able to spin for many, many years to come.”
The child has his own views about the incident. “It should’ve been a penalty,” he told Nine’s Today show on Thursday, holding up a red card.
Now it’s voters deciding if Morrison is sent from the field, or if he’s allowed to play on.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 21, 2022 as "Can Scott Morrison pull off another ‘miracle’ win?".
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