Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Big holes in the Coalition’s pre-election bucket list

As the year like no other draws to an end, the challenges and crises it presented have highlighted the nation’s strengths and dramatised its weaknesses. Facing up to these realities will be particularly daunting for our political leaders as they ready themselves for the next federal election.

Scott Morrison says he’s a “full-term” prime minister but, if the precedent of other full-termers is any guide, the second half of 2021 will be the most likely window of opportunity for him to call a poll. Certainly, the Labor Party is gearing up for a half-senate and house of representatives general election as early as July or August. No one expects the prime minister to go beyond March of 2022. In other words, the fevered atmospherics of election campaigning will dominate the year ahead.

While it is true that a significant number of people leave it until polling day to make up their mind who to vote for – according to the Essential post-2019 election review, the number was 11 per cent – politicians don’t have the luxury of delaying their pitches. They have to fight to be noticed well ahead of the vote. As John Howard used to say, “You can’t fatten the pig on market day.”

No one knows that better than “Scotty from marketing”, and nervous Labor parliamentarians are worried Anthony Albanese has forgotten this political truism. This has fed some of the murmuring on the backbench about Albanese’s leadership. But the Labor leader is confident he’s in better shape than a cursory examination of the opinion polls might suggest.

This was a message conveyed by Labor’s national secretary, Paul Erickson, to staffers a few weeks back. For example, according to Labor’s research, Morrison’s 62 per cent approval rating in the latest Essential poll is intimately tied to the Covid-19 crisis. In recent interviews, Albanese has also drawn on this research, pointing out that everybody wants their governments – state and federal – to do well during a crisis. But the support is “brittle” and it is masking Morrison’s vulnerabilities on a range of other issues that are worrying voters, including job security, cost of living, childcare, integrity and climate change.

Albanese dismisses criticism of him for being soft on Morrison and being “Liberal lite” during the pandemic. He says: look at where negativity got the Liberals in Victoria. Michael O’Brien, Victoria’s Liberal opposition leader, has been aggressive and negative towards that state’s premier, Daniel Andrews, which has left voters mightily unimpressed and strongly disapproving of O’Brien in the opinion polls.

By contrast, in both Newspoll and Essential, Albanese is still in positive territory. The latest Essential poll has him at 43 per cent approval. Essential’s pollster Peter Lewis says in Guardian Australia that “the one job of an opposition leader this year was not to disqualify oneself from future office by acting like an opportunistic pork chop”. He says, “Albo passed this test.”

Tending to support Lewis’s analysis is the closeness of Newspoll’s two-party preferred vote. Sure, many are discounting the credibility of this measure after the poll’s performance ahead of last year’s election, but 51-49 per cent the government’s way is statistically lineball. Morrison’s “stratospheric” approvals have not translated into thumping support for the government he leads. And if his star starts to fade, that’s a worry for the Coalition – at the beginning of the year, after the prime minister’s appalling reaction to the catastrophic bushfires, Newspoll had the prime minister’s disapproval rating at almost 60 per cent, he trailed Albanese as preferred PM and the government’s stocks crashed.

As in 2020 it will likely be events unforeseen that will determine the direction of 2021. But already there are “known knowns” that the government is struggling to manage, and voters can rightly demand to know what the Labor alternative would do about these issues.

China is one such problem. Although, according to the Essential poll, two-thirds of Australians think Canberra is the victim in the trade war with China, this does nothing to solve the predicament that could put in jeopardy about 40 per cent of our export income and one million jobs directly linked to that trade. Near the top of the government’s 2021 bucket list has to be coming to a better accommodation with this giant customer.

Beijing’s bullying of Canberra has been very public, but so far the facts don’t sustain the hysteria when it comes to the economy. In the first three quarters of 2020, as the trade bans, embargoes and go-slows were ratcheted up by Beijing, the cumulative decline in exports to China was only 1.5 per cent, compared with a decline of 16.9 per cent to the rest of the pandemic-hit world.

Trade with China was key to the boost to the economy in the treasurer’s midyear economic and fiscal outlook. Thanks to China’s insatiable demand for our iron ore, and its readiness to pay record prices, Australia’s recovery from the pandemic recession is faster and bigger than the pessimism of the October budget predicted.

Deloitte Access Economics, in its midyear report, said the price of iron ore will also increase the Treasury’s tax receipts, helping to shrink the government’s still-massive debt.

Writing for the online platform Pearls and Irritations, geopolitical risk analyst George Mickhail has little sympathy for what he calls the “deliberate stunts” of Australian political elites in “stoking public fears about the threat of China as a rising geopolitical ‘adversary’ ”.

Mickhail believes the “China threat” headlines are “only poor diversions from the daily struggles of the Australian people: unemployment; rising food, energy and property prices; high consumer debt; budgetary cuts to government spending on health, education, and infrastructure”.

Speaking to RN Breakfast, former Labor Trade minister Craig Emerson urged the government to test China’s commitment to the global trading order by taking it to the World Trade Organization. Later that same day, Simon Birmingham made it one of his last acts as Trade minister.

Emerson said China’s president, Xi Jinping, is on the record as defending the rules-based international trading order and China has complied with WTO dispute resolutions in the past. The problem is that the process can take several years, and one of the legacies of United States President Donald Trump’s hostility to the WTO is the depletion in the number of judges sitting on its panels.

The arrival of Joe Biden in the White House could go a long way to lower the temperature. Biden, unlike Trump, is an experienced multilateralist. His appointment of Chinese–American trade lawyer Katherine Tai as his nominee for the cabinet-level US trade representative is welcomed in trade circles. As was noted in The Age, Tai “has a record of successful prosecutions of Chinese trade practices at the [WTO] and a history of being able to organise America’s allies in support of those actions”.

Just as confronting as we head into a new year is Kevin Rudd’s “great moral challenge of our generation”. Climate change is as problematic for Scott Morrison as it is for Anthony Albanese. But there is a strong argument that the Labor leader is a long way further down the track in solving his internal issues than is the prime minister.

Albanese’s biggest internal irritant, Joel Fitzgibbon, has dispatched himself to the backbench. But although he has become Labor’s most high-profile coal spruiker, the Hunter MP accepts a commitment to net zero carbon emissions by 2050, as do his allies in the caucus.

Resources Minister Keith Pitt, from Queensland, who is a member of the Nationals party room in Canberra, makes it crystal clear his party will not accept a 2050 target. His embattled leader, Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack, says the target is “unworkable”. Former Resources minister Matt Canavan goes further, saying it is “fantastical”.

McCormack could face a Barnaby Joyce-led challenge to his leadership as early as the first sitting week of parliament in February. Joyce is a hero of the Queensland coal champions and is working hard to enlist Veterans’ Affairs Minister Darren Chester from Victoria to shore up his numbers – so far without success.

The 2050 target has become totemic of commitment to real climate change action. Morrison was excluded from an international Climate Ambition Summit precisely because he had nothing to offer on a target except motherhood statements such as “by the second half of the century” or “as soon as possible”. Public opinion in Australia is hardening against this denialism, as it did in 2007. Back then it forced a reluctant John Howard to go to the election with an emissions trading scheme, although his late conversion failed to convince the electorate.

Morrison had better hope the catastrophic extreme weather of last summer is not repeated this summer. However, the omens are bad, with massive flood events already in Queensland and New South Wales. The bushfire victims who are still living in tents and caravans a year on from the fires will not have forgotten the prime minister’s mishandling of that crisis.

Labor’s virtual national conference in March will give Albanese the green light for an interim target “north of” 26 to 28 per cent – the range Morrison has doggedly stuck with. If addressing that is not on the prime minister’s bucket list for 2021, nervous Liberals in metropolitan seats will be mightily unimpressed. Their frustration is fuelled by the fact the Berejiklian Coalition government in NSW has already shown up Canberra’s pathetic efforts. Maybe next year Morrison will follow his state colleagues’ lead – ’tis the season for optimism, after all.

Hopefully 2021 will be better than 2020. It couldn’t be worse, could it?

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 19, 2020 as "Big holes in the Coalition’s pre-election bucket list".

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Paul Bongiorno is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a 30-year veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery.