Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Will Morrison push for a November election?

The fictional Stone Age family of largely unremembered animated children’s film The Croods is the prime minister’s latest inspiration for a nation exhausted by lockdowns and living in fear of the Delta strain of Covid-19.

Scott Morrison tried out the reference on Tuesday, talking to the Channel Nine breakfast show Today. “Now it’s like that movie ... The Croods,” he said. “People wanted to stay in the cave. Some wanted to stay in the cave. And that young girl, she wanted to go out and live again and deal with the challenges of living in a different world. Well, Covid is a new, different world and we need to get out there and live in it. We can’t stay in the cave…” Defending the analogy, he said: “I liked the movie.”

Later the same morning, Morrison brought it up in the government party room. He said his light-bulb moment came when he was watching the movie with his two young daughters. According to a briefing, he described the hero of the film as a young girl who is sick of being cooped up and who eventually persuades her overly protective father that life outside isn’t so scary after all.

The family apparently lived. More than that, Morrison told the party room, a sequel was made. He said this was as good a metaphor as any for the Coalition winning the looming election. He urged his troops to keep showing the same teamwork and loyalty to him as they had since he was given the top job three years ago. He said this was the key to their continuing success.

Just as crucial to that success would be going to an election before the pandemic got worse, and doing it on the promise that things were about to get better. There would be no better yardstick for that than reaching specified vaccination targets. Senior advisers in the Queensland government are convinced this is Morrison’s strategy and that the groundwork is being laid for a November election.

Even if Australia reaches 70 to 80 per cent double vaccination rates in the adult population by then – and the government is increasingly confident that will happen, with millions more doses of Pfizer available – it doesn’t end the pandemic. The belief is the campaign would run along the lines, “Stick with my government and we will use this momentum to open up the country.”

Modelling from the Doherty Institute predicts hundreds of deaths and thousands of infections under Morrison’s plan. Even then, and after being challenged over the government-commissioned modelling, the institute’s director, Professor Sharon Lewin, repeated the huge caveat that Australia would need to still utilise optimal testing, tracing, isolation and quarantine.

There can be no guarantee that any of this can be delivered as required, either. State hospitals were under pressure before the pandemic. New South Wales is struggling badly. That is a big factor in the thinking behind an early election. Morrison would be taking a huge gamble on the situation improving by March or even when the election is due by May next year. In the meantime, keeping a message simple and furiously spinning the positives over the negatives is the essence of successful political marketing – and no one knows it better than the prime minister.

In his Channel Nine interview, Morrison was plugging into lockdown fatigue. He talked about businesses reeling, families at the end of their tether and everyone, particularly in Victoria and NSW, wanting their old freedoms back. You hardly need research to tell you this is the mood of a substantial part of the nation, but it has been bolstered by focus groups commissioned by the Liberals and has given Morrison a route out of his political malaise.

With the pandemic spiralling out of control in NSW – with a record 1029 cases on Thursday and predictions of worse to come – there is no way the federal government could leave the focus on the vulnerability of a largely unvaccinated population. Morrison began the week calling for a change of mindset away from cases and towards hospitalisation and deaths. This “shift of focus”, he hopes, will see voters more relaxed about “living with Covid”, just as they live with other infectious diseases such as influenza.

Not so reassuring was Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce. In the government party room he said, “No plan is perfect”, and warned there would be deaths and very sick people. Treasurer Josh Frydenberg was similarly frank, and rhetorically asked in several interviews, if we can’t get out at “70 or 80 per cent vaccinated, when?”

Western Australia’s premier, Mark McGowan, wasn’t too impressed about being likened to a scared cave dweller. He thought it was an “odd way” to describe West Australians. He is in no hurry to follow a “live with Covid” prescription coming from a failing NSW and backed by Morrison. Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said the “goalposts have changed” because the national cabinet adopted Morrison’s Australia-wide plan prior to the NSW crisis.

Midweek, she put a pause on interstate arrivals from NSW, Victoria and the ACT for at least two weeks because the state’s hotel quarantine system was at capacity. The state “is being loved to death at the moment”, the premier said, as it returned another zero-community transmission day.

For Morrison’s pitch about letting everyone out of the cave to be successful, he must establish that he is the only political leader promising it. He and his senior ministers have set out this week to paint the Labor premiers, particularly of WA and Queensland, as being opposed to his offer of liberation. By extension, he places federal Labor leader Anthony Albanese in the same category.

Morrison characterised any questions Albanese had to ask about the national plan as the opposition leader trying to undermine it. On ABC TV morning television Albanese gave an unequivocal “yes” for the plan’s benchmarks – a sure sign that he, like Morrison, has read the national mood. In fact, Blind Freddy could not miss it. Albanese said, “No one wants to see lockdowns for one day more than necessary.”

Albanese went to what has been a killer line of attack when he said the lockdowns, including the one that led to the current predicament, have “arisen from outbreaks, from a failure to have purpose-built quarantine”. This failure is hurting the government, but as one Liberal put it to me: the government is counting on “people not crying over spilt milk but rather [focusing on] how do we get out of this mess”.

Feeding perceptions around Capital Hill that the prime minister is getting ready for a dash to the polls is the fact the government has brought electoral reform bills into the parliament this sitting fortnight. The Liberals are particularly keen to curb the ability of micro parties on their extreme right to form with memberships under 1500. The government hasn’t given the senate a chance to scrutinise the bills through the usual committee process. If a November poll wasn’t in the equation, there would be ample time for this to happen.

Either by accident or design, billionaire political maverick Clive Palmer beat the legislation to the punch on Monday. He announced that the United Australia Party (UAP), which in the time between elections is largely a figment of his imagination, had a new parliamentary leader. To be more accurate, he left it to Liberal deserter MP Craig Kelly to break the news: Palmer merely confirmed it in a statement, which also confirmed he would be the chairman of the party.

Kelly’s membership gives the UAP status as far as the Australian Electoral Commission is concerned, no matter how many join it. Kelly and Palmer have been pushing dubious remedies for Covid-19 and waging a campaign against lockdowns and any mandating of vaccinations. Kelly said the party will be fighting to end lockdowns; it plans a High Court challenge to the closed borders of Queensland and WA and “will offer an alternative approach to the mayhem and destruction that is the policies of both the Labor and Liberal parties”.

Kelly’s most significant announcement was his claim that Palmer would bankroll the UAP’s campaign by as much if not more than he spent in the run-up to the 2019 election. According to the Australian Electoral Commission, the billionaire spent $83 million on his political disruption then.

One senior Labor strategist says that campaign played a significant role in shovelling preferences to the Liberals. Furthermore, 33 days out from the poll Palmer’s extensive advertisements targeted Labor’s Bill Shorten exclusively, to damaging effect. Labor has no doubt Palmer will repeat the tactics.

In the meantime, the ads are rolling out equating Craig Kelly with “freedom” and saying neither Labor nor Liberals can be trusted anymore. Some Liberal MPs are convinced Palmer has tapped into concerns among a significant minority in their electorates. Preferential voting probably means they have little to worry about.

What motivates Palmer’s activism is not immediately obvious. Maybe he is a patriotic Australian doing more than his bit for the nation. Or maybe he really wants a federal government that would be more sympathetic to his massive fossil fuel interests. His thwarting of the more climate-ambitious Shorten last time was worth every cent in this calculation.

Coal champions in the Queensland Liberal Nationals, such as Matt Canavan, will be hoping Palmer appreciates their relentless campaigning. It’s just a pity if the cost of the exercise is pushing snake oil into the nation’s efforts to deal with the pandemic.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 28, 2021 as "Crood language in the workplace".

A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.

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