Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
White knuckle dragger

Three years after winning the leadership, the reality is setting in about Scott Morrison. The chance of him winning again are slimmer than before. The idea that he is a government unifier and a change from Malcolm Turnbull has shifted. The photo opportunities aren’t cutting through anymore.

According to one of the Liberal Party’s most experienced campaigners, speaking at a private lunch in Canberra, the prime minister is no longer an unknown quantity and the “daggy dad” persona constructed for the 2019 election campaign has worn thin.

“Scott’s only hope,” the Liberal operative says, “is for Hirsty to come up with two or three really bleak and nasty ads targeting Albanese and give them saturation media.”

Fear has always been a powerful motivator in election campaigns and the Liberals’ federal director, Andrew Hirst, would need no convincing. But for negative ads to work – no matter how scary the Photoshopped images are, or the music and the doomsday voice over – they have to tap into doubts or fears that already exist in the electorate.

And in this regard the ground is just as fertile for Labor to retaliate. If the latest Newspoll is any guide, voters have a very negative perception of both the major party leaders on offer, and Morrison no longer has
a clear edge over Anthony Albanese.

Since February, satisfaction with Morrison’s performance has fallen off a cliff. He has plunged 40 points to a negative rating of 8 and with only 4 per cent uncommitted. The Labor leader, on the other hand, had a negative rating of 7 in February and is 6 now with 16 per cent uncommitted.

That means a significantly large number of voters are still making up their minds about Albanese. On the other hand, Morrison’s low uncommitted number of 4 per cent remains where it has been for most of the year. Most voters have already formed a view of him.

Labor has now led the government by 6 or 8 points two-party preferred since midyear. Morrison goes into the election year in as grim a place – in fact, marginally grimmer – than he did in 2019.

Last Sunday was notable not for what was happening on Mount Panorama, where Morrison attempted to confect another photo-op in a white-knuckle trip around the Bathurst 1000 track, but rather what was happening in the marginal Western Sydney seat of Reid, which Labor is hoping to win back from the Liberals.

After holding his fire for the past two years, Albanese unveiled his climate policies. He and the Climate Change shadow minister, Chris Bowen, have certainly been doing their homework, determined not to be vulnerable to the sort of attacks Morrison was able to launch against Labor’s 2019 effort.

The policy, with its 43 per cent emissions reduction by 2030, uses the same framework earlier proposed by the Business Council of Australia. It strengthens the safeguard mechanism designed originally by the Liberals’ Greg Hunt and adopted when Morrison was treasurer. This market-based device puts pressure on 215 of the biggest emitters and gives them an incentive to reduce their pollution.

Detailed modelling by RepuTex, a leading provider of energy market pricing and analysis, fills any gaps on costs and jobs raised last time voters went to the polls. Its credibility is bolstered by the way it dovetails with the modelling produced by Deloitte Access Economics for the Business Council.

The Greens are particularly unimpressed. Their leader, Adam Bandt, condemns Labor’s weak target, saying it is “a recipe for climate collapse”. Their 75 per cent reduction target by 2030 can lay claim to taking the science more seriously, but it is more the policy of a ginger group than a party vying for government.

Albanese’s carefully crafted policy has been welcomed, as he never tires of saying, by the leading business and industry groups, the Australian Council of Trade Unions and the National Farmers’ Federation. There is every sign Morrison has been flummoxed by Albanese’s shrewd outflanking of him.

This was on display when the prime minister campaigned in the Sydney seat of Wentworth. Malcolm Turnbull’s old seat used to be the bluest of the Liberal blue ribbon seats but is now marginal after the independent Kerryn Phelps lost it to Dave Sharma.

Sharma must be feeling vulnerable to the challenge of Allegra Spender, one of the “teal” independents who has an impressive pedigree as the daughter and granddaughter of two former federal Liberal politicians. Spender has identified stronger climate action, integrity in government and equality of women as issues of real concern. One Sydney moderate lamented after Spender’s nomination that, “The doctors’ wives are no longer just not voting for us, they are running against us.”

It is no accident that many of the independents running in safe Liberal seats backed by Simon Holmes à Court’s Climate 200 organisation are articulate, passionate women. Morrison’s campaigning misfired badly when he ran lines in Wentworth that would have resonated more in the Queensland coal seat of Flynn. He was asked if he disagreed with Dave Sharma’s calling for a 40 to 45 per cent reduction target by 2035. He rejected it because it was not government policy.

Morrison said the choice was between a Liberal–Nationals government or a Labor–Greens one. How that would sound scary to the voters of progressive Wentworth is anybody’s guess. Especially as Labor and the independents are saying a vote for Sharma is a vote for Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce. After all, Joyce is the reason Morrison is stuck with Tony Abbott’s 2030 target – which Morrison personally wanted to raise.

When it came to Labor’s 43 per cent, Morrison claimed it was merely an opening bid. He constructed a scenario where the Greens in the senate would demand their target when Labor came to legislate. “So,” he said, “vote Labor, you vote Greens and you vote for the Greens’ targets.”

This proposition was tersely rejected by Chris Bowen at the National Press Club. He answered “no” to any negotiated upward target after the election. The Labor shadow minister went so far as to say that while legislating was preferred, the party would simply regulate it as the government is doing with its weak 26 to 28 per cent target if they couldn’t get it through the parliament.

Anthony Albanese will not be repeating what he sees as the mistake Julia Gillard made by entering into a formal agreement with the Greens for support of her minority government in 2010. He has form in this area.

In June 2013, when he became deputy prime minister after Kevin Rudd’s successful coup against Gillard, Albanese had a meeting in Parliament House’s Monkey Pod room with Adam Bandt. It takes its name from the prominent timber table made of tropical hardwood. It’s the place where Liberal conservatives famously lunched and plotted against Malcolm Turnbull.

On this occasion it was where the new-look Labor government sent the Greens packing. Bandt came in with a list of demands for his support of the reinstalled prime minister on the floor of the house. Albanese said there would be no deals – if Bandt helped bring down Rudd he would surely lose his seat. When he originally took the seat of Melbourne from Labor, Bandt had campaigned on the assurance he would support a Labor government.

Morrison once told an interviewer he had “a flow brain”. His trouble is reality on key issues has flowed past him and his capacity to run distractions that have credibility has eroded. This is certainly true on climate and on the issue of government integrity. Even on the economy, the latest JWS Research’s True Issues Survey has found the government’s performance index is falling and cost of living is far and away voters’ biggest concern.

Albanese is now relishing the head-to-head contest. At Sunday’s campaign rally he was ruthless in his attacks on Morrison’s character. He said the prime minister was “a leader whose words have become meaningless … who has no regard for what he said yesterday, so you should have no regard for what he says today”.

The Labor leader was not spooked by Morrison’s high-octane photo opportunity. He said the government is “simply spent” and we have a prime minister “whose tank is on empty”. The race is certainly on.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 11, 2021 as "White knuckle dragger".

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