Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Albanese is triggering Morrison’s green-eyed monster

There’s not much doubt about it: Labor’s Anthony Albanese is messing with Scott Morrison’s head. The prime minister knows he has the fight of his life on his hands – and so far, he’s losing it.

Bill Shorten, the man Morrison consigned to history at the 2019 election, put it very succinctly on the Today show this week: “I think the little green monster is sitting on Mr Morrison’s shoulder and he is jealous of Albo.” The observation was prompted by the prime minister’s reaction to his opponent’s weight loss as part of his personal repackaging in his quest for The Lodge.

Morrison says the restyling is proof Albanese doesn’t know who he is. In what must be one of the more remarkable examples of chutzpah, the prime minister said he himself wasn’t “pretending to be anyone else”. Morrison claimed he was still wearing the same sunglasses and “sadly, the same suits”. He added: “I weigh about the same size and I don’t mind a bit of Italian cuisine.”

Shorten was quick to point out that he remembered Morrison before the last election. He recalled the new glasses and “the attempt at a makeover”. Indeed, who can forget the “Call me ScoMo” daggy dad the new prime minister assiduously set out to become? He abandoned his claim of being a lifelong rugby union fan and on the advice of Radio 2GB’s Ray Hadley embraced the game of “the workers”, rugby league. He then became the Cronulla Sharks’ highest-profile supporter – beanie, scarf and all. He even christened the prime ministerial plane “Shark One”.

It is highly significant to note Morrison’s attempt to turn the Albanese makeover into an election issue came on Sky News’s Paul Murray Live. The “after dark” show is a sanctuary for boofy blokes who love their utes and live in the outer suburbs. That’s the demographic that played a big part in delivering Morrison his surprise election win.

They were the voters Morrison had in mind when he said electric vehicles “would wreck your weekend” because they couldn’t tow a boat. He didn’t exactly repeat that on the show, but he went close. He said he wouldn’t force drivers to choose an electric vehicle because “under our policies, I’m not forcing anyone to drive anything”. In an answer that would send shudders through Liberal MPs in city electorates facing challenges from teal climate change action independents, he said he backs coal and maintains that “our policy when it comes to emissions reduction is about choice, not mandates”.

The extraordinary run Labor is having in Newspoll this year suggests the “boofy blokes” won’t be enough to save Morrison this time. The party has led all four polls by 10 points or more – landslide territory if repeated at the election. This persistent gap is well outside the margin of error that saw the polls get it wrong last time. Put another way, there is enough insurance in the poll to point to the likely winner even if the gap is tighter than is being identified.

The “little green monster” of envy could have been prompted by the positive reception Albanese’s makeover got on Channel Nine’s flagship current affairs program, 60 Minutes. The show won its time slot in all five mainland capitals and attracted 60,000 more viewers than the “Meet the Morrisons” episode a few weeks back. It indicates more interest in the alternative prime minister.

The Labor campaign team is thrilled with their candidate’s performance. A key strategist says, “We couldn’t have asked more of Albo.” Reporter Karl Stefanovic gave Albanese every opportunity to explain his “unbelievable” appearance. He said he was “literally hungry” but he wanted to be “match fit”. Asked during the week to respond to Morrison’s barbs suggesting he was a fake, the Labor leader said it was a tough job and he was determined to be physically up to the long hours and the extensive travel.

In that he is hardly setting a precedent. John Howard made a virtue of his daily power walks in his green-and-gold tracksuit, intent on making the same point. How Morrison thinks turning a health kick into a negative will work for him is more an indication of delusional desperation than anything else. It is fed, no doubt, by the fact that Albanese has now drawn level in the preferred prime minister measure. In February last year Morrison had a 35-point lead. That’s some slide.

The message Liberal MPs are picking up in their electorates is clear: the prime minister has lost the mob and they are no longer listening to him. One says he doesn’t need an opinion poll to convince him of that.

To reverse his fortunes Morrison needs to turn his negatives into positives. He is already pushing hard on the fact that though he may have made mistakes he has steered the economy through catastrophic bushfires and floods and a once-in-100-years pandemic. Albanese, he insists, lacks this experience.

And that’s the prime minister’s other big task. He has to convince voters he has learnt the lessons and has the corporate memory in government to do better. Except the evidence is he lacks the empathy to have learnt anything much. After the “I don’t hold a hose, mate” excuse for his bushfire response came the bureaucratic and late response to the Queensland and New South Wales floods. Lismore mayor Steve Krieg says it was “humanity devoid”.

Even on Monday this week the head of Emergency Management Australia, Joe Buffone, was wheeled out to explain that the Commonwealth does not have the jurisdiction for first responding. Buffone is no fool and, while his letter-of-the-law excuse is no doubt correct, he would know it impresses few.

Former treasurer Wayne Swan says then prime minister Julia Gillard’s quick response to the 2011 Brisbane floods won the gratitude of the then Queensland premier, Anna Bligh. The contrast is stark.

So the biggest mountain Morrison has to climb is himself and he has little time in which to do it. The federal election will have to be called within a month, soon after the do-or-die budget on March 29.

Already there are signs that Morrison’s senior colleagues are looking beyond the election loss. There was a report this week that Peter Dutton has been contacting “like-minded” MPs for catch-ups to discuss the government’s dire situation and the prime minister’s hopelessness. The purpose, it seems, is to lay claim to leadership credentials after the election and to head off Josh Frydenberg.

A leadership team of Dutton with current Communications minister Paul Fletcher as his deputy and treasurer is being mooted. The prospect of a move on Morrison in two weeks’ time is not discounted but is thought to be highly unlikely. There is a real fear that Morrison would immediately advise the governor-general not to replace him but rather to call an election. In other words, he would blow up the government.

There is little confidence on the backbench that Morrison and Treasurer Frydenberg can pull another election-winning rabbit out of the hat. Some discount the lines fed to the media midweek that tax cuts can’t be fast-tracked or responsibly afforded. Like a majority of Australians, according to Newspoll, Morrison’s own members don’t believe a word that comes out of his mouth.

But even with Morrison promising a “fiscally responsible and restrained budget” it will still be massively in deficit, as economist Richard Denniss points out. And if offering some tax relief means giving himself a better chance of clinging to power, can anyone imagine him not taking it?

According to some economists the most appealing option would be to increase the low- and middle-income tax offset and keep it in place for one more year – that is, until after the election. The offset is worth up to $1080 and already costs the budget $8 billion a year. Any increase would be expensive but gives the government a selling line.

It certainly needs it. On his first visit to Western Australia in more than 18 months, Morrison was confronted with opinion polling in The West Australian showing the Liberals in big trouble in four of their seats. He faced a tough interview on his favourite Perth radio station, 6PR. There he tried to defend the biggest waste of taxpayers’ money since federation, where $20 billion of JobKeeper money went to businesses not eligible for it. He was also told his touted rises in pensions still fall behind inflation.

Making the cost-of-living issue even worse for the government is the exponential rise in petrol prices. Morrison has no answer here, either. Richard Denniss says even if the excise is frozen or cut, a drop of two cents a litre when petrol is $2.20 a litre still leaves millions struggling. It also means fuel prices feeding into supply chain costs and retail price rises. What a pity that under the Coalition Australia has wasted almost a decade in not moving to encourage electric vehicles and transportation.

Albanese told 60 Minutes in regards to himself: what you see is what you get. He’s hoping his new serious glasses, trim figure and well-cut suits convince people they are seeing Australia’s next prime minister. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 19, 2022 as "Not green, with envy".

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

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