Paul Bongiorno
Oh no, here we go again

Expectations of a Labor victory today have been trimmed dramatically. Far from the landslide many were increasingly confident of just a week ago, forming a minority government is now widely seen as the best they can expect.

The possibility of Scott Morrison again snatching victory from the jaws of defeat has Liberal hearts pounding. They dare to dream of another “miracle”, prompted by a tightening in the late opinion polls after the party’s formal campaign launch last Sunday.

If the Liberals secure a narrow victory – or are even in a position to have first claim to forming a minority government – it will defy their performance over the past three years and be in spite of Morrison’s deep unpopularity. Half the population disapproves of how he does the job, according to the Essential poll.

More remarkably, internal Liberal Party polling has identified the biggest gender divide in voting since polling began. The data was leaked to 10 News First and found only 38 per cent of Liberal voters are women. This explains why Morrison has enlisted the help of his wife, Jenny – now a highly visible presence for the TV cameras at the carefully orchestrated daily campaign events.

Jenny Morrison has had to come to the rescue before when her husband seemed slow to grasp the need to ensure greater safety for women at Parliament House after the Brittany Higgins rape allegation. He was spurred to action after his wife urged him “to think about this as a father first”. He said, “Jenny has a way of clarifying things; she always has.”

Whether it was due to Jenny or his party’s research, on the eve of Morrison facing the judgement of voters we saw an extraordinary pivot. It appeared to be prompted by a female journalist asking him if his problem was he keeps telling people what they know rather than listening.

He admitted he was “a bit of a bulldozer” but said it was a sign of macho strength, particularly in confronting the challenges of the worst pandemic in a century. In fact, Morrison tells us that Jenny says it’s typical of “the Morrison men” when they have to solve problems.

Morrison admitted on A Current Affair he had known for a long time he was a bulldozer but now the pandemic was over “we’re standing at the edge of a lot of opportunity” and he is ready to change gears.

“As we go into the next period on the other side of the pandemic, I know things that are going to have to change with the way I do things,” he said last week. But in the following days it became very clear this doesn’t mean changing his approach to the key issues that have prompted a raft of high-profile female independents challenging Liberals in their hitherto blue-ribbon seats.

These concerns are, after all, more in line with the changing attitudes in contemporary Australia. But there are no concessions for a federal integrity commission with teeth or for more ambitious climate change action in line with the dire warnings from the United Nations’ international panel of scientists.

Morrison and his starkly divided government are simply incapable of being fit for purpose. The prime minister and his embattled moderate Liberals in urban seats pay lip-service to climate action while at the same time pumping millions of dollars into new fossil fuel projects. The Nationals, meanwhile, campaign in coal seats rubbishing the net-zero emissions target by 2050.

Morrison’s claims to being a bulldozer do not stand up to scrutiny, either. He is being criticised precisely because he was more often than not late to act and, when he finally did, ineffective. Just ask the Australians whose lives have been devastated by catastrophic bushfires and floods and who are still waiting for promised relief and assistance to rebuild.

In the A Current Affair interview, Tracy Grimshaw stunned Morrison with her last question. She said that at his launch he claimed to have “saved the country”, but she continued by noting, “You don’t hold a hose, you weren’t in your tinnie plucking people off rooftops, you weren’t doing 16-hour days in PPE on Covid wards, you didn’t get enough vaccines soon enough, you didn’t get enough RATs so that we could finally have a holiday interstate for Christmas, and China has set up [a] base in the Solomons. Do you think maybe you slightly overegged the part about ‘I saved the country?’ ”

He admitted to not getting everything right but spoke at length about the biggest economic stimulus in Australia’s history and the billions of dollars spent on JobKeeper and JobSeeker. Of course, he didn’t mention the $40 billion of unrecovered assistance to businesses that didn’t need it.

He repeated his claims that he knows how to manage money but Anthony Albanese and Labor don’t. He must hope voters are blind to the historic deficits run up on his watch, now heading towards a trillion dollars’ worth of debt. How spending $5.5 billion on submarines that will never arrive makes him a good money manager is a mystery. The shadow Treasurer, Jim Chalmers, says that amount is bigger than any single program Labor is promising to implement should it win.

Midweek there came confirmation of the worst real-wage decline this century. The Australian Bureau of Statistics data showed real wages fell 2.5 per cent in the past 12 months, well below the 5.1 per cent increase in the consumer price index. On Thursday, Australia recorded the lowest unemployment number in half a century: 3.9 per cent. Last time it was this low was under the Whitlam Labor government in 1974. Senior economist Matt Grudnoff from The Australia Institute says low unemployment is not stimulating wage growth and government intervention is required.

At the National Press Club, Albanese promised to do just that – even though Morrison says there is “no magic pen”. The Labor leader said the prime minister can’t change and “the only way to change Australia for the better is to change the government”.

But the indications are too many Australians are not so sure, and for that Albanese can blame only himself. He had been masterful in positioning Labor at the beginning of the campaign. All that was needed was a tighter and more convincing presentation to bring home a win. His campaign spokesman, Jason Clare, along with Chalmers, gave a compelling insight into how it can be done during the leader’s Covid-19 isolation week.

The way the Labor leader handled the day one memory lapse on the unemployment number and cash rate enabled the wily and ruthless Morrison to frame his attack on Albanese as not being up to the job.

However, on Tuesday night, when the Resolve poll showed Labor’s lead collapsing, a focus group participant in the marginal Liberal seat of Chisholm in Melbourne calmed campaign nerves for some in the party by saying: “I would rather have a leader who stumbles every now and then but admits to it, than someone who bullshits and lies like Scott Morrison does every day.”

Morrison may yet prove to be Albanese’s greatest asset. A Liberal source says the prime minister is a 3 per cent drag on the party vote in some of the crucial seats they need to hold and want to win.

A source at the Climate 200 fund backing the “teal” independents is confident Monique Ryan will take Kooyong from Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, Zoe Daniel will win Goldstein and Allegra Spender will take Wentworth, with Sophie Scamps a strong chance in Mackellar.

Those four seats would see the Coalition lose its majority. According to other polling, it is also not on track to take Gilmore, Eden-Monaro or Parramatta from Labor.

Of course, there will be surprise swings and roundabouts, but Labor tracking has the party strongly in front in Swan, Brisbane, Reid, Chisholm and Boothby. Those five seats would have Albanese well on the way to forming at least a minority government. Seventy-four seats is believed to be the essential number for that to happen. Seventy-six are needed for a majority government.

There’s no doubt Morrison is a better campaigner than Albanese. He has the uncanny ability to run contradictory arguments, sometimes in the same sentence, without blinking.

On Wednesday he said the choice was between a stronger economy and a weaker one and a certain one and an uncertain one. This is after arguing global factors have made everything uncertain and contributed to inflation, which he says he couldn’t do much about.

Despite the tightening polls, the mob is on to Morrison. He’s like the job applicant who stars in the interview but fails in the role. That’s the experience of the past three years and explains why the polls have found evidence of voters marking him down.

If we are heading for a minority government, it could be at least two weeks before we know who the prime minister is. Albanese might not be able to attend the Quad summit in Tokyo next week. And caretaker Scott Morrison might be asked to take Labor’s Foreign Affairs shadow minister, Penny Wong, along for the ride.

Essential pollster Peter Lewis says Labor should put a bottle of champagne on ice, but buy a bottle of whisky just in case. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 21, 2022 as "Oh no, here we go again".

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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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