Opinion

Chris Wallace
You’re neither on the bus nor off the bus

Like others among the mystically inclined, Christians can be prone to portents. Ominously for Prime Minister Scott Morrison, a flash storm last weekend tore apart the oak tree opposite The Lodge’s day-to-day working driveway on Canberra’s National Circuit.

Oaks symbolise strength and endurance. Morrison sees this one every time he goes to or from The Lodge. Its top was torn off, giving it a crippled, half-mast look exacerbated by raw rips visible in the torn branch left hanging from what remained. It presaged a terrible week as well as raising a deeper question: Was it a portent of the Liberals’ likely state should the Coalition’s standing in the polls – stuck in landslide loss territory – continue through to election day, the top torn away and limbs left hanging?

There is little passing traffic on that stretch of National Circuit so the torn oak portent is visible only to Morrison, Lodge workers, local residents and the gods of nature. For most Australians the past several days will be remembered instead as the week the prime minister missed the bus: the large Morrison-festooned bus tootling south down Queensland’s Highway 1, empty but for its driver, while Morrison jetted between electorally sensitive regional towns.

In distinctive Liberal blue livery, the bus was a mobile billboard emblazoned with the words: “A Stronger Economy. A Secure Future. Backing Queenslanders.” The twitterati had a field day rebadging it online. “It’s the same one we threw Malcolm under”: @keganscherf. “I’m only here because Mathias couldn’t count to 43”: @ AusLoafer. “A Slave Economy. A Miserable Future.”: @ eddyjokovich. “Vote 1 Liberal National Party. Powered…by COAL”: @Kimick4. “I voted 26 times against a Banking Royal Commission”: @unionsaustralia.

And the hats. Are they to conceal Morrison’s balding pate? Is he channelling Donald Trump’s #MAGA cap? (Can a hat dog-whistle?) They have become a running joke, though not in a good way.

Then there is Morrison’s lame use of what he understands to be the Australian vernacular. His agonising, scripted attempts at verbal blokiness evoke not so much warm feelings of Australian fraternity as tortured flashbacks of former prime minister Kevin Rudd faking human. Fair suck of the sauce bottle, Scott, give it away.

This amount of ridicule this early in a prime ministership is unprecedented and probably irreversible. Even Billy McMahon fared better in his ill-fated 21-month-long prime ministership before falling to Labor’s Gough Whitlam.

Has any prime minister missed their own honeymoon? Has there ever been a prime minister not to win a single Newspoll? Is there another prime minister whose first political outing saw the loss of a seat held by their party since Federation?

Scott Morrison has “achieved” this historic trifecta in the 11 dire weeks since he slid his way into the nation’s top job. The empty bus plastered with his supersized face exquisitely captures his prime ministership. Empty marketing or, as a rural Queenslander might put it – all hat, no cattle. Not even his size “L” baseball caps can conceal that fact.

And is deliberate staff sabotage going on? Is the same person responsible for Morrison’s parliamentary Fatman Scoop “Be Faithful” rap debacle also to blame for this week’s Spotify misstep, where Morrison ostensibly named only one Australian act in his 146-song Eighties Plus playlist?

As his public image consolidates into one of fake folksy farce, the prime minister’s isolation within his own party is striking. He is singular, alone.

The unnamed Liberal MP who described Morrison as “going down like a turd in a well” in Queensland reflected the view of many, including leadership rivals who still cannot quite believe the manoeuvre he pulled off in succeeding Malcolm Turnbull.

Craftier cabinet ministers such as Christopher Pyne, more popular Liberals such as Julie Bishop, and more bruising aspirants such as Peter Dutton must be aghast as ScoMo tanks and takes the government’s re-election prospects with him.

Morrison’s “preferred prime minister” lead over Opposition Leader Bill Shorten provides comfort for some government MPs. However, there is little correlation between “preferred PM” ratings and election outcomes, and nor does Shorten have the toxic, election-losing potential of a Mark Latham. Swinging voters are more likely to go for the bloke they’re not totally sure about over the one who is a laughing stock.

As the new post-Turnbull reality sinks in, the Coalition election calculus is changing.

Barring a drastic improvement in the Coalition’s poll standing, the likelihood of the federal election happening in March, as seriously advocated in some quarters of the party until the depths of ScoMo’s political flubbing sank in, is slim. It in any case risked drawing unhappy New South Wales voters’ ire ahead of the Berejiklian government going to a state election on March 23, 2019.

A simultaneous lower house and half-Senate election in May has firmed as the most likely option. However, the serious prospect of defeat has generated the extreme option of splitting the half-Senate and lower house elections, the former early in 2019 and the latter as late as November 2019, pushing out losing government as far as possible and buying time to find a miracle fix to the Coalition’s woes.

 

As well as portents, this week there were also points of light in federal politics.

NSW Liberal moderates ignored the prime minister’s plea to save Abbott-acolyte and Turnbull-slayer Craig Kelly’s preselection in the southern Sydney seat of Hughes, planning to press ahead in support of their preferred candidate Kent Johns.

Ugly right-wing behaviour has been spared transaction costs in the past as moderates cooperated with requests, in the interests of unity, not to press their numbers, but Turnbull’s turfing has cruelled that. Making Kelly pay for helping depose a prime minister popular with moderates signals to those considering doing the same in the future that there can be direct consequences.

Another point of light was the public’s rapid reflex rejection of Virgin Australia’s Morrison-endorsed plan to privilege the boarding of military veterans on domestic flights and have air crew make public announcements on board thanking them for their service.

The reaction of both veterans and ordinary customers against this United States-style celebration of the khaki was an exhilarating affirmation that despite the Coalition’s trenchant efforts to Americanise our politics, as a society we have not ourselves morphed into Americans.

A third point of light was a balanced report in the national business daily, The Australian Financial Review, on bond managers welcoming Labor’s plan to scrap the refund of franking credits other than for pensioners. Creating a more neutral asset allocation environment would evolve the mindset of equity investors and ease pressure on companies to maximise dividends instead of reinvesting for growth.

It raises the tantalising possibility that policy might be reported substantively as we approach the next federal election rather than just in terms of political propagandising and pointscoring.

 

If you are prone to portents you can be vulnerable to faith in miracles, too. If the Liberals were looking to Trump’s America for inspiration for one in this week’s midterm elections, there was none to be had.

The Republican Party’s acrid advocacy of Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the US Supreme Court, appalling rhetoric around migrants travelling towards the US–Mexico border, and outright racist political ads late in the campaign were not enough to stop the Democrats winning back control of the House of Representatives.

Given that result, thinking Liberals will be wondering whether the Republican playbook they have worked to since John Howard took control of the party in 1995 is exhausted. Can they think of an alternative to fear and loathing fast enough to save their hides in 2019 Australia?

Scott Morrison did have one stroke of luck this week, though. Stuck on the fact he nominated just one Australian song – Wa Wa Nee’s “Stimulation” – on his Spotify Eighties Plus list, journalists did not google its lyrics: “His world’s on fire/ He can get it up night and day/ Oh I wish I could get the feeling/ And give the girls something to say./ All I need to get is stimulation/ So get me up against the wall…” Not Fatman Scoop but not exactly Pentecostal either.

Morrison got lucky on another score, too: in Victoria, the Andrews government’s decision to sign up to the Chinese government’s Belt and Road Initiative against bipartisan federal political opposition to this cynical Chinese soft-power program.

China is an issue that requires active management in the ALP with senior Labor figures such as Sam Dastyari being caught parroting People’s Republic of China propaganda, and with former foreign minister Bob Carr a leading PRC claqueur in Australia.

The Andrews government hurt Labor’s last federal election campaign, with firefighters and paramedics angry over state issues taking it out on federal Labor candidates. It would be sadly ironic if poor decisions in one of Labor’s strongest states gave Scott Morrison a glimmer of hope that he could win the 2019 federal election after all.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 10, 2018 as "You’re neither on the bus nor off the bus". Subscribe here.

Chris Wallace
is a political historian at the Australian National University, Canberra.