The second coming of Mr Miracle or drag on the brand: could the Liberals decide Morrison is more problem than solution? | Katharine Murphy, Political editor

The year in politics has been brutal. The worst of it has been worse than dispiriting; parts have been nauseating.

Scott Morrison and Anthony Albanese have ended 2021 with a burst of campaigning, tracking between Queensland and Tasmania and the marginal seats of New South Wales. Published polls have Labor comfortably ahead, but no one believes them. Insiders believe the contest is close, and sentiment is different in different parts of the country.

Morrison is battling cross currents.

He orbits between a political opponent who, mostly, maintains strategic ambiguity and declines to rise to the prime minister’s bait; colleagues fretting about cashed up independents marshalling in Liberal heartland; the small but roiling chunk of the electorate ropable about the creep of government during the pandemic; and Labor premiers, who may or may not be helpful to him. Not just Labor premiers, actually – the newly installed Dominic Perrottet shows little appetite for sucking up.

The choppy dynamics make it difficult for Morrison to do what he does best – find a cut-through line, or land a knockout blow. Morrison escaped from the absolute shemozzle of the final parliamentary sitting fortnight and hit the pre-Christmas hustings without a particularly clear message.

Over this past week I’ve had time to go back and review the campaign Morrison ran in 2019. There was next to no policy, and only one message – Bill Shorten is the bill you can’t afford. Strikingly simple. And effective.

Morrison’s problem is he can’t rinse and repeat. He’s not the new bloke. He’s been prime minister for a term and a bit. Morrison is weighted by incumbency and the negatives that accumulate inexorably in the process of creating a record.

Some basic metrics tell the story. If we look at our Guardian Essential poll, Morrison’s approval has slipped from a high of 65% in mid February to 48% in November. Disapproval has ticked up from 28% to 42%.

If we look at the gender split, Morrison is not tracking well with women under the age of 55. The prime minister’s low ebb with women was the catastrophic summer bushfires in 2019-20, when his approval languished on 35%. He recovered through 2020. But then Brittany Higgins turned the tables. Morrison’s tone deaf and periodically aggressive mishandling of parliament’s #MeToo reckoning prompted another plunge in approval, from 65% of women in the sample to 46%. Morrison rallied and recovered again, but there’s been a second slide since October. The prime minister ends 2021 on 42% (50% of men in the sample approve of his performance).

The downside of incumbency is people get to know you. Once negative impressions form, they can be hard to shift. Incumbency has pluses of course. Incumbents have control over election timing, and generally, uncertain environments are beneficial because some voters prefer to stick with leaders they know.

But if you’ve listened closely to Morrison’s messaging on the hustings over the past couple of weeks, the prime minister is an incumbent who thinks voters either don’t care, or have forgotten any positives the government delivered during the pandemic.

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When he’s not trialling new made-for-TV grabs (a new “shake and bake” analogy, which I think was invoked first in relation to emissions reduction, and now has morphed into something broadly economy adjacent, or “jabs and jobs” which was Friday’s innovation), the prime minister has taken to listing things.

Morrison’s current list includes saving lives during the pandemic. Shoring up the health system “with more than $33bn from the federal government in additional investment”. Saving livelihoods with “the single largest economic rescue package in our history”. Presiding over economic recovery after the waves of the pandemic – “more than 350,000 jobs created in a five-week period after the lockdowns were lifted, and through the crisis, we have maintained that AAA credit rating”.

At the risk of stating the obvious, prime ministers don’t have to list their achievements if they are confident voters have already logged them.

Morrison’s list invites any disaffected voters to consider the counterfactual – the universe where coronavirus ran rampant through an unvaccinated population, the health system collapsed, and businesses were left to fend for themselves. But voters generally don’t thank leaders for alternate scenarios they haven’t experienced, as Labor found when it imagined voters might reward the government for sparing Australians a recession during the global financial crisis.

The other inherent problem with pandemic humblebrag is the public health risks are ongoing. The Omicron variant is evidently highly infectious. This pandemic is not (as Morrison would put it) in the rear-vision mirror. Voters will judge his competence in real time. If the risks are well managed at the time Australians go to the polls, that’s one thing. If they are not, that’s quite another.

As we stagger towards the summer, Liberals say things aren’t great in New South Wales. The government wants to pick up three seats in Morrison’s home state. Some people report the prime minister is currently a drag on the brand in the state polling. This could be malicious scuttlebutt of course – colleagues who don’t like Morrison really don’t like him. Insiders love to gossip about party polling but very few people actually see it.

But there was a striking ratio in Thursday’s mid-year economic and fiscal outlook – $908m of a $2.3bn infrastructure spend was directed to regional and marginal seats in New South Wales. And while the independents phenomenon, nationally, is more likely to be noise than revolution, the Liberals are clearly worried about Wentworth. For city Liberals digging in to repel the insurgent independents, the persistent disaffection with Morrison among younger female voters must be weight in their saddle bags.

During the political lows of 2021, Morrison has counselled his colleagues to hold their nerve, and rally behind him, because when the existential moment arrives, he will find the pathway to victory. The prime minister’s homily was and is simple: I won in 2019 when none of you thought I would, and if you shut up and let me lead, I will win in 2022. You need me to win, in other words. I’m the magic.

Morrison’s “leave it to me boys” mantra is buttressed by present electoral reality. In the absence of a big It’s Time-style swing, Labor will struggle to win the number of seats it needs to form government. Albanese could secure a positive swing of 5% in Queensland and still wash out of the contest with the same number of seats because of the big margins Coalition MPs accrued in 2019. It’s really tough.

Morrison’s calculating political brain is formidable, and he will spend whatever down time he gets over the summer stitching his campaign messaging together.

Colleagues will hope some of the accumulated negative sentiment around Morrison washes through over the summer; that voters will be more inclined to see their prime minister as an experienced leader who can engineer Australia’s economic recovery rather than a ruthless politician prone to shameless pork-barrelling and habitual lying.

Scott Morrison prepares to bowl before a media event at a Brisbane cricket club
Scott Morrison prepares to bowl before a media event at a Brisbane cricket club. He has ended the year with a burst of campaigning in Queensland, Tasmania and critical NSW seats. Photograph: Russell Freeman/AAP

As we end this brutal political year, there’s plenty of next generation positioning in evidence in the Liberal party – an active shadow contest between busy Josh Frydenberg and bolshie Peter Dutton.

But there are no signs of panic in government ranks.

The downside risk for Morrison is a wet summer doesn’t wash away his negatives, and the prime minister continues to corrode in the court of public opinion as the new political year opens.

If that happens, Morrison transits from being the solution, the magic, the verified election winner, Mr Miracle – to being the problem, the barrier to entry.

I have no idea if that point will be reached.

Honestly, it seems unlikely on the balance of probabilities.

But not impossible.

Once upon a time, the Liberal party was too sentimental to move against a prime minister who had become a drag on the brand. (Ask Peter Costello.) But the Liberal party of contemporary times is as ruthless as a gang of end-of-lease cleaners. (Ask Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull.)

If a leader outlives his political usefulness, we’ve seen the exactly the same formula applied before the last two federal elections – reset by switching the frontman, deliver a budget, pin your ears back and race to the polls.

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