It is not clear who said it first, but it quickly became a catchcry of the long-lived government of Bob Hawke: the mob will always work you out.
There was little false modesty among the superstars of Hawke’s cabinet, but the mantra usually kept their egos in check with the mantra if they started indulging in what their leader liked to call “double-handed wankery.”.
By that he meant not only going over the top with their own obsessions, but also the need to be reasonably straight with the electorate – to avoid pretending that they were something that they were not. To be, if you like, authentic – fair dinkum, to use the overworked cliche of the current prime minister.
And this is the essence of ScoMo’s insoluble problem: the mob has worked him out, and has decoded that he is a 36 carat phoney.
If there was any remaining doubt, the last Newspoll has confirmed it. The optimists – more like wishful thinkers – were daring to hope for at least a small lift in the consistently dire numbers.
After all, Scott Morrison has ranged tirelessly, covering the country with increasingly shouty warnings about the apocalyptic horrors that were an inevitable outcome if the loathsome Bill Shorten should darken the treasury benches. Invasion, recession, and that would be just the start of the dark ages that would cast a pall over the sunburnt country for the foreseeable future, if not beyond.
But in spite of all the ranting – or more likely because of it – the coalition actually went backwards. The shrinking band of delusional apologists for Morrison and what remains of his government insisted that it was not really like that: their leader and his message was spot on, but as so often he had been distracted, sabotaged by the forces of evil.
The vilest, of course, was Malcolm Turnbull, a traitor from the moment of his birth – probably from his conception, if such an obscenity could be contemplated. And it had to be admitted that Tony Abbott hadn’t helped – he meant well, as always, but yet another flip on climate change hardly enhanced the pretence that the government had any idea what it was doing.
And then there were the bloody Nats, still squabbling and complaining when they should have been, cheerfully (and, preferably, silently) compliant to whatever the wise counsels of their senior partner might offer.
It had to be someone else – it was unthinkable that that the strategy energetically promoted by their indefatigable marketeer had been so decisively rejected. It had to be unthinkable — it was too late to switch leaders again, and that was the only alternative. And there were still a couple of months to go – other governments had come back from the precipice, look at John Howard in 2004…
Well, okay, let’s look at John Howard in 2004. Early in the year he was in dire trouble but he had not emerged for no apparent reason in the shadow of two previous prime ministerial assassinations, with ongoing internal warfare and instability. And he was on good terms with the Nats, in spite of some lingering resentment over gun control. And he was opposing Mark Latham.
But most importantly people listened to him. They did not always agree with his policies, but at least he had a few and was prepared to explain them rationally and coherently. He never commanded much affection, apart from his most devoted fans, but he was what the mafia called a man of respect.
This is not the case with ScoMo, spruiking snake oil around the country, radiating insincerity. Few voters believe anything much that he offers; his scare campaigns are manifestly overblown to point of absurdity, and on the rare occasions he has anything positive to say, it is usually only temporary anyway – as soon as there is trouble in the party room, or an adverse focus group emerges, he moves along. Or perhaps he simply forgets his previous proposals, because they were never made with any conviction, and were probably not going to be implemented, even in the now highly unlikely event he is re-elected.
The real comparison is not with Howard, but with another failed Liberal leader, the hapless Billy McMahon. McMahon was replaced as Prime Minister by John Gorton, who, like Malcolm Turnbull, was anathema to the conservatives. And also like Turnbull, Gorton was struggling against a resurgent Labor leader who had his measure and had already run him perilously close in the previous election.
The Liberal Party room panicked: one veteran conservative described the situation of that of a man with cancer – operating would be risky, but there might be a chance of success. So Billy was ensconced to restore what was hoped to be normality. The result, of course, was a disaster – Gough Whitlam’s It’s Time campaign turned McMahon into a standing joke: lapel badges reading “Stop Laughing at Billy” became a popular accessory.
People are not laughing at ScoMo, and they don’t really hate him – they just regard him as irrelevant, a political pothole, best avoided but quickly forgotten.. The polls have not substantially moved in a year. Morrison’s only response is to say he is not interested in what he calls the Canberra bubble. To which the obvious come back is that it must be a bloody big bubble; at the last count 54 per cent of the population have crowded into it to assure him that they are not going to vote for him.
But that is actually the good news, The bad news is the betting agencies, considered even more reliable than the coalition’s bible, Newspoll. One has the current odds on a Morrison win at well over four dollars, with a Shorten win as an unbackable $1.16. And this is not in any sense a political judgement: it is a direct result of the punters putting their money where there mouths are.
Morrison has still failed to explain why he is leader and Turnbull isn’t, apart from repeating the platitude that this was just the way it played out in the party room. Now that really is a bubble, and one that has well and truly burst. Our accidental Prime Minister was always likely to be an accident waiting to happen. Realistically, all that remains is to prepare for the post mortem.
His colleagues know it, the pollsters know it, the betting shops know it – and now the mob has confirmed it. And it hasn’t taken long for them to work him out.