On the eve of the crucial budget, the trailing coalition government finally had a shred of hope: New South Wales. The fairly comfortable re-election of Gladys Berejiklian following nail-biting opinion polls gave them the hope that perhaps their own leader – a fellow Cornstalker, no less – could pull off the same trick. A last minute swing, delivering an improbable victory.
But for many reasons, the contrast is greater than the hope. For starters, they are starting with polls not on a knife edge, but on a year-long malaise, to an electorate which has clearly given up on them. And they are still struggling with their legacy of division and dysfunction, which shows no real signs of abating – the row over One Nation preferences is only the most obvious problem.
Then there is the opposition: while Michael Daley was still something of an unknown quantity even before shooting himself in both feet in the final week, Bill Shorten may not be popular, but he is known and stable. And also considerably smarter campaigner than Daley ever was.
But the big difference is quite simply in the respective leaders. Berejiklian is the quintessential moderate, able to resist the a hard line right in her party room – they have never threatened rebellion, let alone desertion to the minor parties. She runs a reasonably tight ship. If not always a completely happy one.
And she is widely perceived, as John Howard has noted, to possess both competence and integrity. The first quality may be questioned, especially by some of the victims of her grandiose and unfulfilled infrastructure projects. But the second is largely accepted: Berejiklian is regarded as fair dinkum.
ScoMo is self-evidently not. Many voters hardly know him, and don’t particularly want to. Those that do know him are largely unimpressed; they see him not as fair-dinkum, but a bad actor trying much too hard. As he clamps his baseball cap backwards on his rapidly balding head and appears ostentatiously munching a sausage sanger at the footy, they know he is pretending that he is just like them, except that he is prime minister.
And that is precisely the issue: all but the serious egomaniacs know perfectly well that they are hopelessly unqualified for the job, so perhaps Morrison is too.
With rare exceptions, Australians like a touch of gravitas in their leaders. Bob Hawke was something of an exception: his larrikin image was well known and accepted, but his ability was unquestioned, so it hardly mattered.. But among the successful conservatives prime ministers, there was always a measure of being a bit above the mob.
Robert Menzies and Malcolm Fraser both cultivated a certain sense of superiority, and John Howard made up for it by keeping a discreet distance by talking, on the whole, soberly and with authority. Morrison has chosen the worst of both examples: he has abandoned the high ground as when he does mix, it is always with careful orchestration and is thus usually unconvincing. Gladys Berejiklian he is not. And as for his colleague across the ditch, Jacinta Ardern? Forget it. Comparisons, as Dogberry said, are odorous – and so are ScoMo’s chances.