MUNGO MacCALLUM. Kill Bill remains the default option for Scott Morrison.

Jan 1, 2019

Scott Morrison, his office informs us, is talking a short break – off to the country for a bit of biking, boating and fishing.  But not shooting; the image of our easy going prime minister with a lethal weapon in his hands might send the wrong message.  

And emphatically, he is not shooting through; Morrison must know that he needs a miracle to survive, but hey, his mentors at the Horizon Church where he ostentatiously worships assured their followers that it was God’s will for him to become prime minister, so a quick ten per cent turn around in the polling should be a doddle.

But Morrison, forever the pragmatist, is also looking to the secular: he will interrupt his break for a visit to the Sydney test match, a ritual almost as predictable as the annual well-publicised secret visit to the troops.

But for most of the time he will be deciding how to turn around the terrible opinion polls, which now suggest that he is almost universally disliked – even normally reliable conservative voters, the women, the elderly and the rural, are turning against him.

The only comfort, such as it is, that nobody likes Bill Shorten much either. But a clear majority are prepared to vote for him, and so far at least, Morrison’s shouty abuse is not deterring them.

Morrison still has time to turn them around – just. But he will have to do more than carry on about sledgehammers and wrecking balls – that didn’t work for either of his immediate predecessors.

ScoMo obviously believes he is a better politician than either Tony Abbott or Malcolm Turnbull, and he may well be right – although he hasn’t much to beat; neither was a great exemplar, having both been left bereft in the intricacies of government.

And in any case, that is hardy the point: the contest is not with Abbott and Turnbull, but with Shorten, and all the indications are that for all his shortcomings, Shorten has emerged as a truly formidable political operator..

For most of the last five years – indeed, far earlier than that – he has been grossly underestimated by both his opponents and the commentariat. His union connections make him vulnerable, his factional manoeuvring made him suspect and his manifest lack of charisma made him all but unelectable – or so it was said. But the hard fact remains that not only is his party comfortably besting the government just five months before the only poll that counts, it has been in that position for all but a few weeks during the last five years.

Shorten has played on the stability and unity of his troops, which may have been dubious at times but the contrast with the ramshackle coalition makes it look like the Rock of Gibraltar. He has offered policy initiatives that the government has consistently derided, but has signally failed to counter and in several cases have been forced to adopt – the Royal Commission into the banks being only the most dramatic of the back flips.

And, perhaps most importantly, he has largely avoided the demented negativity that has been the leitmotif of the government. It is not clear who devised the Kill Bill tactic, but it is quite clear that it has not worked – at least not so far, and time is running out. Playing the man rather than the ball has always been seen as an underhand, illegitimate approach in the Australian ethos – Morrison, not only a spin merchant but a rugby league buff, would surely know that.

But that, he threatens, is how he plans to run his belligerent campaign Shorten is far from impregnable, and Morrison has already signalled his points of attack.

There will be an onslaught against any change to negative gearing – an utterly fraudulent one, given that Morrison, as treasurer, agreed aspects of the policy were excessive, before being slapped down by his leader. But at a time of falling house prices, it may gain some undeserved traction.

More effective, perhaps, will be a blitzkrieg about dividend imputation, Shorten’s promise to remove tax refunds from those who didn’t pay the tax in the first place. This lurk mainly involves the rich, who can be expected to vote Liberal anyway, but the Murdoch press will be only too happy to find pensioners fearing they will be reduced to penury by any change.

And then there is the hardy perennial, border security – stopping the boats, as it used to be called when there were boats to be stopped. This has lost most of its potency over the years, and the cry that Shorten will leave Australia at the mercy of the asylum seeker hordes is rather less credible than Shorten’s 2016 Mediscare campaign which Turnbull called the great lie. It is hard to see it taking off as a real game changer unless there is a dramatic incident – and while Peter Dutton will be only to keen to exploit one, or even manufacture one if the opportunity arises, the hope of another Tampa arriving is slim.

So killing Bill, or even wounding him critically, is unlikely to work. And even if it does, Morrison needs something positive as well, and that means not just standing on his highly dubious record. His government has amassed huge treasure chest, or perhaps more accurately pork barrel, but spending it is problematic.

One of the government’s genuine achievements during its tumultuous period has been its success in restraining public spending. A gigantic pre-election splurge might not only tarnish that trophy, but could easily appear desperate and extravagant, a last ditch attempt to bribe cynical voters into submission. And if that is the case it could backfire badly, as when John Howard tried the tactic in 2007. He was comprehensively rejected by the electorate, and Honest John had far more authority and credibility than ScoMo will ever have.

So Kill Bill remains the default option. It probably won’t work, but then nothing much else has either. And if the worst comes to the worst, there will always be biking, boating and fishing to go back to.. Not to mention shooting through.

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