Scott Morrison would have been happier and clappier than usual when he went to his Horizon Pentecostalist Church last Sunday.
The Prime Minister had almost as much riding on the New South Wales election as did Gladys Berejiklian.
But where Berejiklian boasted that she was incredibly proud about everything, but also incredibly humble (although she didn’t look it), ScoMo was just incredibly relieved.
A few weeks ago Malcolm Turnbull advised him to call an early federal election to give Berejiklian clear air for her fixed term poll – in effect to put down his own moribund regime to save a more viable government in Macquarie Street.
Morrison declined; he was not planning to give up just yet. But a loss in New South Wales, his home state would have been a disaster. Instead, his captain’s pick has for once been vindicated – and in a way which may even encourage his own near suicidal followers.
Turnbull’s reasoning was that following the Victorian wipe out the same backlash would prevail north of the Murray – the resentment over his expulsion would continue. But it appeared that it didn’t; allowing Morrison to dare to hope that the Turnbull effect, or the leadership churn, or whatever you choose to call it, has run its course.
Indeed the only Liberal seat definitely lost on Saturday was Coogee – the only seat in which Turnbull campaigned.. And so just perhaps the marginals in New South Wales at least could be saved – there was even the delirious fantasy that he could pick up a couple from Labor.
Of course this overlooks the fact that Bill Shorten was not expecting to win a lot of seats in New South Wales – the real prospects are in Victoria, Queensland and Western Australia, But hey, a wins a win, let’s savour it while you may.
But the real worry for Shorten is not the result, but how it came about – largely through preferences. In past elections the vote for minor parties and independents is generally regarded as a protest vote – most of the anti-government swing comes back to the majors. This is how pollsters calculate the two party preferred vote; they look at what happened in the past and extrapolate to the future.
But last weekend the preferences did not come back – a large proportion of them remained with the outliers. And if this trend persists in the general election in May, Labor will not be the shoo-in most currently assume, even though optional preferential system in New South Wales will give way to compulsory preferences in the national poll.
The point of the preferential; system is not necessarily to deliver the most popular candidate, but to avoid the most disliked. So if you can’t get your first choice, you can at least try to get rid of your most loathed . And this is why Scott Morrison is being disingenuous about whether his Liberal Party will actually put One Nation at the back of the pack in his how to vote card. Of course the card is not compulsory – it is entirely up to the individual voter how to select preferences. But the party how to vote cards are more than an incentive: they are a clear indication of the party’s priorities.
If, as Michael McCormack and many of his fellow Nationals apparently believe, the Greens, with their espousal of renewable energy rather than fossil fuels, are more dangerous than the strident and divisive anti-Muslim and anti-Asian agenda of Pauline Hanson, they are perfectly entitled to put their how to vote cards where their mouths are. Every man for himself.
But there may well be consequences – the Nats may hold on to a couple of seats in Queensland, but risk losing many more coalition seats around the rest of the country. After all, that’s what happened in Western Australia, and given the mood in Victoria after that state election, it could easily happen again. And this is why ScoMo is ducking and weaving, obfuscating and misleading.
He says there will be no deals with One Nation – although he and his ministers have connived in many to massage otherwise unpopular legislation through the senate. He will not, he insists virtuously, do any formal preference swaps. But he will not confine them to the bottom of the pile – there may be more obnoxious people yet to nominate. The decision will be taken in due time.
But by whom? By him, through a captain’s pick – the kind of call John Howard did in 1996, or Bill Shorten has already done this year? Or by the Liberal federal organisation? Or the state organisations? Or by the candidates themselves? Morrison will not say. And vitally, he will not guarantee that they will be placed below Labor, which is what actually matters.
Morrison soft pedals on Hanson – she has never pushed racism when she has talked to him, he avers. Well, surprise, surprise – he is well insulated in his Canberra bubble. But perhaps, in the real world, he has heard rumours that she has talked racism for years, in the parliament, in the media, in every platform she can find.
As always, ScoMo’s protestations have absolutely nothing about principle and very little about truth. There is more wink wink, nudge nudge than fair dinkum.
And there are times when preferences can be the last refuge of a scoundrel. Back in the old days in the Northern Territory, there were persistent stories that so called advisers appointed by the long-running Country-Liberal government were sent out to remote communities to help them grapple with the system.
When confronted by intending Labor voters they devised a simple formula: “You don’t like this CLP man? Well, you only give him one vote. Write 1 in the square beside his name. You like the next man a little bit? Give him two votes. But you really want the Labor man? Give him three votes.” For many years – decades in fact – it worked.
But of course Scott Morrison would never stoop to such chicanery – if only because he could never get away with it. But these are desperate times – perhaps it could be worth a try ….