MUNGO MacCALLUM. The end of the beginning.

The enduring image of the week was that of our prime minister bouncing a soccer ball on his head. Or possibly vice versa.  

As the quintessential warrior Winston Churchill once put it, this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it may be the end of the beginning. Or, in more contemporary terms, this is where the story really starts.

The first two weeks have seen plenty of punching and counterpunching, feints, retreats and manoevrings. And of course, they have faced more than the usual slew of distractions. But essentially they have been preliminary skirmishes, testing their various grounds, attempting to determine out what is working and what is being ignored.

However, now the battlelines have been set: the electoral rolls have closed, nominations are in, the how to vote cards have been finalised, postal voting is under way, Newspoll has tightened, the pre-vote polling has opened and the first debates is sorted. Game on.

Both before and after Anzac day the leaders jetted around the country, promising much but essentially failing to engage, either with each other or, more importantly, the voters. And as a result, a frustrated media had to fill the gap somehow. So enter The Australian’s Simon Benson, taking a well earned respite from the arduous task of transcribing his ”exclusives” at the dictation of the Liberal Party.

Benson noticed a Newspoll which found that the dreaded Clive Palmer, far from being hammered into the ground like a tent peg as the Australian had been demanding for most of the decade, was in fact gaining some traction in some marginal electorates, and Benson was aghast at the news. It defied reason, he gasped, he was a man who has been politically discredited, publicly lampooned and legally challenged on more than one occasion. But now he is poised to become a kingmaker.

Well, not actually – Benson needs to take a cold shower and go back to the principal job of being a stenographer. For starters, single electorate polls are notoriously unreliable: the national polls give Palmer’s UAP less than 2 per cent, as opposed to the 13 per cent that Newspoll recorded in Herbert – in Townsville, the very city where Palmer dudded thousands of workers.

And in the unlikely event it was accurate, even Benson admitted that the UAP was not within a bull’s roar of winning the seat, let alone any others. Palmer may squeak into a senate spot, or conceivably (just) two, but it is a long way from certain – or at least it was until it was revealed that the coalition was planning to swap preferences with the man who once called Scott Morrison Heinrich Himmler.

The swap is presumably designed to prop up LNP candidates in the Queensland bush, where several are in deep trouble. The problem, as with all kowtowing to the extremists, is that it could potentially lose more votes than it can gain. Some Libs, and even some Nats, will find it hard to stomach the idea that their party is prepared to get into bed with Palmer.

And in any case, could he deliver? Whatever his how to vote cards may say, the kind of fringe dwellers who will give the UAP their first preferences, can hardly be relied on to follow the script, particularly if they are smart enough to know that if they give their second preferences to the LNP, they are effectively voting for the NLP anyway, which obviously they did not intend to do.

And whatever the real support for the UAP may lie, it is a safe bet that it is bleeding more votes from the coalition than from Labor, so legitimising it with a deal is almost certainly counterproductive. But what the hell, ScoMo is desperate enough for anything.

He keeps telling us that it is not his decision, it is a matter for the party. Bullshit – he could at least restrain the Libs if he wanted to, as he did with One Nation after the Al Jazeera expose.

And then he insists that any deal has nothing to do with policy, declaring himself a moral vacuum. No principle, or consistency, or any idea of what is to happen beyond May 18. But once you plunge into that chum bucket, it can be bloody hard to get out of it. At the very least it has an ugly look, and one which is not the image of pious pentacostalism Morrison is trying to cultivate.

And within his media backers, it will be even more difficult to justify. The Murdoch press has run its holy war against Palmer relentlessly and unceasingly – hectares of newsprint have been deployed to tell the nation that the mogul should be excoriated by all decent citizens. Now it faces the reality that not only has it’s campaigned failed dismally, but its chosen redeemer – the immaculate Morrison – is in league with it’s own antichrist. It will be fascinating to watch the moral absolutist square that circle.

They will find a formula, of course – they always do. But the obvious one is simply the power of money, the millions Palmer has already spent to buy influence and the more millions planned. This, at least, is something the employees of Rupert Murdoch can relate to.

But in the end Palmer is, as Morrison once called him, a sideshow; the real acrobats are the ones in the big top. And given the lack of any death-defying stunts, but a few pratfalls instead, the one on one debates will assume more importance than usual.. Thus Shorten, as the front runner, wants, by and large, to stick to policy, but ScoMo, more personally popular (or at least less unpopular) is keen to display himself, the perpetual PR man, his fixed grin determinedly authentic.

So to celebrate Easter, Morrison dragged the media into his church so they could photograph him with his hands in the air and his eyes closed, a spectacle that stimulated The Australian’s full time evangelist, Greg Sheridan to the brink of theological orgasm.

But the enduring image of the week was that of our prime minister bouncing a soccer ball on his head. Or possibly vice versa.

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Mungo MacCallum is a veteran political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy.

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