This is now one for Albo to lose

Mar 29, 2022
Morrison’s problem is not of finding the right formula of words to make voters terrified of Albanese or secret Labor agendas. Image: Wikimedia Commons

The history of unreliable opinion polls in Australia is such that it would be a brave punter who would call the election result on the evidence of polls alone. Right now, however, it would be an even more courageous one, who would be betting against the definite trend –of polls indicating a decisive change of government.

The polls point strongly in one direction – south for Mr Morrison. That’s even among groups who supported him last time, who might have been expected to support him this time if a win were on the cards, or whose support is vital to the laying of sandbags in critical marginal seats. Some former supporters appear to have lost the faith, or their patience. There may be nearly two months to retrieve the situation. But the turnaround would have to be of heroic proportions, and from steady operators who will not allow themselves to be distracted. Yet most of the key players on the government side look rattled and off their best game.

Moreover, the polls feel right. I do not believe that journalists, or people located in Canberra are any better at discerning that national mood than observers anywhere else. But there is little suggesting an enthusiasm for the incumbents, for any causes they represent, or for any policies that might be expected to be in peril were the applecart upset. Nor does the government seem to have the calm determination and composure designed to conceal quiet confidence. Instead, there are signs of panic, and evidence that members, including ministers, in precarious seats are focusing on personal goodwill rather than identification with party or leader.

Some, including the Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, are engaged in desperate battles with independents identifying with climate change. These struggles are taking energy and funds from the main battle with Labor. It’s the more pitiable from the coalition’s viewpoint because such contests can neither increase nor decrease the number of right-of-centre members of the parliament. Return to power involves, at the least, taking seats from Labor members.

Parties have won when most have given the game away and gone only through the motions. Scott Morrison got little help from his Liberal colleagues at the last election, and Paul Keating not much more from his Labor ministers in 1993. It is not a coincidence that both victories against general expectations occurred by a prime minister’s success in making the leader of the opposition, rather than the government’s record or promises, the issue.

Newspoll detail shows how much ground Morrison must retrieve. It has the coalition 10 points behind Labor, in two-party preferred terms: 55 per cent to 45. That is the same with men and women. Among younger voters, 18 to 34, 66 per cent indicated a Labor vote, to the Coalition’s 34. Among those 35 to 49, it was 60 per cent to 40.

That is to say that among the 54 per cent of the population aged 50 or less, more than five in every eight voters prefer Labor to the coalition. With each party at 50 per cent each among those aged 50 to 64, and the coalition being favoured 58 per cent to 42 among those aged 65 or more, the split among all aged 50 or more is about 54 per cent coalition to 46 Labor.

Labor is decisively ahead, usually by 10 points, whether one has a degree, a high school pass or a trade, and among every household income group, usually by 10 points or so, including the $150,000 or more class.

A hope without much potential has people describing themselves as Christians preferring the coalition (54 to 46 per cent). But those of no religion, about the same number more decisively prefer Labor (62 to 38 per cent). Voters speaking only English favour Labor (54 to 46 per cent), but those who speak other languages at home are even more likely to vote Labor: 60 per cent.

In NSW, Labor has 54 per cent, in Victoria 58 per cent, in Queensland only 46 per cent, in South Australia 59 per cent, in West Australia 53 per cent. Newspoll does not give figures for the territories or Tasmania, but other polls suggest their figures give Morrison no grounds for comfort, and, possibly, the loss of three seats.

Morrison is now trying hard to criticise the character and the capacity of Anthony Albanese, whether in terms of his ticker or ability to stand up to his factions, but there is little sign so far that his attack is working among the general population.

Beyond the cost of living the real issue is the character of Morrison himself. It is no longer a coalition asset

Morrison’s problem is not of finding the right formula of words to make voters terrified of Albanese or secret Labor agendas. It is of finding the words and actions to persuade voters that the government is deserving of re-election, that it has tapped the popular mood and that it better understands the challenges before the country.

Against this is Morrison’s own seriously declining momentum. He has posited issues on which he would like to fight the election, but they haven’t seized the popular imagination, and even now he is still adrift, hoping that his budget will save him. Events have also moved against him, and so has his luck. Nothing has gone his way for months. He can’t even seem to make national security, or war in Ukraine work for him.

The floods in south-east Queensland and northern NSW might best exemplify the loss of luck. As with the bushfires, it reminded voters of his lack of empathy, urgency and his government’s appalling reflexes in moving quickly to help people in great need.

But more than the revenge of nature – or evidence of the more unpredictable weather as a result of climate change – is involved on the luck front. Who would have expected that Brian Houston – a man he one proclaimed as his closest friend and mentor – would be facing disgrace at just this moment? And that Morrison’s attempt to distance himself from Houston, as much as his quite proper if learned response of feeling for the victims rather than the perpetrator, would serve to demonstrate his propensity for dissembling, misleading and denying responsibility.

Houston brought back to mind the scandal about Morrison’s management of the sexual assault of staffers, and the handling of allegations against members of his own cabinet. In more normal times, some of these issues might have slipped in public consciousness as new issues – in China or the Ukraine, for example, or action to deal with petrol prices and food price inflation — took centre stage.

He has so far demonstrated a cack hand in making the new issues work for him – even with his stern voice, or claim of deep experience, wisdom and judgment. Nor yet has his speciality – making announcements – served to make it seem that spending billions on this project or that – dams, vaccine factories, power sources – are focused on the major issues of national need.

Nor does a program of plugging holes, by making promises extending well out of the budget cycle – address a critical problem. It is that he, as much as Albanese, has made a central issue of his own character and integrity, and his way of doing things. It’s a problem compounded by his explicit refusal to describe a vision for the country, other than a vague satisfaction with the way things have always been. And by the apparent want of any central guiding principle in what the government does. And his propensity, when galvanised by public reaction to do something, to handle it by throwing money at private sector mates, cronies and party donors.

That this invariably happens with maximum secrecy and minimum accountability – and, thanks to the approach to stewardship of Treasurer Frydenberg and the minister for finance, Simon Birmingham, a failure to claw back public money that should not have been given out. That this approach is in shabby contrast to the mean-minded and illegal approach to the management of welfare benefit – typified by Robodebt – tends to underline the allegation that this is a government that takes from the poor to give to the rich. The hope of one day having some sort of accounting for this is one of many for thinking a change of government would serve the public interest.

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