‘You can set your political clock to it’: federal election looms

Feb 4, 2021

When the Murdoch media launch into its ritualistic ‘Labor leadership tensions’ routine it can only mean there’s an election on the horizon. But with a poll showing states rated ahead of the feds regarding administering the vaccine, it would appear trust is an issue that will continue to bedevil the Coalition. 

Credit – Unsplash

It began with an obscure opinion poll in mid-January conducted for the CFMEU, led in Victoria by former Labor stalwart turned vehement anti-Albanese force, John Setka.

Perhaps unsurprisingly this poll, conducted by a little-known polling company, of which scant details were released, found that the ALP could lose two heartland seats in the Hunter Valley. This was helpfully kicked along by Labor’s perennial thorn-in-the-side Joel Fitzgibbon, who quickly returned to his favourite and, it seems, his only, theme – coal – and his comments were circulated through NCA Newswire, Murdoch’s new newswire service. It was reported by other media as a leadership problem that now had to be dealt with, Albanese ‘forced to defend his position’, and the ‘Labor leadership crisis’ narrative had begun.

In a series of pieces from print to Twitter, click-bait headlines formed thinly disguised political slogans: ‘tick tock’, ‘time’s running out’, ‘the sharks are circling’, ‘Albo’s dead in the water’, and the ubiquitous ‘Albo’s not cutting through’. Although, as Jack Waterford has observed in these pages, exactly what ‘cutting through’ means and by what measure, is never explained.

Albanese’s putative difficulties can scarcely be based on the latest opinion polls, now apparently rehabilitated after their collective failure to accurately predict the last election. These show Labor in a competitive position, if not better. Newspoll this week has Labor and the Coalition evenly split on 50% of the two-party preferred vote, making Albanese no more or less likely to form government than Morrison were an election to be called today.

Essential Poll, also out this week, has more encouraging news for the opposition, with Labor at 47% two party preferred, Coalition 44% and 8% undecided. The significant factor in the Essential poll is that this is a reversal of their relative positions two weeks ago – Labor has increased its two party preferred vote by 2% and the Coalition has dropped by 4% over that time – and yet the drums are rumbling for Albanese, not Morrison.

In the midst of a pandemic in which Australia has performed better than most, this is not where the Morrison government would want to be. As JobKeeper payments are wound back next month, deferred mortgage repayments kick in, and with unemployment showing no sign of shifting, the next six months will be the most difficult the government has yet faced. The power of incumbency is strongest in times of crisis, and even more so when that crisis has been managed effectively as this has. That we have done so, however, is almost entirely due to the states, despite the clear federal responsibility in matters of quarantine and aged care, and this has not been lost on voters.

No Plan PM: how government’s lack of an aged care plan cost lives.Typically the PM then blamed others.

Morrison’s failure to take responsibility for management of the pandemic has handed that power of incumbency to the states, squandering that political capital in what could be a significant own-goal. The Essential poll bears this out in one critical respect. Asked which tier of government they would prefer to administer the Covid-19 vaccine, respondents rated the states ahead of the federal government. This is telling both as a measure of trust in managing the pandemic and as a recognition that it is the states which have successfully done so.

In Victoria, it will not easily be forgotten that Morrison failed to visit this state during the protracted, and ultimately successful, lockdown. The prime minister found the time to make a 24-hour visit to Japan, and to quarantine for two weeks in order to do so, while at the same undermining the medical advice on lockdown and border closures in the Labor states of Victoria and Queensland through which those successes were achieved. Nor will it be quickly forgotten that his Victorian ministers Greg Hunt and Josh Frydenberg mocked and undermined the Victorian state government’s protective measures – from border closures to lockdown – without any apparent concern for how those comments might impact on Victorians struggling through it.

Morrison badly misread the mood in Victoria, seeing only political opportunism in the state’s second-wave difficulties and failing to support Victorians just when they needed, and wanted, co-operative national leadership. Morrison’s failure to offer that leadership to all states, and not just his own home state of NSW, may well prove costly at the next election and signs are already emerging that it will. Support for the Victorian Labor premier Daniel Andrews and his government is significantly higher than pre-pandemic levels and Victorian Labor is now polling higher than at the last state election, at 58.5% 2pp and with the Liberal-National party opposition languishing on just 41.5% two-party preferred.

The Victorian Liberal party is adrift, beset by branch-stacking and riven by ideological divisions – most recently over the Andrews’ Labor government’s move to ban the use of ‘gay-conversion therapy’, a move opposed by a core conservative group in the Victorian Liberal party. A recent audit of the Victorian Liberal branch membership led to the expulsion of 150 illegitimate members, further intensifying internal divisions.

The state ructions have now spilt over into the federal arena with key Morrison conservative ally and long-serving member for Menzies, Kevin Andrews, defeated in a bitter pre-selection battle, a coruscating result given the outspoken support for Andrews of the Prime Minister and senior Victorian ministers Josh Frydenberg and Greg Hunt. It is the first time a sitting Victorian Liberal MP has been defeated in a preselection in more than 30 years.

Morrison also has to contend with his party’s own thorn-in-the-side, Liberal MP Craig Kelly, over his support for faux Covid treatments such as hydroxychloroquine, his anti-vaxxer stance, and likening of compulsory masks in schools to child abuse. Morrison has refused to condemn Kelly and this week derided ABC journalist and president of the National Press Club, Laura Tingle, for suggesting that Kelly’s repeated Covid-19 misinformation was undermining the government’s multi-million dollar pandemic response. ‘He’s not my doctor and he’s not yours’, Morrison snapped at Tingle, before praising Kelly, ‘But he does a great job in Hughes’ – to much laughter at the press club luncheon.

The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners must have missed the joke, issuing a testy statement criticising Kelly for ‘disseminating misinformation’ about coronavirus, and stating that ‘all public figures’ should ‘act responsibly’. As Scott Morrison pegs his electoral fortunes on the successful roll-out of the Covid-19 vaccine, while refusing to rein in his party’s chief peddler of misinformation about it, there seems little chance of that. And that can only spell trouble for the Morrison government.

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