A week of elec­tion omens.

The Saturday Paper - - Contents | The Week - Chris Wal­lace


Like oth­ers among the mys­ti­cally in­clined, Chris­tians can be prone to por­tents. Omi­nously for Prime Min­is­ter Scott Mor­ri­son, a flash storm last week­end tore apart the oak tree op­po­site The Lodge’s day-to-day work­ing drive­way on Can­berra’s Na­tional Cir­cuit.

Oaks sym­bol­ise strength and en­durance. Mor­ri­son sees this one ev­ery time he goes to or from The Lodge.

Its top was torn off, giv­ing it a crip­pled, half-mast look ex­ac­er­bated by raw rips vis­i­ble in the torn branch left hang­ing from what re­mained. It pre­saged a ter­ri­ble week as well as rais­ing a deeper ques­tion: Was it a por­tent of the Lib­er­als’ likely state should the Coali­tion’s stand­ing in the polls – stuck in land­slide loss ter­ri­tory – con­tinue through to elec­tion day, the top torn away and limbs left hang­ing?

There is lit­tle pass­ing traf­fic on that stretch of Na­tional Cir­cuit so the torn oak por­tent is vis­i­ble only to Mor­ri­son, Lodge work­ers, lo­cal res­i­dents and the gods of na­ture. For most Aus­tralians the past sev­eral days will be re­mem­bered in­stead as the week the prime min­is­ter missed the bus: the large Mor­ri­son-fes­tooned bus tootling south down Queens­land’s High­way 1, empty but for its driver, while Mor­ri­son jet­ted be­tween elec­torally sen­si­tive re­gional towns.

In dis­tinc­tive Lib­eral blue liv­ery, the bus was a mo­bile bill­board em­bla­zoned with the words: “A Stronger Econ­omy. A Se­cure Fu­ture. Back­ing Queens­lan­ders.”

The twit­terati had a field day re­badg­ing it on­line. “It’s the same one we threw Mal­colm un­der”: @kegan­scherf. “I’m only here be­cause Mathias couldn’t count to 43”: @ AusLoafer. “A Slave Econ­omy. A Mis­er­able Fu­ture.”: @ ed­dyjokovich. “Vote 1 Lib­eral Na­tional Party. Pow­ered…by COAL”: @Kim­ick4. “I voted 26 times against a Bank­ing Royal Com­mis­sion”: @union­saus­tralia.

And the hats. Are they to con­ceal Mor­ri­son’s bald­ing pate? Is he chan­nelling Don­ald Trump’s #MAGA cap? (Can a hat dog-whis­tle?) They have be­come a run­ning joke, though not in a good way.

Then there is Mor­ri­son’s lame use of what he un­der­stands to be the Aus­tralian ver­nac­u­lar. His ag­o­nis­ing, scripted at­tempts at ver­bal blok­i­ness evoke not so much warm feel­ings of Aus­tralian fra­ter­nity as tor­tured flash­backs of for­mer prime min­is­ter Kevin Rudd fak­ing hu­man. Fair suck of the sauce bot­tle, Scott, give it away.

This amount of ridicule this early in a prime min­is­ter­ship is un­prece­dented and prob­a­bly ir­re­versible. Even Billy McMa­hon fared bet­ter in his ill-fated 21-month-long prime min­is­ter­ship be­fore fall­ing to La­bor’s Gough Whit­lam.

Has any prime min­is­ter missed their own hon­ey­moon? Has there ever been a prime min­is­ter not to win a sin­gle Newspoll? Is there an­other prime min­is­ter whose first po­lit­i­cal out­ing saw the loss of a seat held by their party since Fed­er­a­tion?

Scott Mor­ri­son has “achieved” this his­toric tri­fecta in the 11 dire weeks since he slid his way into the na­tion’s top job. The empty bus plas­tered with his su­per­sized face exquisitely cap­tures his prime min­is­ter­ship. Empty mar­ket­ing or, as a ru­ral Queens­lan­der might put it – all hat, no cat­tle. Not even his size “L” base­ball caps can con­ceal that fact.

And is de­lib­er­ate staff sab­o­tage go­ing on? Is the same per­son re­spon­si­ble for Mor­ri­son’s par­lia­men­tary Fat­man Scoop “Be Faith­ful” rap de­ba­cle also to blame for this week’s Spo­tify mis­step, where Mor­ri­son os­ten­si­bly named only one Aus­tralian act in his 146-song Eight­ies Plus playlist?

As his pub­lic im­age con­sol­i­dates into one of fake folksy farce, the prime min­is­ter’s iso­la­tion within his own party is strik­ing. He is sin­gu­lar, alone.

The un­named Lib­eral MP who de­scribed Mor­ri­son as “go­ing down like a turd in a well” in Queens­land re­flected the view of many, in­clud­ing lead­er­ship ri­vals who still can­not quite be­lieve the ma­noeu­vre he pulled off in suc­ceed­ing Mal­colm Turn­bull.

Craftier cabi­net min­is­ters such as Christo­pher Pyne, more pop­u­lar Lib­er­als such as Julie Bishop, and more bruis­ing as­pi­rants such as Peter Dut­ton must be aghast as ScoMo tanks and takes the gov­ern­ment’s re­elec­tion prospects with him.

Mor­ri­son’s “pre­ferred prime min­is­ter” lead over Op­po­si­tion Leader Bill Shorten pro­vides com­fort for some gov­ern­ment MPs. How­ever, there is lit­tle cor­re­la­tion be­tween “pre­ferred PM” rat­ings and elec­tion out­comes, and nor does Shorten have the toxic, elec­tion­los­ing po­ten­tial of a Mark Latham. Swing­ing vot­ers are more likely to go for the bloke they’re not to­tally sure about over the one who is a laugh­ing stock.

As the new post-Turn­bull re­al­ity sinks in, the Coali­tion elec­tion cal­cu­lus is chang­ing.

Bar­ring a dras­tic improve­ment in the Coali­tion’s poll stand­ing, the like­li­hood of the fed­eral elec­tion hap­pen­ing in March, as se­ri­ously ad­vo­cated in some quar­ters of the party un­til the depths of ScoMo’s po­lit­i­cal flub­bing sank in, is slim. It in any case risked draw­ing un­happy New South Wales vot­ers’ ire ahead of the Bere­jik­lian gov­ern­ment go­ing to a state elec­tion on March 23, 2019.

A si­mul­ta­ne­ous lower house and half-Se­nate elec­tion in May has firmed as the most likely op­tion. How­ever, the se­ri­ous prospect of de­feat has gen­er­ated the ex­treme op­tion of split­ting the half-Se­nate and lower house elec­tions, the for­mer early in 2019 and the lat­ter as late as Novem­ber 2019, push­ing out los­ing gov­ern­ment as far as pos­si­ble and buy­ing time to find a mir­a­cle fix to the Coali­tion’s woes.

As well as por­tents, this week there were also points of light in fed­eral pol­i­tics.

NSW Lib­eral mod­er­ates ig­nored the prime min­is­ter’s plea to save Ab­bott-acolyte and Turn­bull­slayer Craig Kelly’s pre­s­e­lec­tion in the south­ern Syd­ney seat of Hughes, plan­ning to press ahead in sup­port of their pre­ferred can­di­date Kent Johns.

Ugly right-wing be­hav­iour has been spared trans­ac­tion costs in the past as mod­er­ates co­op­er­ated with re­quests, in the in­ter­ests of unity, not to press their num­bers, but Turn­bull’s turf­ing has cru­elled that. Mak­ing Kelly pay for help­ing de­pose a prime min­is­ter pop­u­lar with mod­er­ates sig­nals to those con­sid­er­ing do­ing the same in the fu­ture that there can be di­rect con­se­quences.

An­other point of light was the pub­lic’s rapid re­flex re­jec­tion of Vir­gin Aus­tralia’s Mor­ri­son-en­dorsed plan to priv­i­lege the board­ing of mil­i­tary vet­er­ans on do­mes­tic flights and have air crew make pub­lic an­nounce­ments on board thank­ing them for their ser­vice.

The re­ac­tion of both vet­er­ans and or­di­nary cus­tomers against this United States-style cel­e­bra­tion of the khaki was an ex­hil­a­rat­ing af­fir­ma­tion that de­spite the Coali­tion’s tren­chant ef­forts to Amer­i­can­ise our pol­i­tics, as a so­ci­ety we have not our­selves mor­phed into Amer­i­cans.

A third point of light was a bal­anced re­port in the na­tional busi­ness daily, The Aus­tralian Fi­nan­cial Re­view, on bond man­agers wel­com­ing La­bor’s plan to scrap the re­fund of frank­ing cred­its other than for pensioners. Cre­at­ing a more neu­tral as­set al­lo­ca­tion en­vi­ron­ment would evolve the mind­set of eq­uity in­vestors and ease pres­sure on com­pa­nies to max­imise div­i­dends in­stead of rein­vest­ing for growth.

It raises the tantalising pos­si­bil­ity that pol­icy might be re­ported sub­stan­tively as we ap­proach the next fed­eral elec­tion rather than just in terms of po­lit­i­cal pro­pa­gan­dis­ing and pointscor­ing.

If you are prone to por­tents you can be vul­ner­a­ble to faith in mir­a­cles, too. If the Lib­er­als were look­ing to Trump’s Amer­ica for in­spi­ra­tion for one in this week’s midterm elec­tions, there was none to be had.

The Re­pub­li­can Party’s acrid ad­vo­cacy of Brett Ka­vanaugh’s ap­point­ment to the US Supreme Court, ap­palling rhetoric around mi­grants trav­el­ling towards the US–Mex­ico border, and out­right racist po­lit­i­cal ads late in the cam­paign were not enough to stop the Democrats win­ning back con­trol of the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives.

Given that re­sult, think­ing Lib­er­als will be won­der­ing whether the Re­pub­li­can play­book they have worked to since John Howard took con­trol of the party in 1995 is ex­hausted. Can they think of an al­ter­na­tive to fear and loathing fast enough to save their hides in 2019 Aus­tralia?

Scott Mor­ri­son did have one stroke of luck this week, though. Stuck on the fact he nom­i­nated just one Aus­tralian song – Wa Wa Nee’s “Stim­u­la­tion” – on his Spo­tify Eight­ies Plus list, jour­nal­ists did not google its lyrics: “His world’s on fire/ He can get it up night and day/ Oh I wish I could get the feel­ing/ And give the girls some­thing to say./ All I need to get is stim­u­la­tion/ So get me up against the wall…” Not Fat­man Scoop but not ex­actly Pen­te­costal ei­ther.

Mor­ri­son got lucky on an­other score, too: in Vic­to­ria, the An­drews gov­ern­ment’s de­ci­sion to sign up to the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment’s Belt and Road Ini­tia­tive against bi­par­ti­san fed­eral po­lit­i­cal op­po­si­tion to this cyn­i­cal Chi­nese soft-power pro­gram.

China is an is­sue that re­quires ac­tive man­age­ment in the ALP with se­nior La­bor fig­ures such as Sam Dast­yari be­ing caught par­rot­ing Peo­ple’s Repub­lic of China pro­pa­ganda, and with for­mer for­eign min­is­ter Bob Carr a lead­ing PRC claqueur in Aus­tralia.

The An­drews gov­ern­ment hurt La­bor’s last fed­eral elec­tion cam­paign, with fire­fight­ers and paramedics an­gry over state is­sues tak­ing it out on fed­eral La­bor can­di­dates. It would be sadly ironic if poor de­ci­sions in one of La­bor’s strong­est states gave Scott Mor­ri­son a glim­mer of hope that he could win the 2019 fed­eral

• elec­tion after all.

CHRIS WAL­LACE is a po­lit­i­cal his­to­rian at the Aus­tralian Na­tional Univer­sity, Can­berra.

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