In the lead-up to the last federal election I wrote that Scott Morrison was avoiding questions about dysfunction in the Liberal Party, stagnating wages, and higher living costs.
His message then (and it hasn’t changed much) was that the Liberals are superior economic managers and that Labor’s policies amounted to a “tax grab”.
Labor’s 2019 policies, which included changes to negative gearing, capital gains and franking credits, greatly assisted Morrison’s message and contributed to Labor’s loss. Anthony Albanese has taken these taxing policies off the table.
Predictably, the Coalition has stepped up with another cry: “How will Labor pay for its election promises?” But with the Coalition leading the country towards a record $1 trillion debt, this will have little cut-through.
Australians have received an important lesson in economics as a result of the pandemic that will shape politics for years to come – that debt is affordable and even appropriate to fund essential services and growth-delivering infrastructure in a crisis.
Not only that, Australia’s economy is rich enough and strong enough to undertake all this extra spending and debt without even losing its coveted AAA rating.
So the Coalition’s mantras, “We are better economic managers” and “How will Labor pay for its promises?”, are likely to be ignored or even rubbished.
The Coalition may also be in trouble on another front. The number of undecided voters that it can potentially convince is diminishing rapidly.
In 2019, all the major pollsters had Labor on track to win – yet Labor lost. One reason for that polling failure was the high number of undecided voters – estimated at up to 28 per cent by some pollsters.
Many more of these undecided voters swung to the Coalition before the election, which delivered Morrison victory.
Since 2019, pollsters have adjusted their methodology and their questioning to minimise the percentage of undecided voters and are reporting only 7 or 8 per cent.
This suggests there may be substantially fewer votes in play that the Coalition can swing on polling day to win.
The Coalition’s primary vote has also dropped by up to 7 per cent, which suggests Labor is on track to win. We should be wary of this conclusion as most pollsters use the blunt instrument of previous preference flows to project where this 7 per cent (and the undecided) will ultimately land and these may well be off the mark with the rise of minor parties and independents.
Nevertheless, Coalition hard heads must be worried as there is no doubt Morrison has lost his shine.
Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say Morrison has gone from being the Liberal Party’s best asset in 2019 to the Labor Party’s best asset in 2022.
How did this happen? Morrison’s holidaying in Hawaii during the Black Summer bushfires and telling firefighters “I don’t hold a hose, mate” was cutting. Then came his inept, insensitive dealing with public anger at violence against women, especially in parliament, and his failures in aged care where hundreds died and in the botched vaccine distribution, having no initial back-up to AstraZeneca.
And, of course, the damaging leaked text messages. A Liberal minister allegedly called Morrison a “complete psycho” in a conversation with former NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian and Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, while he was a backbencher, labelled Morrison a “hypocrite and a liar”.
Most recently his own backbencher, Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, said in parliament that he was “unfit to be Prime Minister”.
It is hard to brush all this off and many in the Liberal Party may now lament that the opportunity was not seized upon a few months ago to replace Morrison with Josh Frydenberg or even Peter Dutton – both of whom indicated they would step up in the right circumstances.
Now senior Liberals are rushing to get behind Morrison. But they must be thinking that if the Coalition wins it will be despite their leader and not because of him.
All of this does not mean Labor is assured of victory. If 2019 taught us anything it is that polls can get it wrong, and that the electorate is unpredictable. Campaign hard heads believe fear is a much better motivator than hope and will target their messages accordingly.
Against this backdrop, Labor faces enormous challenges to win.
It must present a minimum level of new spending to satisfy its base, but not so much as would leave it vulnerable to accusations of poor economic management. It cannot continue with a simple “small target” strategy either, as this in itself will elicit a fear campaign around “Labor is trying to sneak into government and what are they hiding?” These are extraordinary strategic and policy challenges.
Albanese has been remarkable in reinventing himself as a competent leader driven by pragmatic conservatism in economic management and national security.
But the Coalition will drag up historical examples of Albo’s left-leaning past to attack his character and intentions.
To win, Albanese must show that he will govern for the middle and that he is to be trusted, not feared.
And to do this he must present an achievable vision, be prepared to stand up to excessive Labor-left demands, reject the Greens’ costly and unachievable policies and their dangerous national security prescriptions, and make clear no coalition is possible with the Greens.
Theo Theophanous is a commentator and Former Victorian Labor Minister