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'It's the economy (and the recovery) stupid' - PM has six months to reset the narrative

Opinion

Scott Morrison is likely to stick to a familiar refrain as he ramps up his campaign for the next election – but he’ll have to tailor it for two widely different audiences, writes Dennis Atkins

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Former US President Bill Clinton’s campaign maestro James “The Ragin’ Cajun” Carville scrawled one of the great iron laws of modern politics on the wall in Democratic Party headquarters in Little Rock Arkansas almost 30 years ago.

“It’s the economy, stupid” was Carville’s final message to his campaign team in that come-from-nowhere and come-from-behind, almost improbable win by a little known southern governor.

Clinton defeated a Republican incumbent, George H.W. Bush, who had just won a popular war against Saddam Hussein. It was gold standard, as we say these days.

The other two parts of what was a political triptych were “Change vs. more of the same” and “Don’t forget health care.”

It was a winning combination of simple, easy to explain politics framing a policy agenda that rang bells in kitchens, workplaces and on street corners across the USA.

Scott Morrison is nowhere near as thoughtful as Carville and he never lets a three-part slogan get in the way of one with just four or a few more words.

He no doubt thinks he can run all the way to the election with a campaign that has the economy at its core. However, it’s not just that singular thought.

For Morrison his mantra (at the moment) is: It’s the economy and opening up, stupid.

Morrison is never full of surprises because he almost never surprises us. He is transparent, he doesn’t change his way of operating and he is a creature of comfort and habits.

In Morrison’s mind the election is about the economic recovery, rebounding growth and the creation of jobs. This solid present situation and future outlook theme is going to be linked to the handling of the pandemic, the vaccine program and its place in the Great Reopening.

Much of this is overstated, undeserved and wrapped in balderdash but it will be the message that never stops from a prime minister who is desperately praying for one more miracle.

There will be plenty of compare and contrast with Labor but a government carrying more than eight years of scar tissue and baggage might find that easier to imagine than to execute.

As the political year begins its wind-down (yes, it’s been a whole year, although pandemic years are a bit like dog years), we can assess where we are, what we know and where we might be heading.

The Coalition is behind in the polls and have been in the electoral outhouse for more than five months. If these survey projections were realised at an election, Labor would win in a John Howard 1996 sized landslide.

Morrison’s personal numbers are slipping further into break-up territory. If he was a submarine contract he’d be ditched for a newer, more powerful model.

While Morrison thinks he’s buried and won the climate wars, there is still some potency in this poisoned chalice and he might still have to sup from it against his will.

Morrison has the exact problem Labor had in 2019. He has to sell two contradictory messages to distinct parts of the electorate – one supportive of “net zero emissions” for the metro seats and a hi-viz one, covered in coal dust, for power and resource seats in New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australia. The sticky paper is a bad place on which to find your footing.

Labor is in a much better place. Cover is available from ALP and Coalition state and territory governments, especially with the new bid led by Dominic Perrottet from NSW for a coordinated, national drive aiming at more ambition.

If Labor is agile enough and doesn’t walk into the trap Morrison so desperately wishes to be not just set but sprung, the comparison could be between unity and internal division. This would defy historical experience.

As to where we’re going, we can now safely say there won’t be an election this year. This columnist was the last person in the country to get off this horse but that was channeling Morrison’s urgent desire to have a pre-Christmas poll before he was mugged by that greater force in politics, events.

The conventional wisdom soon switched to national elections being held on March 5 next year, with a campaign starting just after Australia Day.

That is still possible but could also hit the “events speed bump”.

NSW byelections, caused by the resignations of Gladys Berejiklian, John Barilaro, Andrew Constance and Melanie Gibbons from the Liberals and Labor’s Jodi McKay, are tipped to be held in late February or early March which crowds that part of the timetable, as does a statewide election in South Australia inked in for late March.

After March there is Easter on the weekend from April 15 to 18 and school holidays in the first half of that month.

All of this is pointing to a probable election being held in May which would allow Morrison to say he was going “full term”, three years on from the last poll on May 18, 2019, despite his obvious desperation to have the contest held earlier.

Morrison dropped a big hint he was looking at a mid-May poll last month when he mentioned for the first time he and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg would almost certainly hand down a 2022 Budget.

When asked when we’d see details of spending promised to the Nationals for supporting net zero, Morrison said casually we should prepare for another budget before the election.

“All of our policies will come out before the next election. In particular, there will be a budget next year, [that] is our intention,” said Morrison.

So we have about six more months of this government which could be bad news for those who want to see the back of Morrison. He is in no hurry to meet his electoral fate.

Maybe he’s recalling the words of Paul Keating who observed in the early 1990s “if you’re headed for the guillotine there’s no point in running”.

 

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