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Morrison treads a fine line, keeping his friends close and his enemies even closer

Politics

Scott Morrison will have to tread carefully and avoid antagonising Queenslanders who remain loyal to Annastacia Palaszczuk if he wants to retain his electoral popularity north of the Tweed, writes Dennis Atkins

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Like a tropical storm dumping on the canefields, moods change in Mackay in the flash of lightning across the night sky.

In June 2010 they made up their minds quickly and firmly. By the time people from the first plane into the Central Queensland port and services town hit the outskirts of the business district, the banner was hanging from the upper balcony of the Austral Hotel.

“Not Another Bloody Labor Woman,” it said, scrawled but emphatic.

The banner referred to Julia Gillard who’d been installed as Labor leader in Canberra the night before, toppling Queensland’s own Kevin Rudd.

It wasn’t popular and added salt to a raw political sore rubbed by the state leadership of Anna Bligh, “another bloody Labor woman”.

A swirling antipathy of antagonism towards Bligh’s Labor government, re-elected against the odds the year before, discontent with federal Labor and the shock anger at Gillard’s imposition as the new, unelected, the prime minister made for a powerful gumbo of political poison.

That was then and now, heading towards 11 years on, it’s a different planet for Queensland Labor – at a state level, that is.

Annastacia Palaszczuk is the country’s most successful female politician, which adds a piquant flavour to the national contest certain to play out in eight or nine months when Scott Morrison asks Governor-General David Hurley for an election of half the Senate and the House of Representatives.

It’s a simple bit of political calculus. Morrison needs to hold his majestic majority in Queensland – a government-forming 23 of the 30 electorates on offer – if he’s to keep sleeping in the Lodge and Kirribilli House.

That means he has to stop Labor, under Anthony Albanese or someone else, from making inroads in this state with its history of political duality, voting one way at a federal level and the other at state elections.

Morrison is a natural political fighter, even if he’s had to adopt a veneer of “we’re all Australians together” during this continuing time of pandemic. He likes to win, likes to demonstrate his self-regarded smarts and likes to lord it over his opponents, wherever they might be.

His first week at work after a power-nap of a summer break (why would you only take seven days off unless you were driving towards a spring election) was spent in Queensland, revisiting places coming out from under a dusty blanket of drought and hi-vizzing his way through mining and manufacturing centres.

Morrison came very close to picking a fight with Palaszczuk over her plan to move Australians returning from overseas into a quarantine facility near Gladstone instead of inside a possibly porous hotel in Spring Hill.

After talking with the local, probably departing, LNP member Ken O’Dowd, Morrison pushed back against the idea, saying it wasn’t thought through and Palaszczuk should think again before moving Brisbane’s problems to the regions.

This was despite officials from the offices of Palaszczuk and Morrison having discussed the proposal and agreeing to work together on seeing if it could happen. The Queensland Premier reminded the Prime Minister about this and he cooled his opposition.

Another suggestion, involving a private, purposefully built facility near Wellcamp west of Toowoomba is also on the agenda.

This illustrates how Morrison might want to score some points off Palaszczuk but he can’t afford to antagonise Queenslanders who still hold their Premier in very high regard – she commands local approval ratings above the high marks given to the Prime Minister.

Morrison is aware of this and stands willing to shamelessly embrace Palaszczuk. Three months ago he trotted around the state with a now-former LNP leader saying the Labor Government had no economic plan whatsoever.

Last week Morrison was praising Palaszczuk’s policies to chart a course out of the COVID-19 recession, albeit with faint cadences.

Morrison has to find that way through the eye of the tricky political needle – keeping Queensland minds focussed on his agenda and achievements while working with a very popular Labor leader in the state.

He’s opportunistic and shameless enough to do it with ease. A shapeshifter without any genuine belief beyond himself, Morrison can fill any vessel before him in need of content. It’s a canny trick, honed at the desks of marketing maestros late at night and early in the morning.

Federally, Labor needs to drive a wedge between Morrison and voters north of the Tweed who have embraced him over this difficult and anxious year. It’s not going to be easy.

An unknown is whether Palaszczuk will want to spend any of her deep reserves of political capital to assist her federal colleagues. Those who are contemplating the national contest ahead hope she will and can see a role for her that will not require getting mud on her shoes.

If Palaszczuk chooses not to get into a street fight that federal Labor is almost certain to lose, her Canberra colleagues will understand but they’ll still lick what could be very deep wounds.

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