Two snippets from Prime Minister Scott Morrison at the weekend hint at where the political plays are headed in these accelerating times, counting down to an election hanging in the balance.
Mid-year plans in the minds of Morrison and others in his Coalition campaign team would have placed us in the final stages of an election contest, heading for a decision on October 9, a week after two weekends of footy finals fun.
However, as former boxing champion Iron Mike Tyson is famous for saying, everyone has a plan until they’re punched in the face.
Morrison’s punch was the Sydney SARS-C0V-2 outbreak in the middle of winter and the arrival of a second wave of the virus.
Right now everyone is scrambling to find a way out of the wave and back to some measure of normal life.
Those who pointed to an early October 9 election – this columnist included – were wrong and are wearing the egg. That’s what writing political columns is all about.
Now, we’re two months to Christmas and Morrison has just returned from a self-proclaimed extravaganza of brilliant global strutting in New York and Washington DC. He is six or so points behind in the polls and is wondering if that losing margin will atrophy if he waits until next year.
He has to decide if he goes to the polls before Christmas, wait until late January or early February for a March poll or hang on until it’s the last roll of the dice in May. It’s a call that’s as big as any Morrison has ever made – the odds of getting it wrong are greater than those that favour getting it right.
So, what were the bread crumbs dropped out at the weekend? First he said he “might not” be going to the United Nations climate change conference in Glasgow which starts at the end of October. World leaders are getting together in the days before the big finish on November 12.
If Australia was in the middle of an election campaign, possibly kicked off just after the planned “opening up” of New South Wales (scheduled for October 11) when an 80 percent vaccination rate is reached, Australia wouldn’t have to send a minister.
We could have public service officials attending and the position of Morrison would become an aspiration forming part of his reelection bid. It’s one more big play in a high stakes game.
It would mute differences with the Nationals, take the heat out of an issue that now has bipartisan difficulties (witness Morrison saying at the weekend he hoped there could be a common policy between the Coalition and Labor on climate!) and allow him to focus on his three stronger cards.
The latest dirty secret of modern Australian politics is that climate change is now a bigger problem for the Coalition – inner city renewable-loving Liberals versus coal dust adorned, hi-viz regional Nats – than it is for the Labor Party.
Oh politics, your name is perversity.
Morrison’s strong hand avoids climate and concentrates on these: the pandemic in the first year, especially in the initial emergency phase when it looked like the health system would collapse and the economy would go into free fall; the strength of the economy compared with the rest of the world and a head-to-head choice between himself and Labor’s Anthony Albanese.
In a world governed by political theory, it’s a winning hand but Morrison has fouled his chances with three spectacular failings that sit on a scale with his misreading of the country during the bushfire crisis of 2019/20.
First, he mishandled his response to the issues surrounding the mistreatment of women – generally and in horrific, allegedly criminal, detail – in February and March this year. He has still not recovered from that particularly bad few weeks of mind and mouth disconnection.
Next, he has played out a series of poor examples of governance and political behaviour from pork-barrelling on commuter car parks to letting former minister Christian Porter keep up to $1 million in a secret slush fund established to pay his legal costs in an action against the ABC.
Third, and probably most seriously, he stuffed up the rollout of virus vaccines with his now unforgettable proclamation that getting needles in arms was “not a race”. He will not be forgiven for that one.
Usually it’s three strikes and you’re out. Looking at the polls, Morrison appears out but this is a two horse race with an opponent who is no Cox Plate favourite like the wonder horse Zaaki.
The other breadcrumb was a Sunday morning TV interview with Channel 7’s Sunrise. Here Morrison laid the foundations for a “freedom by Christmas” election campaign.
Morrison said he wanted Australian families to be able to get together around the Christmas lunch table and urged premiers to open borders so parents and children, brothers and sisters can reunite from Melbourne to Sydney to Brisbane and Perth.
Can he pull it off? Maybe. Many, possibly not quite most, people are genuinely tired of lockdowns and closed borders, especially in the shuttered cities of Melbourne and Sydney.
Relatives of shutout families wanting to again see their relatives in Brisbane have a ready outlet in the local media to complain and stir emotions.
However, if opening before Christmas might lead to a rapid rise in cases and people in hospital or worse, it might not be such a popular idea. There could, though, be a window just narrow enough to get away with it. A 35-day federal election campaign (as short as they come) might do it.
Morrison has about two weeks to judge whether this is a gamble worth taking. He is a player of the odds and has to decide whether the risk of waiting outweighs the risk of going this year. It’s a finely calibrated equation but a bunch of picky, recalcitrant premiers might give him the issue around which he could fashion a question of mandate.
After all, in an election where a loss of one or two seats could be the whole game, any roll of the dice could be the end – or it could be a path to yet another miracle.
In this febrile madness, don’t believe what Morrison says about not wanting an election this year because he has “work to do”. In that whirling mind, his work is the divine quest with a sole goal: to win the next election.
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