Most prime ministers suffer nerves in the run up to national elections. Scott Morrison, a believer in divine miracles to carry him across the line, might be the exception but if he was prone to anxiety it should be now.
During the 2004 campaign when surveys predicted a Labor win before the polls narrowed, John Howard was wary Mark Latham might defy sensible predictions and become prime minister.
While these thoughts upset his sleep, he took solace in a belief Queensland would come home for him. This was built, in large part, on the presence of Peter Beattie in the premier’s office in Brisbane.
Howard, who had an undying admiration for the political skills of the former Queensland Labor leader, told this columnist he thought Beattie’s incumbency would weigh heavily in the minds of voters.
“While Beattie is in office, I think I’ll be ok,” said Howard before the 2004 poll.
He was right. The Coalition – this was prior to the formation of the LNP – picked up one seat from Labor in this state, helping boost the conservative majority to five.
Could it be Morrison is hoping to reprise the Howard magic from 2004 by picking up some countervailing support because there’s a state Labor Government in William Street?
Morrison might not have the same regard for Annastacia Palaszczuk that Howard had for Beattie (the prime minister says privately he “can’t abide” the Queensland premier) but he does have an eye on the potential for voters in this state supporting him as a loose kind of insurance against the state government.
Australian voters generally have a marked record of splitting their vote at state and federal levels – out of 42 state elections since 1955 there’s been a swing to a party of the same stripe as a Canberra incumbent just six times. That’s enough to say it’s a trend and it’s one more pronounced in Queensland.
You could say this trend held for Morrison in 2019 when the LNP held all of its seats in Queensland and won back the electorates of Herbert and Longman.
The strong showing for Morrison and the LNP in this state was vital in his “miracle” win and allowed the prime minister to declare on election night “How good is Queensland!”
Now he wants some more of that miracle elixir. It’s the main reason LNP federal politicians have been holding their tongues recently and pulling back from criticising Palaszczuk.
In the last three days Sunshine Coast LNP MP Ted O’Brien was slapped down after he criticised Palaszczuk for her precipitous action on appointments for the 2032 Olympics organising committee. Other federal LNP politicians have “flicked the switch to silent” on borders and other state issues.
To carry this off, Morrison and the federal LNP will need to strike a balance between highlighting the impact of the state’s strict border controls – especially in respect of the tourism industry – and supporting the right of the Palaszczuk Government to follow its own health advice.
A pointer to the argument Morrison and the Coalition will mount was laid out at the weekend in quotes from a senior federal government figure – believed to be the prime minister – about how the popular state Labor administrations in Queensland and Western Australia would be handled during a campaign.
“It depends upon the question. If we ask West Australians which team do you want: McGowan/Morrison or McGowan/Albanese, that leads to an obvious answer,” said the federal Liberal.
“If we ask Queenslanders whether their preferred team is Palaszczuk/Morrison or Palaszczuk/Albanese, that also leads to an obvious answer.”
Such a nuanced framing of the questions the LNP wants to be in voters’ minds would not just allow Morrison to leverage some of Palaszczuk’s glow but also remind people of the head-to-head choice of himself and Labor’s Albanese.
In this sense, Morrison and his team want to buy some insurance against the reflected electoral glow from two popular Labor premiers.
An LNP insider said people might like Palaszczuk but they want a check on her power by having a strong Coalition government in Canberra.
“We saw that in the Howard/Beattie years and we are seeking it again now,” said this strategist.
“People voted for Palaszczuk last year quite comfortably because they liked her and the LNP alternative was a joke.
“But this choice had cover because people knew Morrison was in Canberra as a balancing force.”
Finally, here’s a footnote to last week’s column on election timing and the possibility of a poll before Christmas: there might be a last minute hitch in this cunning plan.
There’s no doubt Morrison is determined to have everything ready for making a “green light call” in about a fortnight for a late November (or early December) poll.
There was even a report that Liberal party officials were making large buys of paper which would be used for how-to-vote cards and other postal material.
The hitch could be in getting the legislative changes the Australian Electoral Commission says it needs before the organisation can conduct a poll in these “crisis” times. What was thought to be a simple amendment to the laws could need some more complicated regulations. That could push out the deadline for a poll beyond Christmas and into the new year.
Of course, if there’s a will to have an election, a way would probably be found.
As 2020 taught us, the only certainty in these times is uncertainty.
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