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Another day, another bad poll - but Morrison sure there's another miracle left in him

Politics

Scott Morrison wakes up today to another bad poll but he retains belief in his ability to do the impossible and take the Coalition to victory in a few months. Dennis Atkins picks over the latest clues to what he’s got in mind.

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The Prime Minister’s most extensive one-on-one interview since mid-2020, published in weekend newspapers, revealed a few of Scott Morrison’s key election strategies and aims.

Foremost was a desire to portray himself as the regular, suburban guy – the genuine and natural political successor to his top of the pops political hero, John Howard

This look at Morrison’s first full term as the national leader, laid out across pages of grey typeface, was the first real deliberative move by the prime minister in an election year.

The interview was conducted in the lead up to Christmas but Morrison would know when it would hit the newsstands. He had a single, unalloyed message. He was going to claim the territory of the nation’s everyman.

It’s a familiar piece of political landscape for Morrison – he’s tried to get his head on this outer suburban Mount Rushmore throughout his time in public life.

If he does pull off a repeat of his self-styled “miracle” win of 2019 – the contest in which no-one but Morrison and his closest coterie thought he might prevail – he will earn that place in the Liberal Party’s pantheon, repeat winner against the odds in difficult circumstances. After all, this is a party that likes two things above everything else – cutting taxes and regulation and winning.

Whether he actually has a chance is a matter worth exploring after looking at the naked pitch for ordinariness.

Here’s a few things he said worth copying and keeping handy for the coming months.

Morrison lays down the hackneyed charge his opponents have nothing positive to say, instead just attacking and seeking to tear down.

“… they did the same to John Howard, they demonised him for years and years and years and years and they are doing the same thing to me. I take it as a compliment [that] … calling names is the best they can do.

“I’m just going to keep being real and authentic like I always have and engage directly with the Australian people.”

Morrison’s opponents will argue forcefully he’s not “real and authentic” but actually a performative construct built on calculation and manipulation. It matters very little.

The prime minister knows voters crave “reality and authenticity” and if he stamps himself with that brand it might stick with enough people to help in some of those squeaky tight electoral contests from Leichhardt in Far North Queensland to Braddon in the west of Tasmania and across to Swan in Perth’s west.

American Democratic Party winning consultant James Carville, who fashioned the “out of left field, come from behind” wins of Bill Clinton 30 years ago, has a natty phrase for this: gloat and promote. It’s simple: you claim something and then sell it. A brand-focussed politician like Morrison understands this as well as anyone.

In the weekend interview Morrison keeps pushing the ordinariness, even skewing just where he was raised in Sydney’s aspirational eastern suburbs.

“I grew up in the less affluent end of the eastern suburbs down in Bronte with a dad and mum and a brother who lived in (an) aunty’s house, went to public schools all my life, and then when I got to the (Sutherland) Shire (16 years ago, just before running for Parliament) absolutely loved it,” he says.

“I felt at home, very at home there. That’s where I am happiest, I am very happy in the suburbs.”

Gloat and promote.

Elsewhere, he extends his heroes and role models beyond Howard to a US president most Australians would struggle to name or fail to nominate anything he did: Theodore Roosevelt Jr., known as Teddy.

Morrison uses Roosevelt to burnish purported credentials as a fixer. “He was a problem solver, he was passionate about national parks and the environment, he stood up for small business against the big trusts,” says Morrison.

Elsewhere he is more direct: “My attention is solely on fixing the problem. I find that if you fix the problem, the politics takes care of itself.”

It works as another leg of the re-election stool Morrison has ready to go – the one in which the national leader stood up when needed, marshalled the health and economic responses which gave Australia a world leading experience of the Covid pandemic.

Again, it is hotly contested territory but for most Australians the lived experience certainly looks at least good enough when measured against the rest of the world.

Gloat and promote, part two.

As is clear from the weekend interview, Morrison has a politically bulletproof ability to absorb, deflect and dodge criticism, including the easy-to-see, bleedingly obvious.

This has three key ingredients: deny reality, answer a completely different question or throw a squirrel into the air. He is a very hard nut to crack and time can be wasted trying.

Morrison will go into an election almost certainly in May with his gloat and promote strategy in pretty good shape. Of course, Morrison also has three years of political scar tissue, a collection of enemies and antipathy which would destroy most politicians and a pathway to victory that’s narrow and fragile, demanding the most sure footedness.

These things are going to add lead to Morrison’s campaign saddlebags but people shouldn’t forget the extraordinary ability he has to stuff up, disappoint and fall short only to be forgiven after time. This has happened three or four times in the last two years – what we don’t know is if he’s run out of political lives.

Also working will be what’s on the other side of Morrison’s campaign strategy – his big hope to completely destroy Anthony Albanese as a viable alternative.

If you are a bit tarnished, have lost credibility and provoke intense reactions, the best chance you’ve got is to make the other guy unelectable.

Morrison did it in 2019 with Bill Shorten who was a drag on Labor’s vote, as the Australian National University 2019 Election Study demonstrated.

He hopes to reprise that effort with Albanese.

It’s not going to be as easy because the Sydney career politician is going to be harder to demonise. However, the fact there’s no enthusiasm for Albanese does give Morrison and the Liberals a chance.

They will unleash a personal and political attack on Albanese as ferocious as anything seen in Australia. It’s the complete opposite of gloat and promote.

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