Shortly after the 2016 federal election, Christopher Pyne declared, “That’s our sixth victory out of eight in the last 20 years. We’re an election-winning machine in the Liberal Party.” It sounded arrogant but, Pyne was actually being modest. In the 45 elections since Federation, the Liberal Party and its direct ancestors have won 31 to Labor’s 14.
Yes, betting markets and pundits agree Labor will win. Yes, senior Liberal lobbyists are scrambling to hire Labor staff and even donate to Labor. But a sober assessment of the landscape says Australia’s election-winning remains in contention to win again.
Incumbency has power. In the 28 federal elections since 1945, the opposition party has only won seven. Governments have a remarkable record when an election is ‘tight’ which I’ll define as a two-party preferred result between 49-51 per cent. Since 1945 there have been 11 tight elections. The government of the day won 11 out of 11. It’s too consistent to be a coincidence.
While 15 million autonomous individuals vote in a federal election another perspective is that Australia is a single entity with a collective mind. That entity hesitates about changing a federal government and come polling day errs on the cautious side unless it has emphatically decided it needs new government. When an opposition does occasionally win, they don’t win by a nose. They punch through and win comfortably.
The most reliable indicator a government is heading for defeat is if the polls are horrendous a year out from the election. When Paul Keating lost in 1996 the polls in 1995 were as high as 60-40 per cent against him and, while he still lost resoundingly, the final margin was 53.63 per cent. Both John Howard in 2007 and Kevin Rudd in 2013 had a near identical polling trajectory before their defeats.
The current government has consistently been behind but the two-party preferred vote has never reached horrendous lows. The worst poll for Scott Morrison was 44-56 per cent but that was just after the messy retirement of Malcolm Turnbull. The polls have slowly improved since but improved they have. If Morrison enters the campaign somewhere around 48 per cent he’ll be favourite because polls generally tighten during the campaign. And Morrison is knocking on the door of 48 per cent. In 2019 there have been around seven federal polls. The average is around 47.5 per cent so with three months to go the Liberals are in contention.
The lead in the Liberal saddle should be the sorry fact they’ve twice deposed a prime minister in two terms. But that is cancelled out by Labor doing precisely the same thing seemingly just yesterday. The distinction between the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd government and the Abbott/Turnbull/Morrison government is that while both have had political chaos, Labor also had policy chaos. This Liberal Government has been disappointing for policy purists but it gets a modest pass on the policy front. In contrast, Labor was an emphatic policy failure.
Napoleon said, “I’d rather have lucky generals than good ones.’ The political career of Morrison has been defined by exceptionally good luck. When he nominated for the Cook preselection in 2007, he got eight votes to the winner Michael Towke’s 82. Towke was unfairly disqualified but by the time that was resolved Morrison was already in Canberra. Two years later he was made shadow minister for immigration just when a torrent of boat people began arriving.
He waltzed into the Treasurer’s role in the wake of the 2015 leadership change and his luck triumphed when he became PM by apparent accident in 2018. Most leaders have had political low points before entering The Lodge – not Morrison. As Napoleon discovered luck does run out but it’s risky to bet against such a lucky streak.
Morrison leads Shorten as preferred prime minister but that is a poor predictor of the final result. What is more substantially against Shorten is his sweeping left-wing agenda – taxes up, across the board political correctness and a 45 per cent renewable energy target.
Since Fightback! opposition leaders have run a small target strategy. Its why John Howard said in 1995 that we’ll ‘never ever’ have a GST. Its why Kevin Rudd put ads on TV telling us he is an economic conservative and why Tony Abbott told us on election eve in 2013 that there’ll be no cuts. Shorten deserves sincere credit for being bold. But as John Hewson taught us, being bold ain’t great when it comes to winning. To be bold and to win is, of course, the ideal … but to pull it off you need once in a generation quality leadership.
On the three occasions Labor has won from opposition since 1945 it twice campaigned as centrist – honestly in 1983 and dishonestly in 2007. Labor did win with a proudly left agenda in 1972 but the surprise was how modest Gough Whitlam’s victory was, despite the efforts of revisionists. The Liberals were asking to extend their 23 years in power to a Westminster record of 26 years. The Liberal PM was the colourless and awkward Billy McMahon while Whitlam oozed prime ministerial grandeur. McMahon led a badly fractured party with cabinet ministers belittling him during the campaign and most of the media – even, be it never forgotten, Rupert Murdoch – backed Whitlam.
But despite it all, while Whitlam did win, his punch through from opposition to government was the most tepid since 1913 (nine seats). Why? Because Whitlam like Shorten was honest about his left agenda.
When Shorten entered parliament he was supposed to be the next Bob Hawke – a right-wing unionist who was pro-business. That had been mostly accurate until the 2017 British election. The leader of the British Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn way overperformed expectations and almost won. Corbyn is far left. In the wake of Corbyn’s stunning performance, Shorten appears to have calculated that moving left is a vote winner.
His strategy has paid dividends. The Greens are imploding. No-one saw that coming but Labor must be thrilled. Unionists and party members are brimming with confident enthusiasm so Shorten has plenty of volunteers and donors to run a quality campaign. But swinging voters struggle to vote for an across the board left-wing agenda and unlike Turnbull’s kid gloves strategy in 2016 we can expect Morrison to land some punches.
Morrison exudes self-belief. Rarely does a day go by without some unwanted distraction but regardless he retains a diligent demeanour and optimistic outlook.
He can cut through – and if he wins, Morrison will enter the Liberal pantheon.
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