The week in politics, the week to come.
My five-month-old daughter Elizabeth loves music. Any music. Even my cack-handed piano playing, which rivals Molesworth 2 playing Fairy Bells, raises a cheerful grin from my beautiful babe.
Lately she’s taken to sitting at the piano with me and banging out tunes. Literally banging. She’s discovered dropping her hands down on the keyboard produces discordant sounds, although the chances of her being melodic are as good as a chimp’s typing out Shakespeare.
Elizabeth loves what she’s doing but produces no meaningful result. Her enthusiasm alone is not enough.
It’s what I’m feeling, reluctantly, about Scott Morrison’s campaigning.
Not that he’s campaigning badly: far from it. The only reason the Coalition’s still competitive going into this election’s final fortnight is Morrison’s strong on-the-ground performance. He has given real hope that a Coalition shorn of the Malcolm Turnbull incubus could yet come up with the goods.
But so far that’s not happened. In both debates last week, in which Shorten took the punters’ vote heavily in the first and just squeaked it in the second, Morrison’s pitch was “Don’t change horses. Labor can’t manage money. The economy will be stuffed under Labor”.
The economy is the government’s strong suit, and Morrison rightly is playing that card for all it’s worth. But while Monday’s Newspoll shows the focus on the already unpopular Shorten is resonating, the headline two-party figure still shows Labor on track to win decisively. The best that can be said about the Coalition’s position is that Morrison’s ensured this is a contest and not a Shorten coronation, and the fear of a government wipeout earlier in the year has faded. Indeed, were it not for the people’s republic of Victoria, we’d be seriously talking of a come-from-behind victory being possible despite everything.
But it’s an uphill battle. In the Sky News People’s Forum last Friday Morrison bested, even humiliated, Shorten on detail and substance. But Bruvver Bill showed he can fake sincerity and ignore the detail. Politically, he made the forum both memorable and forgettable by reducing it to one zinger, dismissing the PM as a “space invader” when Morrison confronted him accusingly.
Both debates as well as the polls showed voters don’t trust Shorten. Yet the economy’s strength just isn’t enough to save the government. Too many voters are prepared to give Shorten a go precisely because the economy is doing so well. Morrison and his brains trust don’t seem to have grasped this election’s going to be decided by millions of voters under 45 who have no adult memory of the last time Australia was in recession, of 12 per cent unemployment, of home interest rates nudging 20 per cent. To them the economy will always provide, and economic shyster Shorten is playing them like a violin.
To do more than lose honourably, Morrison must campaign beyond mere gusto.
On the negative side, he must go still harder on Shorten and Labor.
The opposition’s campaign launch on Sunday highlighted his under-tapped opportunities. Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard’s sitting together wasn’t a symbol of united Labor, but a pair of bloody Banquo’s ghosts cynically assassinated by Billy-boy Macbeth. Show-stealing Paul Keating was the last Labor leader who believed good policy, not populism, is good politics. Leaders of electorally popular but crony state governments, in Daniel Andrews and Annastacia Palaszczuk, highlighted Real Labor. And even Chloe Shorten, the immaculately glamorous second wife and former vice-regal daughter, reminded that Shorten’s preferred image is not his reality.
With less than a fortnight to go Morrison needs to reflect this column’s theme and look both backwards and forwards. The backwards – the government’s solid economic record and the negatives of Labor – matters. But especially in the Coalition’s last-minute campaign launch this Sunday, we need to see Morrison look forwards to give strong positive reasons to return the government: a clear plan for governing according to tried and true Liberal values, matched by a coherent programme of sensible spending and socio-economic reform, not a grab-bag of disconnected policy announcements and sweeties for embattled marginal seats.
But don’t count on it. This Coalition campaign is proving long on enthusiasm but short on imagination and daring. The conservatives are being too conservative and predictable when playing it safe is no longer an option.
Shorten and Labor’s vision may be a populist mirage, as Morrison amply demonstrated in the debates, but too many voters are still denying reality and buying it. Only by proving his government has an exciting but realistic vision of its own can Morrison even dream of winning this thing.
Like my Elizabeth’s piano playing, enthusiastic campaigning isn’t enough
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