Tonight’s National Press Club debate is crucial in that it’s actually going to be watched and not just reported. Not the paltry viewing audience and crapulous format on 7 Two. Not the mere 95,000 who watched the Sky News Peoples’ Forum. With at least hundreds of thousands of viewers, this one will get eyeballs.
With a million voters pre-polled already, and his campaign launch dangerously left to the last Sunday of the campaign, Scott Morrison needs to cut through tonight with a clear win over populist Bill Shorten. A draw isn’t enough to blunt Shorten, and a Shorten win will fuel the momentum of his media cheers squad.
So far Morrison has been strong on the negative and defending the government’s record but weak on the positive – the Coalition’s vision for the country and the future. It’s made it too easy for Shorten to dress up his Corbynesque pitch as one of hope and renewal, sweeping the ugly detail under the rhetorical carpet. Let’s finally see some Morrison focus on vision, values and positive plans for re-election tonight.
Don’t stop there though, ScoMo. On the back of how this campaign’s evolved, here’s three debate tips (you’re welcome PM):
First, own the economy in simple cut-through language that even the dopiest voter can understand. Today Bob Hawke and Paul Keating published an opinion piece declaring that Labor is a safe pair of hands on the economy. Just look at what we did, they said. Bill Shorten is one of us, they said. What rot.
Morrison must nail this, and nail it hard. The Shorten economic plan is tax, tax, tax to spend, spend, spend. It isn’t about a liberal market economy, it’s grievance-exploiting populism, about intergenerational theft, about government intervention, about dependency. Hawke and Keating, and their belief that good policy makes good politics, are about as alien to the Shorten-Sally McManus Labor party as John Howard is. In the first two debates Morrison attacked Shorten and played up the Coalition’s superior economic management credentials, but he used inside-the-bubble language (Gross Operating Surplus, anyone?) that sailed over the heads of punters.
Make it clear, ScoMo: if the economy is weakening as Labor says it is, why cripple it with $387 billion of new taxes? Why won’t Shorten follow the Hawke-Keating template and cut taxes instead of raise them?
Second, make it crystal clear that if you get Shorten, you get his bad stuff as well as his free stuff. In 1993, Keating beat John Hewson by declaring that, if defeated, Labor senators would not oppose Hewson’s sweeping economic and policy reforms, including his 15 per cent Goods and Services Tax and gutting Medicare. Morrison should likewise galvanise crucial undecided voters who like Shorten’s lavish social spending agenda but somehow believe his franking credits, negative gearing, superannuation and other revenue grabs will be blocked or watered down in the Senate. The PM must show you can’t have Shorten’s cake and eat it too. It could be a game-changer, and the debate’s an ideal place to announce it.
But most importantly Morrison must, as he has failed to do so far, deal with the Liberal leadership issue head-on. Ever since becoming the Steven Bradbury of the Liberal leadership farce of last August, Morrison has pretended the problem doesn’t exist or tried to deflect it with mealy-mouthed and overly tactful words. He’s sounded like the captain of the Titanic announcing the ship has stopped to take on ice.
Tonight, Morrison must go full Peter Beattie with leadership mea culpas. He must do more than remind voters that Shorten fatally stabbed two prime ministers himself. He must own up the damage that three PMs in six years has done the Coalition. He must unequivocally apologise to the Australian public for the hurt and anger caused in 2015 and 2018. He must explain the party room rule leadership ballot rule changes that will create stability in the next term. And he must be prepared to admit that many voters are so angry about what’s happened that they’re prepared to vote the government out, and say that he will accept that verdict.
Beattie won two successive Queensland elections apologizing and showing contrition for scandals that should have sunk his government. No contrition has been shown for the overthrow of Tony Abbott in 2015 and Malcolm Turnbull last year: rather it’s been “don’t mention the war”. Before it’s too late, Morrison can acknowledge that he understands the public anger, apologise for his party room causing it, and show an awareness that while the polls – and therefore voter dissatisfaction – drove the party room revolts against Abbott and Turnbull, Liberal MPs failed to understand voters were the ones do elect prime ministers and wanted their chance to pass verdict on the PM of the day.
And as far as Turnbull goes, Morrison should make it clear that his petulant and selfish behaviour since that mad week in August proves his removal was justified. Turnbull has shown in spades why he lost the party room’s confidence, and if pressed Morrison should just say so. Owning the elephant in the room can impress undecided voters, and help heal the wounds win or lose.
So if you’re reading this ScoMo, please give these tips some thought. A bland, defensive and technocratic performance won’t cut it tonight. A confident, wrong-footing and honest performance will.
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