By Mark Kenny
A version of this article was originally published by The Canberra Times.
Curious isn’t it that it is probably among those most committed to a change of government, that Labor’s campaign readiness gets most nervously debated.
Scandals and backflips by the Coalition over vaccines, submarines, and emissions, coupled with the glaring absence or any coherent third-term purpose, make its insistence on a fourth seem, well, borderline offensive.
But after 2019, fear abounds within Labor. Fear of voter indifference. Fear of Scott Morrison’s laser-like campaign focus. And a corresponding fear that Labor could yet hand him the means, as it did three years ago.
On paper, Morrison’s government is barely viable. Its rudiments are dismal – exhaustion, ideological gridlock, egregious policy U-turns, pork-barrelling, a docile and uncreative ministry.
But the unlikely sum of these parts somehow keeps Morrison aloft anyway, as if, like the stolen space ship in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, his whole untidy show is actually driven by “infinite improbability”.
How else to rationalise a government that began with Tony Abbott as women’s minister in his first 19-member cabinet (featuring just one actual woman), and is now fronting up at this poll with Barnaby 2.0 in harness, Deputy PM and final arbiter on climate change?
The cynicism is epic.
Morrison is Australia’s first fully post-modern prime minister, his adoptive Sharkies and unreflective Pentacostalism being among the many parkable values in the swirling pastiche on offer.
This incongruity has progressives anxiously oscillating between the extremes of smug certainty and crippling doubt.
On one hand, is the overwhelming case for Morrison’s removal.
On the other, the fact that ordinary voters remain disengaged.
Progressives fret that by minimising Labor’s differences with the Coalition in areas like climate, AUKUS, nuclear submarines, China, and taxation, Anthony Albanese could be another honourable also-ran like Kim Beazley.
Albanese is alive to that danger but has decided to simply weather the attacks on his left-flank figuring these votes will wind up in his pile anyway.
Uninspiring? Undoubtedly. But the cold truth is, these aren’t the voters election campaigns are fought over and catering to them would only compromise the main fight.
Albanese is nothing if not hard-nosed. He recognises that with compulsory preferential voting - you don’t win by making your existing supporters happier, but by convincing others who didn’t vote for you last time, to come across.
And that often entails different messaging. Think Kevin Rudd’s Christianity, and his explicit claim to be a fiscal conservative.
Rudd’s approach reassured cautious centre-ground voters who’d stuck with Howard for a decade. He gave them permission to switch brands without feeling unsafe. And perhaps without even feeling disloyal to their own values.
Albanese insists the 2022 election should be about Morrison’s many failings, not the risks of switching to Labor, as it became in 2019.
Could he be over-correcting from Shorten’s big-policy tilt? It is a genuine concern.
As UC academic Chris Wallace cautions in her perceptive book “How to Win an Election”, Albanese must read history, not repeat it. He needs to understand what went wrong last time but must also guard against applying old knowledge to fresh dynamics.
Emissions policy is complex in this regard because here, the electorate itself has shifted also.
Back then, Morrison depicted Bill Shorten’s 45% cut by 2030 as extreme and growth-destroying. Ditto Labor’s goal that half of all new vehicles sales are electric by the same year. That aspiration, Morrison branded as a war on the Aussie weekend, green-left ideology gone mad.
Now, less than three years later, the 45% cut is the global bare minimum. As for new car sales, EVs will make up more than 50% by the end of this decade anyway as carmakers cease production of the petrol/diesel option.
Even the Coalition’s risible 2050 modelling accepts this.
So should Labor run the 45% target again, lift its ambition, or perhaps, pull back, in light of how Morrison stoked fear in 2019?
Most expect a more nuanced approach heading into this election – more ambitious cuts than the Coalition, but not too much more, lest it hands Morrison that scare campaign.
But what if this “problem” instead presents Labor with an opportunity? The danger for Morrison if he attacks a bolder Labor trajectory, is that he merely emphasises the disingenuousness of his own minute-to-midnight conversion on 2050 and EVs.
Discussing this with one Labor strategist brought the inevitable reference to the Maginot Line – a defensive barrier erroneously relied on by French generals after WWI to forestall an expected German invasion two decades later.
The increasingly mechanised Wehrmacht simply went around it.
The point being, whatever Labor does, there will be scare campaigns because, frankly, fear works.
In fact, Morrison has already begun.
Fresh from his about-face on 2050 he reached for John Howard’s “who do you trust?” mantra.
With an economy in transition, who do you trust to protect the worst affected industries and regions? That’s chutzpah for you.
Howard’s successful 2004 election framer had referred to interest rates primarily, and Morrison has them in mind too, but he’s roping in the inchoate fear of other costs of living - petrol, electricity, and food.
Put bluntly, this is the weaponisation of uncertainty and while cynical, it will reach some voters as they emerge nervously from a pandemic with climate, China, technology, and other imponderables in play.
Even if the policy gap is narrower in 2022 than 2019, don’t expect this election to be gentle.
It may well be the most aggressive, bitterly fought, and personalised contest we’ve seen.
Why? Because Labor’s campaign will necessarily focus on the many faced god of Morrison’s prime ministership. That means highlighting the blame-shifting, rorted programs, and bare-faced denials of observable fact.
It will be quite a show reel from “This is coal, don’t be afraid...” to “I don’t hold a hose, mate” in justifying his Hawaii holiday during the bushfire crisis.
Last week’s dog-whistling to proto-violent anti-vaxxers will sit next to Morrison’s limp response to Trump’s January 6 insurrection. Other conservative world leaders condemned the American unreservedly.
Voters will be reminded too of the selective wars with Labor states over lockdowns, sporting events and border controls.
Then there’s the colossal vaccine acquisition debacle, Morrison’s past policy of no-jab / no welfare, and the flagrant disrespect of voters’ intelligence as he flipped from anti-EV troglodyte to born-again EV-angelist, lickety-split.
How strongly will Morrison react to being personally called to account?
French President Emmanuel Macron might have some thoughts on that. Joe Biden too.
Mark Kenny is a political analyst for The Canberra Times. He is a professor at the ANU Australian Studies Institute and host of the Democracy Sausage podcast.