Opinion: Debate reaction, polls show Scott Morrison is his party's chief negative

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Thursday 12 May 2022

By Mark Kenny

A version of this article was originally published by The Canberra Times.

After three excruciating leader's debates, Australian voters will find comfort in the fact that the worst of this election's painful rituals are done.

For the two men vying to be prime minister and their wrung-out advisers, you can take that relief and quadruple it.

The fact that more than a million electors have already cast their judgement in the first four days of pre-poll voting, suggests many just want it over with. Perhaps they want the government over with too?

Whose idea was this six-week campaign anyway? Oh yeah ...

A few things are clear though after the final head-to-head encounter - a supremely well-moderated affair by Seven's grey eminence, Mark Riley.

Well, let's say clearer anyway.

First, it is clear that people who analyse politics closely are the least well positioned to judge how the arguments put by the leaders are actually being received by ordinary folk.

While Seven's state-by-state panels of largely undecided voters awarded a decisive victory to Anthony Albanese, political experts scored it differently.

Indeed, in all three debates, they have viewed Scott Morrison's performances as crisper. Of the two men, Morrison has seemed more at ease under pressure, more polished, and more adept at wriggling out of tight spots. He has landed his attack lines, nailed his talking points, and for the most part has demonstrated a keener grasp of policy detail - a strategy transparently designed to remind voters of Anthony Albanese's wobbles.

And Morrison has also shown the greater ease with the direct two-and-fro moments of the debates, appearing less flustered by his opponent's gibes than Albanese has.

This is something of a surprise given that the Labor man is known for his prowess as a parliamentary counter-puncher, for his sharp rejoinders, and his facility for quickly identifying the weak point of an argument.

Where have these ripostes gone in this campaign? Is it the pressure of the actual leadership contest? Or a deliberate risk-minimisation strategy to stay safely within the tramlines, taking minor hits in order to protect a larger lead?

Or have the after-effects of day 1 and then COVID hammered his confidence?

A second post-debates lesson. Leaders' debates are the riskiest set pieces in election campaigns and frankly, the candidates do them only because they have to. Any debate from which they surface with their chances alive is a win.

After three debates, it can be said no real harm has been done to either side. This is the campaign version of the Hippocratic Oath: First, do no harm ... to your election chances.

Finally, it seems clear from voter reactions and the stubborn poll lead held by Labor, that Scott Morrison is his party's chief negative. How else to explain why clearer arguments and a slicker campaign get no traction?

It's not the message, it's the messenger. Morrison is like the once friendly car salesman who said he was on your side and did you a good deal, but now says it is someone else's fault that the car won't start.

Besides, what are you complaining about he pleads, when you finally get through to him, "I gave you a free tank of petrol".

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. 

Updated:  13 May 2022/Responsible Officer:  Institute Manager/Page Contact:  Institute Manager