In grip of ‘pincer’ from left and right, PM faces defeat
By ROSS FITZGERALD
Last time Scott Morrison faced a federal election, he pulled off a self-confessed “miracle” victory. That happened in 2019, but it may not happen again. This is because the Prime Minister faces a pincer movement from the left and the right. Also, the never-ending Covid saga finds him increasingly trapped between a rock and a very hard place.
The coming election will most likely turn on the public’s perception of who can best keep us safe. But regardless of its outcome, securing our personal health and safety is set to remain the job of government rather than individuals. Thanks to Covid, this election won’t replicate the standard Australian contest between the party of more freedom versus the party of more government. Instead, it will pit what has become the party of big government against the party of even bigger government.
Even with the Coalition in office, Australia’s pandemic response was always going to produce a surge in spending and an increase in the size and the scope of government. But current circumstances that put a premium on the ability to manage the health crisis seem more likely to benefit Labor incumbents than Liberal, if only because health is seen as a strength of the centre-left rather than the centre-right.
Going into the 2022 election, the government’s political difficulty is that it can hardly reprise the 2019 scare campaign based on accusations that the opposition is planning an irresponsible spending spree; nor, given its “net zero” commitment, can the Coalition reproduce the successful campaign in resources seats about Labor’s threat to jobs. And when it comes to protection against Covid, the state Labor governments have always seemed more ferociously single-minded than any of the Liberal ones. Scott Morrison’s problem is that he can’t really portray himself as the country’s Covid fighter-in-chief as that task largely fell to the states anyway; nor can he present himself as the architect of returning to normal, as his government is as Covid-preoccupied as ever. And the one issue that might have presented a defining difference between the parties, AUKUS, was neutralised by Labor’s swift (and unexpected) concurrence.
As a former state party director with finely honed electoral instincts, the PM may be thinking that being neither “too hot” nor “too cold” on Covid controls is the best place to be, especially as the relative mildness of the Omicron variant doesn’t seem to have shifted the public’s virus anxiety. But for a Liberal Prime Minister who’s presided over massive spending and unprecedented restrictions on personal liberty, his problem is that the people who rate freedom more highly than safety tend to be his own voters; and Morrison hasn’t given Liberal supporters much to cheer about.
In this election, the Liberals won’t just be competing with Labor and its allies such as GetUp! and the unions. The activist left has perfected the tactic of creating new groups of “concerned citizens” pretending to be nonpartisan but invariably operating in ways that make it harder for the Coalition to win. This time, it’s wealthy “voices” activists claiming to be “Liberals in the Menzies tradition” and complaining that even “modern Liberals” like Dave Sharma still vote with Barnaby Joyce on emissions policy.
But as well as having its vote eroded from the left, the Coalition also faces attrition on the right. This comes especially from conservative splinter groups, such as One Nation, Clive Palmer’s misnamed and hugely cashed-up United Australia Party, and the revitalised Liberal Democrats spearheaded by former Queensland LNP premier Campbell Newman. All three groups claim the Coalition has sold out to political correctness. Because protest votes don’t reliably return in preferences, this political war on two fronts could well depress the Coalition vote enough to let Labor win close-fought contests in particular seats. Although not all those seeking to harvest centre-right votes are genuinely disillusioned former Liberals, they’re all symptomatic of disappointment with the government that, paradoxically, tends to be strongest among the “smaller government, greater freedom” types who largely comprise the Liberal Party’s active membership.
In NSW especially, grassroots anger against the PM and his chief party manager, the high-profile Immigration Minister Alex Hawke, is white hot because of tactical manoeuvring to avoid the democratic preselections that the rank and file fought so hard for in 2017. As the Libs found with an imposed candidate in Gilmore last time (even a high quality one) it’s not easy to raise money and manpower for head-office picks, no matter how much the PM wants them.
It’s all very well avoiding hard-to-win fights with the Labor premiers and refusing to push measures that are unlikely to pass the Senate. But the price of minimising antagonism to the government is minimising enthusiasm for it. In my judgment, Morrison’s problem is not going to be losing more seats like Warringah to quasi-green independents. It will be the impact of policies to keep them at bay, such as net zero, on the Queensland seats that just kept the Coalition in office in 2019; especially since Labor, this time, is going to great lengths to reassure miners and their families the coal industry will have a future for decades.
I don’t share the still prevalent view that Morrison’s campaign skills and Anthony Albanese’s supposed unelectability mean Morrison is likely to win. If he is to have an even-money chance of beating Labor, the PM would do well to heed the political wisdom contained in a favourite saying of US Republican president Ronald Reagan, from a song popular in his youth: “Always dance with the one that brung ya.” Bearing this sage advice in mind, unless the PM can soon come up with some distinctive policies appealing to the Liberal base that so helped him win in 2019, my expectation is the government will ebb out of office. This is because Morrison will fall into the Shorten trap of attempting to be one thing to the voters of Wentworth and Kooyong and another to the voters of Capricornia and Hunter, with the risk he ends up looking half-hearted and lacking conviction.
Ross Fitzgerald is Emeritus Professor of History and Politics at Griffith University.
The Australian, January 18, 2021, p 11.
Always a good read from Ross Fitzgerald with his usual political flair (“In grip of ‘pincer’ from left and right, PM faces defeat”, 18/1). For the sake of our nation – wounded by a deadly virus along with huge debt incurred by JobKeeper – I hope his prognostications for a Labor win are wrong.
This is not the time to change horses; there are too many dire consequences if Labor snatches victory. Its usual profligacy using taxpayers’ money and extravagant promises already aired by Anthony Albanese demonstrate its economic incompetence. With a sabre-rattling China, and unions flexing their muscles for higher wages when businesses are struggling, we need strong, experienced government.
Lesley Beckhouse, Queanbeyan, NSW
Ross Fitzgerald (18/1) writes that the PM is in the “grip of a ‘pincer’ from left and right”.
I’m guessing the 1972 hit Stuck in the Middle With You featuring the refrain “clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right” won’t be heard at the PM’s election launch.
Ray Peck, Hawthorn, Vic
The Australian, January 19, 2022, p 10.