Two key frontbenchers were missing from Labor’s line-up during the last fortnight of Parliament. The shadow treasurer, Jim Chalmers, remained in Queensland and the shadow health minister, Mark Butler, stayed in South Australia.
An assortment of marginal seat holders also stayed in their electorates. There were deliberate tactical reasons for their absence. In the ongoing discussions canvassing the limitless “what if” scenarios that by necessity preoccupy oppositions, Labor worked out a plan in case Scott Morrison had a rush of blood and called an election for later this year.
They did not want Chalmers and Butler, or selected backbench MPs, to be immobilised by the quarantine wars, so the safest course was for them to stay home where they could swing into action immediately if Morrison pulled the rip-cord.
It was a sensible move which showed a meticulous level of planning by Labor on a micro level, which needs to be replicated at a macro level with the release of critical policies now that Australians are emerging from the COVID cocoon.
Thanks to the tragi-comic series of debacles, Labor can now afford to relax. Just a little bit and not for too long. Senior government sources are banking on no election this year and more than likely not early next year, unless Morrison has a death wish, gets a sign from the heavens, or goes completely bonkers.
In an extraordinary diplomatic feat, Morrison has somehow managed to have China, France and the United States offside simultaneously. It’s an outstanding trifecta, when the Chinese refuse to talk to you, the American President thinks you are a boofhead and the French President calls you a liar.
Illustration by Dionne Gain.
Morrison’s dumping of a $90 billion conventional submarine deal with France in favour of nuclear-powered ones with the UK and US has sparked a series of liar liar pants on fire exchanges which have singed him, Emmanuel Macron and Joe Biden.
Morrison’s narrative should have been clearer and more honest from the beginning about what he told the French President, when he told him, and why the decision was made. Instead his story has shifted and switched at critical points, including implying he had spoken to Macron to convey the bad news, when he had actually texted him.
He should have been more upfront with Macron when they dined in Paris in June, rather than dropping hints, thinking Macron would do an Inspector Clouseau and join the dots. Biden publicly, eagerly, dropped Morrison right in it while apologising profusely to Macron for the clumsy, graceless way it was handled. Biden didn’t seem to think there would have been a security breach, nor the new deal scuttled – as Morrison argues – if Macron had been informed in advance.
Morrison also should not have ambushed Macron, Cobargo like, with a camera. Macron’s eyes above his mask said it all. If looks could kill, Morrison would have been reduced to ash on the G20 conference floor. Macron’s revenge was to brand Morrison a liar, via the Australian media, to the world.
French President Emmanuel Macron at the G20 summit in Rome.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen
Morrison, adept at making bad situations even worse, desperate to show it was everyone’s fault but his and that Macron was lying not him, leaked Macron’s text. It showed no such thing.
Plumbing the depths for domestic political advantage he also shamelessly fibbed by claiming Macron had sledged Australians when he very clearly and carefully did not.
While it is likely none of them is telling the whole truth, back home the usual official and unofficial spokesmen made the usual excuses for Morrison’s behaviour.
Still, the one truth in all of this is that Morrison has suffered grievous harm, not helped by a string of domestic offences, including “it’s not a race”, “we are at the front of the queue”, “I don’t hold a hose, mate”. Feel free to compile your own list.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison tries to shake hands with a resident in fire-devastated Cobargo in January 2020.Credit:Nine News
If his reputation can be repaired, it will take time, so his best hope of re-election now lies in steering the political debate firmly onto the economy with a budget designed to overwhelm memories of other fiascos.
It would involve weeks of concentrated scene-setting on economic management, with strategic daily leaks leading up to an April budget, squeezing out the opposition from the news cycles, then calling an election no later than May 21 – the last practical date.
Morrison had been seeking to cast himself as the trustworthy safe pair of hands and the man he calls “each-way Albo” as the risky option. Good luck with that. If the election becomes a referendum on Morrison, he will lose. If it’s about character, trust or integrity, he will lose.
Labor’s research is studded with searing assessments of Morrison from swinging voters who, unlike Macron, can join the dots. From a man in the seat of Deakin: “The shit hits the fan in Victoria and he is missing in action. He doesn’t speak to the nation.”
Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen
From a man in the Tasmanian seat of Bass: “When I grew up the prime minister wouldn’t have pissed off out of the country if half the country was burning. That just wouldn’t have happened. The same with the vaccines. Why weren’t the vaccines just bought. We are a fairly wealthy country.”
Labor’s most immediate task is to complete its climate change policy. Albanese and Chris Bowen need to release it at the right time with the right target. If they wait too long it will get lost in pre-Christmas absorption. Too soon and it will get caught up in the final fortnight of Parliament. Early December, with Goldilocks targets neither too high nor too low, beckons.
Those who remember only too well why the 2019 election was lost, who have followed Albanese’s strategy closely, believe he is right not to saddle himself with a “Whitlam-esque” agenda lest it frighten off those who have already decided to vote against the government.
“He might not be as magnificent as Keating, or as charismatic as Hawke, but he is real,” one Labor elder said.
Again, neither inspiring, nor wildly popular. Equally, not scary, especially in uncertain times.
Niki Savva is a regular columnist.
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