Why Scott Morrison had to make a last-minute policy push


With just six days to go, Morrison’s use of yesterday’s Liberal launch to announce an actual policy – a loans scheme for first home-buyers – might be a sign that he has finally twigged to the fact his zero-policy strategy (plus tax cuts) is not all it was cracked up to be.

Few voters would say they have a handle on either Morrison or Bill Shorten. But that feels like a bigger problem for Morrison, because that was the whole point of Morrison’s campaign: me or him, me or him, me or him.

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The strategy seemed sound enough, but I suspect it was built on a misjudgment. We might think we know what politicians are like as people. Really we read their personalities through the prism of their policy. John Howard was stubborn – guns and boats – but could listen, as he did on petrol. Mark Latham’s recklessness began to dawn on people long before the handshake, because he wanted troops home by Christmas. Policy isn’t what politicians happen to do in their spare time – for voters it is the strongest guide to who they are.

That’s true of Morrison too. His determination to avoid firm positions has long been his hallmark, and is the best indication of the sort of politician he is. It has taken him a long way. But the brutal fact about elections is this: there is no such thing as a strategy that almost works. Afterwards, you are prime minister or you are not. And such a loss, for Morrison, would be doubly felt, because in pursuing that strategy he has also given up a legacy of any sort.

The last few months will leave some legacies, but they are not his. They are broader shifts. The first is that it is now impossible to argue against the reality of climate change. The left – and the scientists – have won. This is a change reflected in the campaign but not driven by it. The second – which Shorten has encouraged – is an emboldening of critics of the right-wing media, including Rupert Murdoch’s empire.

Which brings us back to the launch, because it is these trends that explain why Morrison had to appear sans sidekicks. Abbott, Turnbull, Howard – all, in their own way, are reminders of a troubled past that still informs the present.

This is often explained under the umbrella term “division”, but that is an oddly neutral word, vaguely suggesting a naturally occurring problem for which no group holds sole responsibility. But the Liberal Party did not just fall apart. Its right wing tore it apart. And to a very large extent that rupture occurred via climate craziness, and a brutish right-wing media. These are the other individuals who should – but probably will not – face a reckoning on the back of an election loss: Alan Jones, Paul Murray, Ray Hadley, Andrew Bolt, and those in the party like Tony Abbott and Peter Dutton who listened to them.

Arguments to guard against this – that tightening polls are some type of vindication for the Coalition – have already begun. Garbage. Polls tend to tighten across campaigns, and, more recently, the Coalition’s vote has tended to rise.

Of course, Morrison might yet win, in which case it will be Shorten’s strategy we’ll all be questioning come Sunday. The Labor leader has looked more confident the past few days, but this has been a strange campaign. It is probably a change-of-government election, but hasn’t really felt like one.

Final weeks can be immensely tricky things. Campaigners are exhausted. Delirium sets in. Both sides will be on edge this week, counting down the minutes. Will Morrison continue with his last-minute policy push, or was it a one-off? Victory has many fathers, while defeat is an orphan, said someone once. But in the government’s case there are definitely fathers, and they shouldn’t be allowed to slink away.

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald and a former adviser to Labor prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard.

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald and a former adviser to Labor prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard.

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