MUNGO MACCALLUM: Newspoll's 49% may be the epitaph for the Coalition

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Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons

Scott Morrison’s launch was, ironically, the last of the big set pieces. The remaining mad (and largely irrelevant) days will be scrabbling over a few marginal seats in which the vast majority of those who have not already voted will have already made up their minds.  

Morrison’s big pitch was said to be low key, in the style of the unfortunate effort of former PM Billy McMahon in 1972, where the doomed leader addressed a carefully picked studio audience to plead for another chance. At the time, it was almost embarrassing. I commented that during a brief glitch in transmission, it was hard to see whether the fault was in the television or in the Prime Minister.

Morrison was almost as embarrassing in his own way. He foreshadowed what he said was to be a direct conversation with the Australian people, but instead harangued a hand-picked Liberal cheer squad in one of the biggest venues in Melbourne outside the MCG.

And like McMahon, he barred his predecessors but dragooned as many of his Ministry as could be persuaded into the front pews — even the elusive Environment Minister, Melissa Price, was sighted. They emerged, blinking from the darkened rooms in which they had been confined for the last four weeks and dutifully applauded.

And mercifully ScoMo avoided Billy’s climactic message, which was that he had been peerless, but his team had let him down – perhaps he is saving that for next week.

The lead-up acts were nothing to raise the temperature: Deputy PM Michael McCormack, on whom Morrison had tried in vain to bestow the user-friendly name of "MickMack", was, as always, boring. Josh Frydenberg took the role of long-suffering Treasurer — a part Morrison had previously made his own.

And then, after a long and cringe-worthy advertising break, trumping the solo effort from Chloe Shorten, the entire extended Morrison family was wheeled out, with flowers for Mother’s Day. There is a problem with women in the Party? Just look — Mum is a woman, the wifey is a woman, the daughters are female. What’s the problem?

And eventually, ScoMo climbed the stage to embark on what he hoped would be an intimate and personal conversation with the voters, assuming that any of them were still listening. It wasn’t about the team, nor the Party, and certainly not about a detailed policy for the future: it was about me, me, me.

He began with a long list of people who he had met on the hustings – none of whom appeared to be present – and unusually there was a brief attempt to be positive:

“My vision is to keep the promise for all Australia.”

Or perhaps “My promise is to keep the vision for all Australia.” Whatever.

And then it was back to shouting about the need to "kill Bill".

Which is precisely the problem. Shorten’s agenda has dominated the campaign — all but monopolised it. His plans for change have been long established and far-reaching — too bold, some would say, even foolhardy. But they have had something to offer, while Morrison has stuck, of necessity, to his dubious record — a plea for more of the same, and a raft of scares about the risks of changing course.

And of course there are risks — Labor’s program is undeniably ambitious and could well involve unintended consequences. But Morrison’s inertia is hardly risk-free. As the Reserve Bank confirmed last week, the economy is virtually moribund, with the over-optimistic growth forecasts in April’s Budget already halved and the near certainty of the prospect of more interest rate cuts, in a desperate attempt to try and revive the failing patient.

Even the Murdoch press has started to hedge its bets after a hysterical crusade which even one of The Australian’s own senior journalists, Rick Morton, has dubbed “craziness”. Pope Paul Kelly, for instance, has admitted that Shorten is 'ready to govern', and has started to speculate about Morrison’s life in opposition.

The real nutters, naturally, remain unreconstructed: Chris Kenny is preparing to die with his boots on for the Liberal Party and will continue to put them into any lefty head he can find to kick. But when the mogul’s empire starts to crumble, then surely the end of the world – his world – is nigh.

And the other big event of last week was the long-awaited Labor costings, as delivered by the impeccably impartial Parliamentary Budget Office. This was not only far less frightening than Morrison and his crusaders have pretended, it was actually good news in the form of greater surpluses to contain the local and international threats of a downturn.

And the figures have not seriously been challenged. The best Morrison could do was to label them “fishy” while his Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, simply dismissed them as not to be believed. Well. perhaps he chooses not to believe them, but that is par for the course. At least half his Party colleagues do not believe climate change, some do not believe evolution and there is probably a handful or so who do not believe the Earth goes around the Sun.

But denial, delusion and defiance will no longer cut it. The hard fact is that the Coalition, after nearly six years of divisive dithering over policy has even run out of that. Daggy dad ScoMo has been reduced to the level of the friendly stranger who has just moved into the neighbourhood and spends his time asking passers-by to come to his house with the offer of a bag of lollies and a refuge from the bogey man. And we all know how that story ends.

In the end, Morrison’s final message appears no less effective than Billy McMahon’s derisory reply to Former PM Gough Whitlam’s ”It’s Time” juggernaut: “Not Yet”. Which made his launch less of a rallying cry than a farewell — famous last words.

And it was fitting that the last Newspoll, which has played such a devastating role on the long, decline of the Coalition should provide its epitaph: 49 per cent is never enough.

Mungo MacCallum is a veteran journalist who worked for many years in the Canberra Press Gallery. This article was published on 'Pearls and Irritations' and is republished with permission.

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