Scomo, Trump and the Queensland factor

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Scott Morrison's targeted, small-scale campaign resonated better with voters than Labor's broader vision for Australia, writes Dr Binoy Kampmark.

THE AFTERMATH of the Labor loss last Saturday precipitated a range of tear-duct filled missives and comments on the Australian capitulation to Trumpism or some such. Philip Adams confessed to recovering from a “comatose” state in mustering the strength to speak on his long-running radio show, Late Night Live

Even President Donald Trump himself suggested to the triumphant Scott Morrison that Australia had been bewitched by a certain Trump factor.

Democracy has never been convenient, nor particularly pleasant. But its nastiness pales before that of authoritarian bestiality and sentiments such as severing Queensland from the rest of Australia. Such thoughts should be filed under the “too mad to reason” category.  

The issue on Saturday had little to do with Trump and more to do with traditional Australian electioneering.  It had the resonances of the 1993 victory for Paul Keating, against the vast, complex economic package of John Hewson called "Fight Back". With that came an admixture of the various elements that fed into the victories scored by the Liberal Prime Minister John Howard through his time in office from 1996 to 2007. 

The Howard generation was averse to “the vision thing”.  Big picture thinking was either head-in-the-clouds nonsense or patently dangerous.

Foremost amongst the lessons of 2019 is that Labor must learn to win in Queensland. Its voters are varied, diverse and, it should be noted, drawn from a good number of the southern retiree class that pricked their ears up with suggestions that their share income, or negative gearing arrangements, might be affected. 

As Sydney Morning Herald contributor Michael Koziol noted:

'The retiree stronghold of Bribie Island was ‘on fire’ over franking credits.  The Coalition threw resources into the area and ultimately won it for Labor with a 4 per cent swing'.

Forgotten in the swirl of recrimination and despair are those basic, if cringeworthy, pursuits Morrison embarked upon in the short time he warmed the prime minister’s seat. A specific effort worth mentioning was his trip to Queensland last November, a state now being compared, rather clumsily, to some monster variant of Trumpland. 

As Kate Galloway points with some salience, 'The disrespecting of regional Queenslanders is [Hillary] Clinton’s "basket of deplorables" all over again'.  

Morrison’s bus journey on the “Scomo Express” was fatuous and clownish, but it hardly mattered: the new Prime Minister was making an effort to put himself forth as worthy electoral material in a state that would prove significant in the polls. 

The message then was made in an electoral register, reassuringly pitched to the sceptical voter:

"Keeping Australia on the right track – lower taxes, more jobs, lower electricity prices, economy building and congestion busting infrastructure, AAA balanced budgets.” 

Seeing the “daggy dad” wearing a baseball cap in action was ghastly to watch and hideous to digest, but the populist figure often is. A person who has nothing to lose, not even his dignity, is a dangerous political opponent. He will muck it with the rest of them and unashamedly woo. 

And so it proved with the advertised platform leading to May 18, streamlined and kept to such slogans and promises as “Building our Economy”, “Backing Small Business”, “Delivering Tax Relief” and the improbable “Creating 1.25 Million Jobs”. 

When it came to the floods, Morrison seemed gauche in his efforts to win favour by donning military colours on his trip to Townsville.  But he was well aware of being in the most marginal seat in Queensland and wanted to let people know he could be a buffoonish yet reassuring. 

Topping that were his messages about “standing by the people” and making sure that, “supporting the flood-affected communities and families in North Queensland [remained] a top priority for our Government”. 

Then there was Labor, a wide-ranging, juicy target thick with opportunists for the government campaign.  The devil incarnate was the never truly popular Bill Shorten, one best avoided. 

Don’t roll the dice,” warned a series of advertisements. 

Under Labor, you would receive higher taxes: “Australians to pay billions in new taxes". Question marks were placed under “More Debt” and Weaker Economy”. 

“The Bill you can’t afford,” Morrison threatened, “will just keep rising and rising. If you can’t manage money, you can’t run the country". The old lie of a Coalition responsible with taxpayer cash became the stuffing of mythology.  Doubt can be a stunning political weapon. 

Had the election been one of matched policies, folder to folder, dossier to dossier, the devil would have romped in. Such a campaign was always geared towards Malcolm “Innovation” Turnbull.  But the ALP machine waivered, stuttered, and struggled against the one-man "Scomo" Show, cheap pseudo-presidential, and purposely trimmed of substance. 

There was a failure to capitalise on the record of a Coalition government dysfunctional, suicidal and regicidal. Instead, it proved markedly positive and “dangerously” visionary.

The Liberal Party Federal President Nick Greiner said:

"[Labor] did have a very broad vision. We believed our best chance would be to say to people: you don’t want more taxes and more government, you want less taxes and less government.”

Australian political campaigns thrive, not on distant vision, but narrow, and preferably immediate utility. 

In the long run, says John Maynard Keynes, we are all dead; in the meantime, test your costings, explain your budget and seize the day only after a fair appraisal of the accounts. Had Shorten, in short, crisp bites, made it clear how much it cost, abandoning all waffle or pretence, he might well have gotten closer. 

But, as painful a realisation as it must be, shallowness, especially if packaged up in an ad-man, sells. 

Dr Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. You can follow Dr Kampmark on Twitter @BKampmark.


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