Prime Minister Scott Morrison sure had a horror week.
First, his Deputy PM confirmed that yes, he’d called the PM an inveterate liar in a text message exchange.
The army was forced to deploy troops to help fill the gaps in the understaffed and underprepared Commonwealth aged care sector amid rising deaths, despite all the predictions made in the wake of the previous epidemics of COVID-19 in aged care facilities.
Then, Scott’s attempt to shove the long-awaited Religious Discrimination Bill through Parliament failed so badly he had to pull the Bill himself lest it pass without containing sufficient anti-trans content to placate his Government’s conservative wing.
The “super Saturday” NSW state by-elections on Saturday 12 February were a catastrophe for the Liberals, nearly losing one of their safest seats to an Independent and watching Labor take the south-eastern seat of Bega for the first time ever with a double-digit swing (more on which in a moment).
And then Scotty did a much-hyped interview on 60 Minutes on Sunday night to show his human side, which mainly confirmed that he doesn’t know the lyrics to Dragon’s ‘April Sun in Cuba’ and is happy to deploy his wife to complain about big dumb meanies who aren’t adequately polite to her spouse.
Oh, and Morrison also helpfully described Adelaide as a “shitty city” during a visit to the Festival State on Sunday, in an unforced gaffe that will no doubt delight the under-pressure Liberal Premier Steven Marshall as he braces for a difficult State Election in just over a month’s time.
And meanwhile, the more transmissible BA.2 mutation of the already-plenty-transmissible Omicron variant has been confirmed to be spreading in Australia, meaning that there’s a decent chance that those dropping COVID-19 case numbers and lowered hospitalisations which were basically all Morrison has left as a re-election platform may yet prove to be shortlived.
So you might be thinking that Morrison, who has clearly been planning to drag the Election out for as long as possible, might be pondering a rush to the polls before things get worse and/or before someone in the Party rolls him for the leadership in the accustomed fashion.
Except he can’t.
See, one of the characteristics of a chaotic government isn’t that something goes wrong; it’s that many things all go wrong at once, with one wrong-gone thing preventing another wrong thing being righted until everything plummets down the slope in a massive snowball of incompetence.
And Morrison can’t go to an Election just yet because there are still no Liberal candidates in a number of NSW seats.
This is really important because the Coalition will live or die on the basis of the result in NSW. WA and Victoria have hardened against the Party, SA and Tasmania have nothing for the Liberals to gain and several marginal seats to potentially lose, and the L-NP already hold two-thirds of the seats in Queensland meaning that there are few prizes left to win.
NSW, in theory at least, has a run of juicy Labor marginals that could make up for the inevitable losses elsewhere and help Morrison cling to power. That’s why all candidates were supposed to be finalised by May 2021, in order to give them as much time as possible to campaign on the ground.
The problem is that this didn’t happen and the Liberal Party has no candidate for the electorates of Bennelong, Hughes, Dobell, Whitlam and Parramatta, and are so far refusing to endorse the candidacy of sitting MPs Trent Zimmerman (North Sydney), Sussan Ley (Farrar) and Alex Hawke (Mitchell).
(Mind you, Labor also hasn’t settled on a candidate for Parramatta thanks to factional wrangling of their own for the not-as-safe-as-it-could-be Labor seat following the retirement of Julie Owens at the Election.)
The reason is a destructive standoff over whether the branches should select their candidates according to their membership, as per the rules established a few years ago, or if Morrison should be able to parachute his preferred members in, which the NSW Liberal state executive is currently refusing to allow.
The story is hugely complex (The Saturday Paper has done an admirable job parsing it out) but boils down to a dispute between Morrison’s centre-right faction and the hard-right and moderate factions, and the fact that everyone appears to deeply and personally loathe Morrison’s representative in these negotiations — the aforementioned Immigration Minister, Alex Hawke.
This internal warfare has already meant that a hard-right Lincoln Parker has ended up the last person standing to take on climate Independent Zali Steggall in Warringah, the seat which happily ditched Tony Abbott at the last Election.
It also means that the Liberals haven’t got anyone to beat ex-Liberal turned full-time conspiracy theorist and United Australia Party leader Craig Kelly in Hughes. The plan, according to the Sydney Morning Herald, was to see how the by-elections shook out and then approach state Holsworthy MP Melanie Gibbons to run. However, now the already minority Liberal Government can’t weather another by-election, so they’re back to square one.
But the biggest problem of all is the marginal Labor-held seat of Eden-Monaro. This is one of the lowest hanging fruit, held by less than a percentage point, but the Bega by-election suggests that the Liberals are far from popular in the still fire-scarred region. They need a superstar local candidate there and ideally would have needed her about six months ago.
It also bodes badly for the Liberals in seats badly affected by the bushfires like, for example, the most marginal seat in the country — the Labor-held Blue Mountains seat of Macquarie. It’s held on the slimmest of margins and if Morrison can’t pick that up, it’s hard to imagine how he could hope to form government.
Morrison can’t possibly call the Election until these seats have candidates in place. Even a single empty seat would mean a guaranteed loss for a Government already looking at some shaky electoral prospects.
Mind you, the inability to call a snap election might also be the only thing preventing the Party from deciding that ditching the ukulele bloke might be their only hope of saving the furniture.
So you know, swings and roundabouts.
Andrew P Street is an Adelaide-based, Sydney-built journalist, columnist, author, editor and broadcaster. You can follow Andrew on Twitter @AndrewPStreet.
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