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Scott Morrison will cling on till the bitter end

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Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons

Despite recent speculation that the Prime Minister will call an early election, Dr Martin Hirst thinks circumstances will force him to tough it out till the middle of 2022.

IT SEEMS the next federal election result is on a knife-edge. A Roy Morgan poll in the week ending 25 June had the two main parties neck-and-neck. This week, The Australian’s Newspoll has Labor marginally in front, 51-49 in two-party preferred terms, but Scott Morrison still holds a substantial, if dwindling, lead over Anthony Albanese as the preferred Prime Minister.

“The only poll that counts” can be as late as 3 September 2022 according to the Parliamentary Library, so it is theoretically still 15 months away. Morrison doesn’t have to hurry. He still controls the House of Representatives, even though by a slim margin and he’s never really been too concerned about the Senate because he can rely on several conservatives, the Hansonites, Jacqui Lambie and Stirling Griff to support most of his agenda.

There is plenty of speculation about when PM Morrison will call the next election. The truth is we don’t know yet — perhaps Morrison doesn’t, either. The timing of any House of Representatives election is always a political judgment and the Prime Minister has plenty of time.

So why is there speculation?

One reason that early poll speculation was rampant in the first half of 2021 was that the trend for the Liberals on a two-party preferred basis has remained reasonably static, with the ALP marginally in front in recent months. Morrison was doing well as “preferred Prime Minister” and the thinking was he’d want to take advantage of that sooner rather than later.

Despite the apparent fact that Morrison has time to be patient and pick the moment that is most opportune, earlier this year a range of pundits had been keen to talk up the possibility of an election, perhaps even 12 months earlier than required by law. One clue that the pundits have been jumping on is the six-week gap in the sitting calendar that covers most of September and October.

In January, The Sydney Morning Herald reported that senior government leaders were getting ready for a “spring” election, but that was predicated on a smooth rollout of the coronavirus vaccine and there’s been a lot of muddy water flowing under that particular bridge since then.

Speculators have been touting an election in either October or November, mostly because the 2021 May Budget seemed to be geared towards buying off sections of the electorate with tax cuts and other sweeteners.

Writing in The New Daily in May, Josh Butler was one who predicted a late 2021 poll and a campaign based around the Coalition’s generous middle-class tax offset scheme.

Butler wrote:

‘Central to the Government’s pitch in Tuesday’s Budget was the continuation of the low and middle-income tax offset (LAMITO), which deferred again a scheduled tax rise for millions of Australians. The Coalition’s attack lines since then seem to hint the Government wants to set up an election fight based on tax.’

Certainly, Liberal ministers were quick to jump on the tax messaging bandwagon, running the line that Labor wants to raise taxes. Of course, like most of the Government’s PR spin, this is at best a furphy. However, we know Morrison’s henchmen take his lead and willingly bury the truth in order to talk up their talking points.

In mid-June, Sky News political editor Andrew Clennell was still suggesting Morrison would go early; his take was that having Barnaby Joyce as Deputy PM made it more likely. He’s wrong, in my view.

Morrison has done nothing to dampen down election speculation. Why would he? After all, we all know he doesn’t hold a hose.

Instead, Morrison continues to insist he is just getting on with the job.

In his round of soft media appearances after the May Budget, Morrison repeated his empty mantra about how hard he is fighting for Australia’s national interest:

“That’s the fight I’m in. Fighting for Australia, for Australia’s national interests, and protecting Australians through this COVID pandemic, keeping them in jobs, protecting their lives and protecting their livelihoods.”

It’s all just hollow rhetoric, of course, but it is capable of fooling some of the people, some of the time.

Despite Morrison’s solid lead, perhaps we need to take the preferred PM result with a grain or two of sodium chloride as the latest Newspoll was conducted before the NSW lockdown was announced. In recent polls across the board, support for Morrison is falling away.

Also, the News Corp media is running a protection racket for Morrison right across the main election battlegrounds in metropolitan Victoria, the Wollongong-Sydney-Newcastle region and in southeast Queensland. It is likely that this media barrage of pro-Liberal and anti-Labor coverage is still working in Morrison’s favour.

But it is in the “preferred Prime Minister” numbers that the trend has begun to look bad for Morrison in recent polls. The closeness in the polls and the slowly dropping support for the Prime Minister is why some political pundits are now thinking that Scott Morrison’s enthusiasm for an early election is waning. Gullible Canberra bubblers, like the ancient scribe Dennis Atkins, continue to think Morrison may be able to take advantage of a generous public sentiment that he has done a good job with the COVID-19 pandemic.

I seriously don’t understand how such senior members of the Press Gallery can get this so dreadfully wrong. Does anybody seriously think Morrison’s done a good job with the coronavirus response? Quarantine and the vaccine rollout have been unmitigated disasters and Morrison has bungled everything because he has seen it all through a political lens. The only reason I can give for all of this nonsense is that the  PM gets a relatively easy run from the news media (with one or two exceptions) and he takes advantage of having a large staff to run interference for him in the Press Gallery

Morrison has used the pandemic as an opportunity to wedge the Labor states and to hide some of the more sinister changes to welfare, superannuation, industrial relations and education spending that comprise his political agenda.

But, when the going got tough, Morrison disappeared again. First, he went to Wales for the G7 meeting despite being a rather annoying spare wheel to the major discussions. Then he was conveniently in a two-week COVID-19 isolation break when everything went pear-shaped for “gold standard” NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian.

Don’t be fooled again — the only fight Morrison cares about is to protect his own job by any means necessary. Not only that, the Prime Minister has made it clear to all of his ministers and the backbench that they must back him in this fight.

The Prime Minister lacks principles, compassion and intelligence; he is driven by instinct and a desire to be at the centre of attention. He is blind to his own mistakes because his ego is out of control and on display in his smug dismissive dealings with journalists and citizens. Morrison has shown time and time again that he is an uncaring bully. We know he doesn’t care, he told us so in a rare unguarded moment.

He doesn’t care about anything except clinging to power and all the fringe benefits that come with it. And in order to hang on, Morrison has unleashed the most brutal and misleading campaign of secrets, lies and intimidation that we’ve ever seen in Australian federal politics.

Whatever date Morrison chooses, we can be certain that the next election campaign will be a gloves-off affair and the Coalition will fight hard and dirty.

My prediction is that, at this stage, Morrison will want to hold on as long as possible in the hope that the COVID-19 situation improves enough that all of his bungling mistakes will be forgotten.

Dr Martin Hirst is an Independent Australia columnist, a journalist, author and academic. You can follow him on Twitter @ethicalmartini.

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