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Stumbles and Fictions: The Australian Election Campaign Begins

That a figure like Scott Morrison comes across as competent, able and free of imbecility after a day of electioneering in Australia suggests a broader sickness in politics.  This is not to say that the incumbent will not be skewered and bayoneted at the ballot box on May 21 by Australia’s burghers.  But this is a man who has made supreme vacuity an essential feature of governance.  His opponent, Labor’s Anthony Albanese, finds mendacity and controlling the narrative virtually impossible, but struggles to convey an air of well-informed competence.

The Morrison government has done wonders to bankrupt Australian politics.  (Reserves were already depleted when it came to power.)  Fictional figures are trotted out from a set of smelling salts and entrails that bear no relation to reality.  The idea of a plan to deal with the economy and global crisis (energy prices, climate, China, war in Ukraine) is mentioned with Goebbels-like frequency, despite the fact that this government had made the absence of plans almost illegally unfashionable.

During his time in power, Morrison has received relentless barrages in social media and punditry circles for having problems with misogyny, women, empathy, integrity and understanding climate change.  He has been awarded such titles as “Scotty from Marketing”, drawn from his time as a failed marketer.  He leads a government that is one of the most corrupt and authoritarian in recent memory, scarred by waste, venality and an accomplished stupidity verging on the moronic.

Morrison has also been accused of having a severely detached relationship with verity, which, to be fair, is a fairly standard condition for many leaders.  What is only surprising is the degree his opponents, both within and outside his party, seem to focus on it.  French President Emmanuel Macron assured us all that he knew the Prime Minister was a liar when it came to his scrapping of the Franco-Australian submarine deal and concealing the AUKUS security pact.  Morrison’s less than gentlemanly reaction was to leak private correspondence to paint the French in a poor light.

But in that time honoured tradition of electoral seppuku, Labor gave the Prime Minister a gift on the first day of electioneering.  The opposition leader had a freeze on economic figures.  He may have moved through pubs, held puppies and kissed the babies.  The accounts, the figures, the economic details, had evidently been left behind in the emotional display.

At the press conference on April 11 held in the marginal Tasmanian seat of Bass, the journalists, less interested in policy than detecting the weakness in their quarry, focused on two questions.  “What is the official cash rate?” was something of a favourite.  Albanese professed ignorance.  “We can do the old Q and A stuff over 50 different figures.”  Regardless of who was in power, “there will be multiple interest rate increases”.  True, but not politically convincing.

“What is the current unemployment rate?” was another.  A parrying response focusing on the sheer vagueness and inaccuracies of the unemployment rate might have been in order, but Albo is not a wizard of fleet-footed reaction. He ventured a bumbling, misfired guess before withdrawing.  “I think it’s five point … ah four … sorry I’m not sure what it is.”

With school-teacherly arrogance, the press corps asked the opposition leader to step aside to enable his spokesperson for finance, Katy Gallagher, to answer the questions.  The deputised school student answered correctly: The cash rate, as determined by the Reserve Bank of Australia, was 0.1 percent.  The unemployment rate was 4 percent.

This led to a press orgy of molestation and delight.  A politician who does not know his figures?  How remarkable.  A person who is not across his brief even as he is electioneering?  It was already forgotten that Morrison, in his recent address to the National Press Club, was unable to list the price of a loaf of bread, a litre of petrol, or a rapid antigen test.

The Australian Financial Review crowed that Albanese “showed himself ignorant of the most important, discretionary economic setting that determines Australians’ prosperity.”  The Liberal Party circulated the awkward press encounter across Facebook and Instagram, claiming that, “It won’t be easy under Albanese”.

Will this make a difference?  It was Morrison who triumphed in the status quo election of 2019, one that Labor’s Bill Shorten should have won in a canter. The Liberals had knifed their own leader, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, making them seemingly unelectable, Morrison turned political dysfunction into the illusion of freshness.  His astrological take on figures, his distasteful, daggy dad confidence, and his attack on the inability of his opponents to provide costing plans for their policies on climate change, appealed sufficiently to prevent voters from turning.

There is an eerie similarity now, with Labor initially steaming ahead in the polls, but vulnerable to ambush and rhetorical confusion as the campaign commences.  Even before the Albo stumble, Labor was starting to shed their commanding lead, notably in their primary vote.  (An early March Newspoll had put them at 55-45; but the latest has them at 53-47 as the preferred government.)

Political analysts, as only they can do, peered into the psephology undergrowth and identified a perception of arrogance on the part of Albanese in constantly urging Morrison to call the election.  “Politically engaged people, particularly Labor supporters, wanted the election as soon as possible, but the large majority of voters are not politically engaged and do not like elections,” writes the number crunching Adrian Beaumont.

Hardly encouraging. But at some point, it may well be that the rot of Morrison’s tenure will be noticed by the electorate and Albanese room to stumble may be larger than he thinks.  That, however, is a hope best not tested.