Public debate suddenly converged, as Morrison must have known it would, on whether he could change his “bulldozer” ways – thus affirming his own self-diagnosis. This would have been fine, were that diagnosis not so cynical, self-interested and misleading.
For when, exactly, has Morrison steamrolled all in front of him to get unpopular things done? Was this really what we saw during the pandemic? Isn’t the problem many voters have with Morrison almost the precise opposite of what he now suggests it is? Voters have not turned on him because of what he has done – voters have turned on him because he has steadfastly refused to do things.
Morrison’s worst moments have come when he has denied there is a problem; or when he has been slow to act; or when he has had all the time in the world to consult but has still, somehow, wound up doing almost nothing. On climate, on vaccines, on bushfires and floods, it was not brutal speed that hurt him but stubborn sloth. Even more ironically, on the occasions he has seemed most like a bulldozer – as in the crisis around sexual violence – it has usually been with the aim of stopping things from getting done.
There was another interesting feature of Morrison’s pledge. In suggesting he had only acted a certain way because of the pandemic, he raised an interesting hypothetical: if the coronavirus had not come along, would he have easily won this election?
Of course, he still might win. But if he loses, then he will become yet another prime minister whose reign has ended quickly, one way or another. Right now, it seems likely Morrison’s prominence during the pandemic hurt him. But it is also possible that this is just what happens to our leaders now: they rise, we see too much of them, we come to hate them. This is one of the most interesting questions of a potential Albanese prime ministership. Can he overcome what seem to be structural factors?
He has one potential advantage. Unlike his predecessors, he has never quite mastered the art of political communication. Morrison’s “bulldozer” answer told a story, one that sought to paper over reality with a swathe of more convincing words. Albanese, as you can tell from his answer to Snow, does not have that ability.
Which is not to say he does not try. To date, both leaders have used their political language for a similar purpose: to avoid committing to specific action. Last week, though, their experiences diverged.
If Morrison suffers a big swing against him, it will be because his task, of recasting inaction as action, became impossible: at some point reality cannot be overcome by even the best wordsmith.
Albanese, meanwhile, seemed suddenly capable of turning the national narrative his way, not because he had discovered new eloquence but because, conversely, perhaps accidentally, he had rejected ambiguity and obfuscation in favor of that single word, “absolutely” – an expression of his instincts tied to something specific and tangible.
Whichever leader wins, we must hope they exit this campaign with the combination of these lessons: that in this age of too many vague words, clear and specific beliefs can still reach people. And that what a government does or does not do can still tell a far more powerful story than the words its leader uses.
But then, politicians being politicians, it is at least equally likely that whoever wins will take away a different lesson: that their studied speech and strategies won out, and they should keep it up.