Remember Scott Morrison’s promise in May 2019: “You vote for me, you’ll find me. You vote for Bill Shorten and you get Bill Shorten. As well as attacking Shorten, Morrison was also indicating that the rules around Liberal leadership had changed. Shortly after Morrison came in between Peter Dutton and Malcolm Turnbull to become PM, the federal parliamentary Liberal Party changed the rules for leader selection. The man who led the party to electoral victory would make it to the next election, so was now immune to the challenges and simple majority that had ousted Tony Abbott and Turnbull.
It was subtext. The main text was that you don’t want bills. To be sure, we didn’t get the bill, but now it seems that instead of the man himself, we’ve got Barnaby Joyce and the government’s climate policy was outsourced to the Nationals party room.
It reminds me of 1963 when Arthur Calwell and Gough Whitlam, then leader and deputy leader of the federal Labor Party, were asked under a street light outside Hotel Kingston for the federal executive to set Labor policy on American bases. While waiting, photographs were taken after midnight. Before Whitlam reformed the party, policy was made in the organizational wing by the federal executive without automatic representation of the parliamentary leadership. 36 Faceless Men, journalist Alan Reed called them, and the word took off.
When then-Prime Minister Robert Menzies called a snap election a few months later, he portrayed Calwell as a man who took instructions from others, and was, therefore, ineligible to be Prime Minister of Australia. Today we have a prime minister so lacking in authority and conviction that his emissions reduction policy depends on the outcome of not one, but two Sunday afternoon National Party meetings.
As I have said many times, the National Party, and the Country Party before it, wields far more power than its electoral support warrants. It performed particularly well in the 2019 election, garnering around 10% of the vote, with it winning 16 seats in the lower house. It also provides five cabinet ministers, with the deputy prime minister, deputy speaker, and Keith Pitt returning to the cabinet. Its vote was similar to that of the Greens, which have a single voice in the House of Representatives. Thanks to the Senate, where the proportional voting system gives the Greens representation that more truly reflects their support in the electorate—they have nine senators to try to prevent the government’s legislation’s overpowering and investigate its actions. For.
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Why won’t Anthony Albanese now say, “You vote for Morrison, you get Barnaby. You vote for me, you get me”? And why won’t he say it over and over again? Like Abbott priced the Gillard government on carbon with the brutal retail politics of calling a tax, when Peta Credlin later admitted, it was a no-go at all. “It took about six months for Abbott to bite,” she said, “but when he did bite, Gillard was gone”.
Albanese desperately needs some cut-through lines to raise its public profile, simplify political competition, and strike a chord at Morrison. The magnificence of nations should be a gift. This plays into two already existing doubts about Morrison: his ability to lead, and his focus on electoral strategy rather than national problems.
It is a party of the Eastern States, with six Queenslanders, two Victorians and eight citizens of New South Wales. There are no national members from South Australia, Tasmania or Western Australia. This plays into the suspicion that many already have Morrison as Prime Minister of New South Wales, a notion reinforced by his decision to stay in Sydney at Kirribilli House instead of the lodge in Canberra.
Then there are the 38,000 or more coal miners we hear about a lot, whose jobs are at risk if we move too fast to reduce our emissions. Nearly as many people have lost their jobs in universities over the past two years because the COVID pandemic has put international students on hold, and the government did nothing as the university sector shrank. The most obvious explanation for this difference is that people in universities are less likely to vote for a coalition than coal miners, with little consideration of their contribution to the national interest.
Therefore, Labor and the Albanese have plenty of opportunity to channel their anger towards Morrison. Why are they so reluctant? I’ve been thinking a lot about anger in politics lately. In the book of essays I have just published, Doing Politics: Writing on Public Life, I pay tribute to the profound influence of Alan Davies and Graham Little from the University of Melbourne Politics Department on their thinking about politics. Davis and Little looked to psychoanalysis to help them understand politics. Both wrote about emotions in public life, their risks and opportunities, and the way they came into being: fear, anger and paranoia; jealousy and resentment; compassion and compassion; guilt and denial; Hope, possibility and illusion. The book includes a series of essays on our most recent leaders, and all based on their wisdom.
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Since the time of John Howard’s prime minister, liberals have specialized in the politics of fear and anger, fear of being overreached by refugees, letting others get what you deserve, and change; And whosoever opposes him is angry with him. And they have, time and again, succeeded in turning fear and anger against Labor, such as in the last election when they feared Labor policies on franking credit, negative gearing, electric cars and an ambitious climate target. It was negative publicity and it worked a lot to bring the government back on track.
Labor doesn’t shy away from negative publicity like 2016’s “Medicare” campaign, but it’s more uncomfortable than angry. Currently, Albanese is mired in pathos politics, the repeated story of her childhood upbringing by a single mother in council housing, and her unfulfilled promise that no one will be left behind. What he needs is a little temper and direct it at Morrison; To play the man like Morrison did against Shorten.
I can understand why he might be reluctant to do so. For many of us, anger is not an innate emotion. But anger has huge benefits for a campaigning politician – its energy and the illusion of conviction – especially if it can be condensed into cut-through slogans and images. Emotions are not skilled workers, as the fictional poet Arn Malle has so sensibly observed, especially when they are abroad in public life. They need to be handled with black and white gloves to be effective. Electoral strategist Morrison knows this. The Albanese needs to learn, and fast. If he gets cut, Morrison is gone.
Doing Politics: Writing on Public Life, a collection of essays by Judith Brett, went on sale last week through Text Publishing.
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