The official line from senior federal Liberals like Josh Frydenberg and Greg Hunt was that Saturday’s 57-43% walloping in the Victorian election has nothing to do with federal issues. Today’s Newspoll result, another 55-45% disaster for the government, suggests otherwise.
The Victorian Liberals didn’t do themselves any favours — especially not Michael Kroger’s bizarre litigation against the party’s key fundraising arm — but the fact Scott Morrison wasn’t invited to the campaign doesn’t mean he escapes the blame. We keep hearing how unpopular Bill Shorten is, but for an unpopular guy he sure spends a lot of time on the ground in successful election campaigns. In NSW — Morrison’s home state — Gladys Berejiklian was yesterday flagging she wouldn’t be looking to the Prime Minister for any help in her campaign in March. Nothing to do with federal issues, eh?
Matthew Guy was never more than a 40-60 chance of knocking off a first-term government, at best. But the Victorian result was so awful that Berejiklian’s prospects of survival in NSW are looking significantly worse. It’s one thing to not pull off an unlikely victory from opposition; it’s quite another for arguably Australia’s best government to face possible defeat at the hands of an inept and corrupt NSW Labor Party.
NSW upper house Liberal MP Peter Phelps — with whose services the party has foolishly dispensed on the weekend, thanks to factional wars — nailed it when he said the best thing Morrison could do for Victorian and NSW Liberals was bolt to an early election and let voters belt him, leaving his state-level colleagues to stand or fall on their merits.
The federal Liberals were given a strong warning when they lost Wentworth for the first time ever. But that result was dismissed as atypical — as a seat that was somehow not the real Liberal Party, despite being a stronghold of fundraising and never voting any other way. Now, you sense, Victoria too will be dismissed as atypical — an unusually progressive state, with even dyed-in-the-wool eastern suburbs Liberals, many of whom shifted to Labor, somehow seen as unrepresentative of the party. Come May next year, perhaps the whole country will be dismissed as atypical, and the few remaining Liberals can retreat to the Roseville RSL in Sydney and listen to Tony Abbott speeches.
There are strong forces actually pushing for that outcome, although they see it more as a kind of ideological crusade that will burn off impure moderates and heretical small-l liberals. They are to be found on the right of the party, in the extreme right parade on Sky News at night, on 2GB in Sydney and in News Corp mastheads. They form an echo chamber every bit as hermetically-sealed as those that exist on social media among the left. And Scott Morrison is trapped in there with them.
Morrison’s Trump-style mugging is a deliberate effort to earn their endorsement: denying climate change, taking swipes at journalists, pandering to the Netanyahu regime, cracking sexist jokes, attacking Muslims — even wearing baseball caps. In a relatively short time as prime minister, he has deliberately cultivated an image as a suburban Trump, but with none of the political cunning, nor the voluntary voting, that makes the latter a success.
To avoid a national repeat of Saturday, Morrison has to break out of the echo chamber. But he has little time. The country is about to enter its summer slumber. That could provide the basis for a late January reset, but by then it’ll only be four months until the election.
Some Howard 2007-style spending of additional revenue from commodity price increases — because that did our fiscal position so much good last time — will help, but the options are narrowing. It’s also clear that both the Victorian Liberals and the LNP in Queensland are struggling to run decent campaigns. Peta Credlin — who knows about winning campaigns — nailed it in her observations about Labor’s on-the-ground superiority in Victoria. Fixing that will be an even more difficult task in the six months remaining to Morrison and his colleagues.