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Can Morrison swing the 'unwinnable' election?

Opinion

While Bill Shorten has ditched the “small target” strategy adopted by opposition parties since Fightback cost John Hewson government in 1993, Scott Morrison has moved to shrug off the fractious Abbott/Turnbull years and position himself as a Liberal leader worthy of support, argues Haydon Manning

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While it is often argued ‘Oppositions don’t win elections – governments lose them’, this is not the case in 2019, as Labor offers voters ample grounds for approval or rejection.

It would have been far easier for Labor to offer a modest program, in the belief that swinging voters would punish the Liberal and National Parties for their internal dysfunction, most notably changes in leaders and lack of energy policy.

Until very recently the Coalition looked doomed to a landslide defeat. But recent Newspolls demonstrate that voter assessment has shifted from early March and now it seems a riveting election night count beckons.

The result may not be known on Saturday night, but overall the main opinion polls point toward Labor forming government.

Not since the 1993 election, when Liberal Opposition leader Hewson lost the so-called ‘unlosable election’ for being bold, has an Opposition presented voters with a comprehensive suite of policies.

While Bill Shorten’s agenda is not radical compared with the Coalition’s 1993 Fightback! platform but it is significant and laudable. It breaks the mould of the so-called ‘small target’ strategy.

However, momentum seems to be with Morrison’s all but single-handed campaign, and it could be the case that the polls merely reflect Labor doing well in its safer seats, but not making sufficient inroads into the seats it needs to win Government.

As a result, it is possible that the Coalition can win ‘the unwinnable election’ with less than a majority of votes as happened in 1990 for Hawke and 1998 for Howard.

The question is, what has dealt Prime Minister Morrison’s government back into the contest?

Opinions vary to why the Coalition are now running so close to Labor. For mine, a rational kernel may be that for the past six years Prime Ministers Abbott and Turnbull presented themselves as somewhat atypical Liberal leaders.

They annoyed many rusted-on Liberals and turned swinging voters off, though it needs to be noted that Turnbull was competitive in the polls, just like Rudd, when his party room turned on him.

Rusted-on Liberals and swinging voters are now beginning to tune into Scott Morrison and, basically, they find a leader they can abide.

Morrison’s main electoral strategy – and I believe this is what deals him into this election – lies with his capacity to undermine Labor’s key pitch, namely that his Government stands for ‘the big end of town’. It’s tied to a level of class envy politics we’ve not seen from Labor since the 1960s.

One line from Morrison’s Liberal Party launch captures the essence of this strategy. He said, “Life’s about what you contribute, not what you ­accumulate”.  These phrases frame an appeal that resonates deeply with the vast majority of middle class voters who work in the private sector.

This appeals to aspiration and respect for self-reliance rather than a belief that governments can, and will, fix things. It refers to the classic ideological divide between Liberal and Labor.

Given that today fewer voters trust politicians, many are concerned about the level of government debt and – if you work in the private sector, believe the level of taxation is a burden – it makes sense to state listening to a leader who issues warnings. That, I believe,is what makes this such an interesting election – it is a test of ideas over how far government reaches into our lives.

Labor may take heart from the fact that Australians, unlike Americans, tend to look to government and here Shorten’s commitments to better fund child care and support cancer patients, and to address climate change appeal.

Yet Labor has not improved its position, or so it appears, during the campaign by offering so much that is tangible.

Turning now to the battle closer to home, let’s examine what may transpire in SA’s only marginal seat.

While single electorate polls are to be viewed with caution, it appears that Boothby looks set to be retained by the Liberal’s Nicolle Flint. The Advertiser/YouGov Galaxy poll conducted late last week indicates Flint’s primary vote registers a healthy 47%.

Any margin above 45% should allow a candidate to feel some comfort, especially when their main rival sits 10 or so points behind. So, it will probably transpire that Flint will be returned, though one needs to be mindful the poll reports 15% ‘undecided’.

While that surprises Flint’s many ardent opponents in the Labor, Green and GetUp! camps who for months have campaigned assiduously to remove her, it should come as no great surprise because Flint looks set to benefit  from the so-called ‘Sophomore surge’ effect.

Popularised in Australia by Malcolm Mackerras, the Sophomore effect points to first term MPs being rewarded with better than the average voter support when they first run for re-election. The thing is, first-termers work relentlessly with great enthusiasm, they meet thousands of voters over three years, many of who end up liking them and remembering them come polling day.

For example, Labor’s Amanda Rishworth wins Kingston in 2007 on the back of the Rudd wave.  Then in 2010, with the terrible background of Labor’s leadership debacle, we observe Labor’s SA vote go down by 2.5% but Rishworth manages a positive swing of 4.4%. I put that down to the Sophomore effect.

The outcome of the SA Senate contest, the first since 2010 without the Xenophon phenomenon, will see the major parties take two seats each, the Greens one and then the puzzle begins over the final Senate seat.

This could see the Liberals win a third seat, but equally Palmer’s United Australia or One Nation could win through.

Family First must now rue the day it gave up its established name recognition when it merged with Cory Bernardi’s Conservative Party, because it would have been in the hunt to have a Senator elected.

Haydon Manning is Associate Professor in Politics and International Relations at Flinders University.

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