Outgoing Prime Minister Scott Morrison announces date for the next election. (Photo by Martin Ollman/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

What lies ahead for the Australian election?

Labor’s Anthony Albanese might have a chance

And it’s over. With the daft pomp of a 19-gun salute, the 46th Australian parliament has been dissolved. We march towards an election on 21 May. Outgoing Prime Minister Scott Morrison has prevaricated so long over calling the damn thing — despite a recent bit of precocious campaigning —that we Australians can look forward to a mercifully short burst of electioneering.

By rights, come 22 May, Scott Morrison will be an ex-PM. As the incumbent in a time of crisis, the Liberal Party leader should have been able to sail into combat against an untried opponent, with a heavy artillery of achievements. Problem is, Morrison’s armoury is bare. His greatest achievement yet will be to go down in history as the first Australian Prime Minister to accomplish nothing during his time in office.

Announcing his vote-baiting budget last week, treasurer Josh Frydenburg was quick to outline the hardships facing the federal government. The war in Europe. The pandemic. Climate change. It’s the same line he’s been spouting when touring marginal seats. “Don’t blame us, it’s the times that are wrong.” Governments are always tested by circumstance and judged by their responses. It would take the most hardened of Murdoch apologists to notice that the Morrison government has, wherever possible, simply avoided responding.

When the east coast of Australia burned after Christmas 2019, Morrison went on holiday to Hawaii. When the pandemic hit in early 2020, Morrison resisted containment measures and actively fought the state leaders when they went it alone. When devastating floods displaced entire communities, his government went to the Federal Court to prove it had no obligation to protect the nation’s children from environmental harm.

Albanese’s pitch is that Australians deserve better

Put simply, the Morrison government is a government in existential crisis — a government that doesn’t believe in government. As a result, it is singularly incapable of dealing with the very real problems facing Australians. In the short term, that means refusing to provide rapid antigen tests to Australians in the middle of a testing shortage (as outrageous price gouging saw tests selling for up to $75 a pop). It means refusing to cut the fuel excise as petrol prices scaled new heights (at least until the polls spooked Morrison into a change of heart). It means telling young Australians who can’t find a rental to try buying a house instead. Even when a crisis is of his party’s own making, such as the allegations of widespread sexual abuse and harassment in Canberra, Morrison has proved there isn’t a scandal he can’t bungle.

Morrison’s image is that of your bog-standard, daggy suburban dad. His first campaign video is an extension of his mantra “How good is Australia?”, evoking a kind of ersatz national pride built on complacency, rather than achievement. He’s your ordinary bloke who doesn’t think too much about all that tricky stuff, but is good with the barbie and — at the first hint of a photo op — can knock out pub rock faves on the ukulele. It’s all spin, obviously. Still, that didn’t stop him having a crack at his opponent, Labor’s Anthony Albanese, for “pretending” after Albo went on a diet and bought a new pair of glasses.

Who is Albo? Good question. Since taking control of the Labor party following its surprise defeat back in 2019, Albanese has remained conspicuously inconspicuous. While some on the left panicked about his turn as the invisible man, current polling suggests it may prove to have been a genius strategy. Morrison has had the floor to himself for the past three years, with nobody else to blame. Instead of waging war on his federal opponents, Morrison has tangled with Labor state leaders who have used his uselessness around COVID to boost their own popularity. (His Prime Ministership has been disastrous for state Liberal leaders.) Albanese is able to enter the fray fresh-faced and unsullied, while daggy dad — having exhausted his cosplay of working class jobs — looks ready for a sit down.

The downside to this calculated absence is that it gives Albanese a mere six weeks to prove to a hostile media that his party is ready for government. His pitch is that Australians deserve better — that communities have borne the brunt of three years of rolling disasters while the federal government has looked for reasons to do nothing. His policies are based around sound Labor principles: strengthening public healthcare, fixing the housing crisis, lifting wages, etcetera. But that might not be enough. This election isn’t about policy, it’s about identity, stupid.

The digital age has seen Australians forced (via social media) to think not only about who they are but also who their neighbours are, in a way we’ve never had to before. If there’s one thing Australians don’t like, it’s having to think about things. Our unofficial national motto has long been “don’t rock the boat”.

Culture skirmishes usually provide a populist boost

Just as Albanese sat back to let Morrison defeat himself, Morrison understands that lobbing the occasional culture war grenade is enough to keep the left fighting among itself for a couple of news cycles. There’s a reason why Morrison used the final weeks of his government to try to push through a Religious Discrimination bill which would, in essence, have allowed religious schools to discriminate against gay and trans students. Labor outsmarted him and the bill was shelved, but it didn’t matter. The online left whipped itself into an unattractive froth and, even in failure, Morrison — a keen member of one of the nuttier evangelical churches — got to look comparatively sane.

Identity issues continue to provide fertile ground for culture warriors. As recent events in the UK have shown, there is one question that all politicians have learned to fear: “can a woman have a penis?” This is a killer because — leaving aside the potential impact on a vulnerable community — it’s a clear example of the sort of lexical revisionism and counter-intuitive thinking that excites inner-city progressives and alienates everyone else. What it really asks is, “is your reality the same as mine?”

Albanese was handed a variation by the tabloid press: can men get pregnant? His answer (“no”) was held up by the left as proof of his transphobia and many (well, at least three) performatively swore off ever voting for the Labor Party. It didn’t help that his comments followed a “vile” interview in The Monthly. Albanese said people could use whatever pronoun they wanted but shouldn’t seek to impose their rules on other people — presumably the three out of five Australians who might still prefer old-fashioned, sex-based pronouns.

Leaning into these culture skirmishes usually provides the right with a populist boost. They tend (however unfairly) to cast the right as brave warriors for freedom and the left as authoritarian killjoys. For Morrison, they have proved weapons of mass distraction, allowing him to get away with avoiding action on serious issues such as climate change — even when the majority of Australians actually want him to do something.

Who are those Australians? It’s worth noting that, of the forty-six elections since Federation, the Labor party has won a measly fourteen. The difficult pill for those on the left to swallow is that Australians, by and large, are conservative, monocultural and more than 80 per cent white. People who look a whole lot like the image Morrison strives to project. While there’s a lot of talk about who we’ve been and who we could be, there’s often a refusal to embrace who we are. If the left wants to win power, it’ll need to get over that, because those Australians are the people we’ll need to work with to navigate the most dangerous moment in human history. To his credit, the Labor leader has signalled his intention to do just that.

Albanese has made a promising start on policy. That matters. In going out of his way to identify himself as “not-woke”, he has put clear water between himself and the less attractive fringes of the online left. In doing so, he’s accomplished something no Labor leader has for 15 years — he’s made himself electable.

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