Elections and Leadership

Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Photo courtesy SBS 

The National Disability Insurance Scheme is run by the Federal Government. It makes the rules; the NDIA’s role is simply one of implementation. The politicians’ role is crucial. And that’s why nothing will be more vital over the coming year than understanding who will win the election and why they did so.

The vote must take place by Saturday 18th May – yet that’s almost certainly not  the date a ballot will occur. That’s because Prime Minister Scott Morrison will not want to be portrayed as holding on until the last moment.

He will need to ask the Governor-General to approve his choice. Although this is (just) a formality, it’s also a reality. It’s actually the GG who holds the constitutional power to set the date. Once, back in 1983, then Governor-General Ninian Stephen told then PM Malcolm Fraser he needed more information before he could announce an election would be held and this was very bad luck for the then PM. By the time he announced the poll date Labor had dumped its unpopular leader Bill Hayden and installed Bob Hawke instead. He went on to win and, since that date, nobody’s taken routine procedures for granted.

Equally no PM wants to call the election on the last day possible – it looks too desperate. That’s why it’s always called before the last moment and why in Canberra the smart money is betting on Saturday 30th April or, more probably, the 7th May, the first possible day after the budget.

In the meantime virtually the only thing concerning anyone in Canberra is the election.

This weekend the capital was visited – or came under siege – from a huge convoy of protesters complaining about (amongst other things) vaccine mandates.

Convoy to Canberra protesters on Saturday – photo courtesy ABC

On Saturday morning the huge crowd, holding red ensigns upside-down and bearing inchoate, angry malevolence, wound like a serpent around Parliament House. They carried flags (bizarrely Croat, Macedonian, and Polish, as well as a varied Australian) demonstrating confused allegiances and suggesting these crowds weren’t, in any way, representative of modern Australia – the ragged throng was far too white; too middle-aged; and far too ordinary. And yet in another way, and almost because of this confusion, the crowd was exactly representative of another demographic. A group of people lost, uncertain and confused.

They were searching for leadership. They didn’t find it in Canberra.

They needed someone who would explain to them why Australia has implement the public health measures that have saved thousands. They needed somebody prepared to say that by living together a community we can enjoy better, stronger, and more fulfilling lives than we can by standing apart as individuals. Someone who would explain why this is a great country.

That’s not what they got.

Scott Morrison had a simple choice.

He could explain, carefully and precisely, the critical role of vaccines and mask mandates in protecting the elderly and disabled. He could have gone through the facts: explained how the virus works. He could have asked who would want their grandparents to die because they’d refused to listen to public health warnings. So what did the Prime Minister say?

“I’m going to be very clear”, he began. The “commonwealth government has only ever supported mandates that relate to aged care workers, disability workers, and those who are working in high-risk situations in the health system. All other mandates that relate to vaccines have been imposed unilaterally by state governments. They have not been put in place by the Commonwealth government. In fact, the Commonwealth government cannot impose such a mandate.”

It’s not the leadership the protesteres wanted. 

Morrison will not stand down – he firmly believes he is the only person that can win, just as he did last time. The calls for Morrison should hand over to someone who can lead the country, now. Then he could get back to practising playing the ukulele over dinner. It was bizarre.

This weekend we saw the slightly pathetic reality of this very ordinary person. So utterly banal and so poorly equipped to lead this country that the sooner he abandons the pretence he’s doing so, the better for all of us.

Contempt isn’t the sort of emotion that people forget quickly. Like a drop of dye in a puddle of water it gradually spreads, slowly but irrevocably colouring perceptions. Privately, most Liberal politicians have already moved to a post-Morrison stage. Peter Dutton’s off on one side, barking at the moon and yelling irresponsibly about war while Treasurer Josh Frydenberg is on the other, busy collecting numbers. Not financial ones – nobody cares about the economy any more. He’s calculating how to see off other challengers in the future leadership ballot.

“The recent by-elections mean both nothing and everything”

By-election results are always interpreted as harbingers, voices prophesying what’s coming next and the weekend’s poll’s were no exception. The almost certain loss, for example, for the first time ever of Bega, a naturally conservative electorate. The emphatic swing against Fiona Kotvojs, a candidate who Morrison personally endorsed in the last poll (which she also lost). The perceptible shift to Labor of booths in Willoughby that have large numbers of typically coalition but ethnically Chinese voters. Everything indicates now, for the first time since the pandemic hit, this government has irretrievably lost the confidence of voters.

It doesn’t mean they have chosen Labor – simply that they’ve looked carefully at this government and found it badly wanting. The anger and disillusionment electors have expressed in this vote is within the range of typical results. When former Premier Mike Baird resigned mid-term there was a swing of 24.2 percent against the Liberals, yet his successor Gladys Berejiklian went on to win the subsequent general election. This time the anti-government push in her seat has been limited to 13.5 percent with no Labor candidate (a strong independent received more than 32 percent of the first preference vote).

This is the issue that will be faced by so many of the challengers in the coming federal poll. Although some (like independent ACT Senate candidates former Wallabies Captain David Pocock and law professor Kim Rubenstein) would be terrific adornments to any parliament, overcoming the stifling dynamic of incumbency that benefits the major parties is incredibly difficult. The prospect of either shoving their way past current Liberal Senator Zed Seselja (who only requires a third of the vote to be returned) in many contests still appear to be near insurmountable. The vital preconditions for a change of government, however, are now in place.

We change governments about once a decade – only twice since the year 2000 and on seven occasions in the 75 years since the end of World War Two.

Voters need to be extremely disillusioned and disgusted with a government in order to dispatch it. So angry they want to vote it out because they can see no future in which it plays a meaningful part. The crowds of people choking the streets of the capital last week may not yet want Labor, but certainly don’t think Morrison’s offering any answers.

This column first appeared in the Canberra Times

Nic Stuart

Nicholas Stuart is an author (Kevin Rudd, an unauthorised political biography; What Goes Up, behind the 2007 election; Kevin Rudd, 2007 - 2011) and columnist with the Canberra Times. He was the ABC's Indochina Correspondent when he suffered a significant head injury in a car crash in Bangkok.

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