Inside Story

Over the top with Scott

If a fair go means anything, the Coalition is heading for a bracing judgement from voters

Tim Colebatch 11 April 2019 2623 words

Having a go: prime minister Scott Morrison arrives to speak to journalists at Parliament House this morning. Lukas Coch/AAP Image

Let’s start with the worst danger zone. If the punters have got it right, the Coalition is on track to lose nine seats in Queensland alone on 18 May. If that happens, it doesn’t matter what happens anywhere else. The Coalition would be back in opposition — perhaps taking a serious look at where it went wrong, perhaps not.

That’s just Queensland. Sportsbet’s odds imply the punters are also tipping the Coalition to lose six seats in New South Wales, five in Victoria, four in Western Australia, and one in South Australia. In all, the Coalition would lose twenty-five seats and win back just one: Wentworth, the seat it lost last October after it overthrew Malcolm Turnbull as prime minister.

The starting point for this election is significantly different from the 2016 result. Redistributions covering half the country have created two new Labor seats, in Melbourne and Canberra, while abolishing a Labor seat in Adelaide. They have also made two marginal Liberal seats in Victoria into (very) marginal Labor seats. And an independent now holds Wentworth.

The bottom line is that the Coalition begins with just seventy-three seats, three short of a majority in the new 151-member parliament. Labor starts off with seventy-two, with another six MPs on the crossbench.

If the same group came back, the Coalition could not form a viable government. To retain power, it will need to win more seats than it loses. In the situation it finds itself, that is a huge ask.

As I pointed out last week, the Coalition has not won an opinion poll by any established pollster since September 2016. Every one of the 153 opinion polls Wikipedia records since then has pointed to a Labor victory. The average margin has narrowed slightly, but the four latest polls show Labor with an average of 52.5 per cent of the two-party vote to the Coalition’s 47.5 per cent. That’s a 3 per cent swing, which would give Labor a comfortable majority.

Indeed, if the punters are right, the Coalition would return with only fifty-one of the 151 seats in the new house. Labor would have ninety-four, with six on the crossbench. That implies a bigger landslide than the polls are now pointing to.

On average, the betting agencies’ odds imply that Labor has an 80 per cent chance of winning the election. The Coalition has just a 20 per cent chance. The polls and the punters are telling us that this election is over before it has even started.

But could they be wrong? Remember: in 2004, the polls at the start of the campaign also showed Labor ahead. Newspoll then had exactly the same result as it has now. But the Coalition was confident that most Australians trusted John Howard as prime minister, but did not trust Mark Latham — and confident that it remained ahead in the marginal seats that mattered. It was right: it won a thumping victory.

Scott Morrison is trying to run his campaign the same way. The Coalition and its media support pack have put the blowtorch to Bill Shorten many times since he became Labor’s leader, but we are likely to see them outdoing themselves this time. They know that the public has not warmed to Shorten, that they see him as an old-style union leader, and that he trails Morrison as preferred prime minister.

Shorten is clearly not a great asset for Labor, but unless the Coalition is holding something back to spring on us late in the campaign, it’s hard to see that he is much of a liability. After all, Labor has won the last 153 opinion polls under his leadership. Newspoll shows Morrison’s lead as preferred PM is only half as big as Turnbull had in the middle of last year, while Shorten’s net disapproval rating has shrunk appreciably.

Yesterday morning, Morrison told us repeatedly that the Coalition had given Australia a “strong economy” — a somewhat contestable claim when many voters have not had a real wage rise since it took office, some have gone backwards, household debt is at record levels and consumer spending is falling. The Liberals presumably are saying this to reinforce the traditional doubts about Labor’s capacity to manage the economy, but they themselves are vulnerable on that front. These are indicators that go to the heart of household finances.

And when the PM tries to imply that what disrupted the economy in 2008 was not the global financial crisis but the election of a Labor government — well, that’s on a par with his insistence that you couldn’t have an electric ute. I guess it must work with a lot of voters, but at some point his habit of going over the top must hurt him.

Security and personal safety got token mentions in Morrison’s opening salvo, and he kept steering us towards Howard’s old slogan: “Who do you trust to run the country?” And when asked his response to Labor’s focus on fairness, he repeated his mantra: “I believe in a fair go for those who have a go.” Presumably that explains the big tax cuts for the well-off that the Coalition is promising, but what does it mean beyond that? Who doesn’t “have a go”? Who does?

But the PM and his team clearly are getting through to many Australians with messages like that, and the polls suggest they are gaining ground. Is it possible that they could do the unthinkable, and take enough seats from Labor and the crossbench to offset the inevitable losses?

Yes, they say, we can. This morning their house paper, the Australian, listed no fewer than ten seats held by Labor or the crossbench that Coalition strategists see as winnable.

They include Wentworth and Indi, taken back from the independents, and eight seats from Labor: Lindsay and Macquarie in western Sydney, Bass, Braddon and Lyons in Tasmania, the Townsville seat of Herbert, Anne Aly’s seat of Cowan in Perth, and the Darwin seat of Solomon.

The punters see only four or five of these as realistic chances (that is, better than a one in four chance). The Liberals’ Dave Sharma, a former ambassador to Israel, is narrowly favoured to win his rematch with Kerryn Phelps, the independent MP for Wentworth. Cathy McGowan’s retirement in Indi opens up a three-way contest between her intended successor, Helen Haines, the Liberals’ Steve Martin and the Nationals’ Mark Byatt.

Labor won Herbert by only thirty-seven votes last time, and Townsville wants the Adani mine to go ahead. Emma Husar was an expected winner in Lindsay in 2016, and the controversy over her ousting clearly makes the seat vulnerable. Braddon in northwest Tassie is probably a realistic chance too; the Liberals absolutely blitzed Labor there at last year’s state election.

But even if the Coalition could win these five seats, that is an inadequate buffer against the losses it is facing in Australia’s big cities and coastal areas — if the polls and the punters are reading the tea leaves right.

Let’s return to Queensland. The latest figures from Newspoll and YouGov (nee Galaxy) imply swings to Labor there of 7 to 8 per cent. That will probably soften by election day, but with the Coalition holding eight seats by margins of less than 4 per cent, even a swing of half that amount would do serious damage.

Queensland is the most important state in federal elections. Whereas Sydney and Melbourne are stratified by class into regions that are consistently Liberal or Labor — think of Sydney’s North Shore versus the southwestern suburbs — Brisbane and regional Queensland are not. Most Queensland seats can and do change hands, often with the force of a tropical cyclone.

In 1949 when Menzies led the Coalition to power, he did so on the back of a 9 per cent swing in primary votes in Queensland that left Labor with just three of the state’s eighteen seats. In 1961 with the credit squeeze sending unemployment soaring, eight of those seats swung back to Labor, almost bringing the Menzies era to a premature end.

In 1975 the anti-Whitlam landslide left Bill Hayden as Queensland’s only Labor MP. But by 1983 most Queensland MPs were Labor. By 1990 Labor had a fifteen-to-nine edge, but two elections later it was down to two seats again. Then, when Kevin07 hit town, Queensland’s seats slid his way en masse: at the 2007 election, Labor made nine of its twenty-two gains in Kevin Rudd’s home state.

What the polls and punters are predicting is not a mirage: it is something that has happened repeatedly in Queensland’s history. The question is whether this election will see it happen again.

The bookies’ odds imply that Labor will hold Herbert, and add Leichhardt (Cairns), Dawson (Mackay — George Christensen’s seat), Capricornia (Rockhampton) and Flynn (Gladstone), giving it almost the entire coastline of North and central Queensland.

The Coalition would hold its seats on the Gold Coast, Sunshine Coast and the farmlands of the southeast. The two vast outback seats of Kennedy and Maranoa would stay with Bob Katter and the Nationals respectively. But Brisbane would be a disaster area for the Coalition.

In 2016, the LNP and Labor split the city’s seats seven-all. This time, if the punters are right, it’ll be twelve-two Labour’s way. Inner-city Brisbane, outer-suburban Petrie, Forde and Bonner, and Peter Dutton’s urban fringe seat of Dickson would all be casualties. Only Ryan and Bowman would stay blue.

Warning: these are only the bookies’ odds, and they and the punters can get it wrong. But in 2017, the LNP won just five of Brisbane’s forty-one seats in Queensland’s state election. Swings of this magnitude are as common as cyclones in Queensland.

Victoria is another potential disaster area. The state election saw Labor win a near-record 57.6 per cent of the two-party vote. If Victorians vote the same way on 18 May, the Coalition would lose six seats to Labor (including the two notionally lost from the redistribution). I wrote on this last month, and won’t repeat the details here, but on those figures, Dunkley and Corangamite would be certain Labor gains, Chisholm, Casey, Higgins and La Trobe probable ones, with Deakin, Flinders, Goldstein, Kooyong, Menzies and Aston all within the realms of possibility.

The bookies’ odds imply that the Liberals would hold Casey and Higgins but lose Deakin. Indeed, the punters are now confident that Labor’s vote this time will not match the highwater mark it set at the state election in those blue-ribbon Liberal seats. Labor is given a decent chance in Higgins, the Greens’ Julian Burnside an outside chance in Kooyong, and Goldstein is rated safe.

But the only serious threat to any Labor seat in Victoria is from the Greens’ Steph Hodgins-May in Macnamara (nee Melbourne Ports). Were the Coalition governing for people living in this century rather than indulging those stuck in the last century, Melbourne Ports’s upmarket suburbs would probably be Liberal turf by now. Morrison has spent much more time in Victoria recently, announcing imaginary transport projects such as a fast train between Melbourne and Geelong. But the Coalition decided long ago that Victoria is not its priority. If the bookies’ odds are right, it stands to win only twelve of the state’s thirty-eight seats.

New South Wales has just seen a Coalition government triumphantly re-elected with minimal losses. You’d assume it is looking good for them at the federal level too. Not so, say the bookies: six Liberal or National seats are thought likely to fall to Labor or independents, with Wentworth the only seat to move the other way.

As in Queensland, the bookies expect Labor to sweep the north coast, in company with independent Rob Oakeshott. Labor already holds Richmond (Tweed Heads to Ballina), and is tipped to win Page (Lismore, Grafton), while Oakeshott regains Cowper (Coffs Harbour to Port Macquarie).

Labor is also favoured in the central coast seat of Robertson (where it polled strongly at the state election), the south coast seat of Gilmore (where the conservative vote will split three ways), and the Sydney seats of Banks (inner south) and Reid (inner west).

That sounds excessive. The Liberal vote held up well at the state election in the suburbs comprising Banks, and while seats like Reid and Gilmore are clearly vulnerable, losses on the scale forecast would leave the Coalition with only seventeen of the state’s forty-seven seats — and in Sydney, just ten out of twenty-nine seats. That would be a very different result from the state election.

Western Australia is the other state where the bookies have Labor poised to make big gains. While the seats in the outback and southwest would remain unchanged, the odds show Labor is tipped to take four of the Coalition’s eight seats in Perth — attorney-general Christian Porter’s seat of Pearce, aged care minister Ken Wyatt’s seat of Hasluck, Michael Keenan’s seat of Stirling, and inner-suburban Swan.

In Adelaide, the Liberals are tipped to hold the eastern suburbs seat of Sturt, vacated by Christopher Pyne, but lose Nicolle Flint’s southern suburbs seat of Boothby — a seat Labor has not won since 1946. Sturt would be the Coalition’s only seat in Adelaide, and one of just three in South Australia.

Labor already holds all but one seat in Tasmania, and every seat in the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory, so it’s unlikely to make any gains there. As mentioned, the Liberals believe they can regain all three Tasmanian seats outside Hobart, as well as the Darwin seat of Solomon. At this stage, the punters disagree.

Add them all up, and Labor would have a majority of thirty-seven seats in the new house. As I’ve argued, that overstates its likely margin, but the Coalition would have to make up a lot of ground to win the election from here.

The Senate, meanwhile, is always hard to predict. As yet, we don’t know who the candidates will be, their positions on the ballot paper, or their preference deals (although the Cormann reforms in 2016 ensured that voters will determine their own preferences, rather than having them traded in backroom deals). We can look at the Senate once those details are clear. It is clear that no one will have a majority, but the two major parties are likely to increase their numbers slightly at the expense of the Greens and the minor parties.

The Coalition’s dream is that this will be a repeat of 2004. So far it reminds me more of 1972: a bumbling, backward-looking Coalition team with an unimpressive leader and a focus on palace coups, up against a Labor opposition eager to make reforms on issues that the Coalition has discarded as too hard.

The difference is that Labor then had a brilliant but flawed leader — witty, arrogant, visionary, determined and disorganised — whereas this time it is led by a solid, unexciting political pragmatist, who has taken some political risks to give a lead on important issues, but has yet to win over the voters after six years in the job.

This morning the papers all shouted in unison: “It’s on!” It made me recall the song with that name, written decades ago by the old leftie folk singer Don Henderson:

A sad story you’ll hear if you listen to me,
About two men who could never agree.
What one said was white, the other called black.
They’d argue a while, then they’d go out the back.

And it’s on! And it’s on!
All reason and logic are gone.
Winning the fight won’t prove that you’re right.
It’s sad, it’s true, but it’s on! •