In the end there's only one question that every columnist must answer between now and next May: "Who will win the next election?"
This government is, unequivocally, Scott Morrison's. All long-term planning (for issues as different as climate change or new submarines; for concerns as immediate as our relationship with China or agricultural and tax policy) is driven exclusively from his office and is totally dependent on how he "sees" things. There is no tomorrow. Morrison inhabits the perpetual present, reducing every question, every complexity, to a succession of simple, crisp formulas regurgitated on demand, always denying the possibility that any answer other than the particular one he has alighted on could exist.
Morrison's approach denies the very possibility of intellectual dissent. His wonderful success in public life is all to do with the way he frames issues. He constructs these so our view of every issue is close-up and personal, immediate and obvious. There is never any need to reach beyond the instinctive gut reaction because, as he is always ready to helpfully point out, the answer is obvious!
This is the scaffolding he's been erecting for the exam we'll all be set on a date between March 5 and May 21 next year. Although each electorate will return its own answer from a series of multiple choice questions, Morrison will only concern himself with one - who is the better prime minister, he or Anthony Albanese? He's an egotist, and so to him everything else is irrelevant, however he also believes this is the one battleground he can win - and so, counter-intuitively, this is where the battle will be fought.
The polls are showing Morrison's personal satisfaction ratings have collapsed. Voters have witnessed, time and time again, his inability to convert marketing spin into accomplishments. Essential shows his personal approval plunging from 65 per cent in February to 42 per cent last week; almost as low as the 41 percent following the Black Summer bushfires in March 2020. Newspoll similarly shows Coalition support bumping along the base established three years ago.
To Labor that's gold.
But Morrison doesn't care. He's focusing, instead, on the comparative rating of him against Albanese, because that's where he sees hope. Poll watcher Kevin Bonham crunched the numbers to discover, perhaps unsurprisingly, that it's the most popular leader who's won nine of 12 elections since 1987 (on the other three occasions the incumbent PM, Keating or Howard, grabbed victory against John Hewson, Kim Beazley and Mark Latham). Losing office seems to require a net dissatisfaction of about 20. At the moment this figure is not even close, and Morrison remains preferred PM.
Chris Wallace of ANU has previously made this point in these pages. So why bother going through the argument again?
To signal that Labor is in the last chance saloon. There is, currently, nothing to suggest Albanese is inexorably on track for The Lodge. The situation is reminiscent of the week before the last election. Then I had a number of conversations with Labor strategists who assured me Bill Shorten would win, however nobody could point to particular seats that would fall or explain why they would. It's a problem if your only strategy for victory depends on your opponent self-destructing.
Although Morrison might seem to be doing his best to do exactly this, Labor's plan is predicated on the electorate answering this question as if it's a binary choice. What's being ignored is that voters aren't happy with what they're being offered.
We in the media focus on who will lead the next government, but that's the wrong place for the spotlight. Labor is relying on a flow of preferences to get it over the line, but examine where disillusioned voters are going and you'll see it's not to the opposition. It's to the "others". A poll of polls trend by Twitter's Mark the Graph over the past month actually shows a regression in Labor's 150-day trend line. It's declining. Sure, the government is sinking faster - but the votes are just wandering elsewhere.
This opposition wants to be everything to everyone. It's trapped in a world where anger with the government turns into Labor preferences, and where it brokers deals to keep different constituencies - environmentalists and timber workers; unionists and individual contractors - happy. That world went away a long time ago. Withholding policy until the last moment won't create the necessary confidence to build the Coalition needed to destroy a government that promises everything to everyone, no matter how implausible its policies.
Finding particular seats that Labor will win is again problematic.
Antony Green points out Labor needs a swing of at least 3.1 per cent for minority government, or 3.3 per cent to rule on its own (or a national two-party preferred vote of 51.8 per cent, assuming an even swing). But swings are never uniform, and the party is defending 13 seats on a similar margin.
It has huge internal issues in Tasmania, a state that almost consistently bucks the national trend. Both Bass and Braddon are both highly marginal. If they remain in the government's hands, Labor's requirement for majority government stretches to well above 4 per cent. Given its current policy settings are unlikely to ignite huge excitement in the resources states of Queensland and Western Australia (and there's no sign of anything inspiring on the horizon), it's not difficult to imagine another election night's television broadcast where an increasingly exasperated Penny Wong finally snaps completely.
In a year's time, such catastrophising might appear ridiculous - and yet, given the government's obvious lack of any sort of grip on the tiller, isn't it incredible that there's no certainty we're on course to change our current captain? Or that, although the opposition "should" win, the betting markets still aren't certain it will?
Perhaps it's not too late to change the opposition leader after all. Labor's still a long way from being home and hosed today.
- Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer and a regular columnist.