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Mark Riley: Underdog PM is off the leash

Scott Morrison didn’t miss a beat when I asked him on his campaign bus last week whether he considered himself the underdog.

“Of course we are,” he said. “I don’t think that status is contested!”

His smile told me he was comfortable with that, too.

Being given scant chance of winning has little to recommend it except for one thing: it removes all weight of expectation from around your shoulders.

That freedom has allowed Morrison to take the sort of risks we normally associate with opposition leaders.

In fact, after a week with each of the camps it is clear to me that in this election the traditional campaigning roles have been flipped.

Morrison is the one throwing caution to the wind and Bill Shorten is running like an incumbent with everything to lose.

And that is a fair thing.

Scott Morrison in the political minefield. Illustration: Don LindsayScott Morrison in the political minefield. Illustration: Don Lindsay
Camera IconScott Morrison in the political minefield. Illustration: Don Lindsay

Like John Hewson in 1993, John Howard in 1996, Kevin Rudd in 2007 and Tony Abbott in 2013, Shorten is an Opposition Leader apparently heading towards certain victory.

He just hopes like hell he doesn’t end up joining Hewson as the man who lost the “unlosable” election.

But as long as Labor’s primary vote remains steady at 39 per cent, Shorten is firmly on track to win.

He isn’t getting ahead of himself, though. His opponent out-campaigned him in the first fortnight, while Shorten negotiated largely self-engineered messes over superannuation taxes, mixed messages on Adani and tax increases on higher income earners.

Momentum is important in campaigns and Morrison has it at present. But he will need everything to go right for him over the next three weeks and for Shorten to stuff up royally to even be in the hunt on May 18.

The Coalition’s desperation is being laid bare in its campaign tactics. It is, as this column predicted, going low and going hard.

It denied any association with a fake tweet, falsely purporting to be from ACTU secretary Sally McManus, claiming Labor intends to introduce a death tax.

But then it weaponised it into a campaign ad, marrying Shorten’s staunch denial of any interest in a death tax with Julia Gillard’s pre-2010 election declaration that: “There will be no carbon tax under the government I lead.”

“Can you trust Labor on taxes?” the ad asked.

It was pretty ordinary stuff.

Mark Riley.Mark Riley.
Camera IconMark Riley.Picture: Channel Seven

But Labor went low in return. It reminded Morrison of his refusal to rule out a death tax in an interview with 3AW’s Neil Mitchell in 2015. That, too, was misleading. Morrison was a treasurer resisting an attempt to lure him into the pre-Budget rule-in, rule-out game. In that scenario, no treasurer would rule out taxing his grandmother’s scones, if asked.

The interruptions of Easter and Anzac Day have given the first two weeks of this campaign an unusual, stop-start complexion.

Now, both sides are looking to reboot their pitches this weekend.

They know pre-polling begins on Monday and they have just three weeks before the big show.

That is what makes Monday’s The West Australian-7News debate so crucial. Both leaders will be looking to gain an invaluable edge and, hopefully, trade on their opponent’s blunders as the first ballots are cast. Expect both sides to drop major announcements this weekend to try to capture the political agenda and drag the debate questioning on to their chosen turf. It is a time-honoured tactic. But, don’t worry, we’re wise to it.

Morrison hopes the election outcome hangs on the west. His dream scenario is to survive the expected swings along the eastern seaboard without net losses. That would ensure the count goes so deeply into the night that the result turns on four crucial WA seats: Stirling, Pearce, Hasluck and Cowan.

It is a big dream.

The LNP would need to win back Herbert, around Townsville in far north Queensland, with the help of Clive Palmer’s preferences, for a start.

It would then have to take back Malcolm Turnbull’s former seat of Wentworth in Sydney, seize Lindsay from Labor in Penrith, win back either Indi in Victoria from Cathy McGowan’s Independents or Solomon from Labor in the Northern Territory and snatch at least one and probably two of Labor’s three marginals across the top of Tasmania.

Even that would only counterbalance Labor’s expected gains in Victoria and its assumption of the ACT’s new seat of Bean.

Morrison is daring to believe, though. He has to. He’s hoping beyond hope that he’ll still be drawing breath when the east coast booths close and attention turns to the west.

If he is, he’ll need to cling on to Stirling, Hasluck and Pearce and steal Cowan from Labor’s Anne Aly to survive. It is a narrow path, one littered with landmines of electoral uncertainty.

But it is the only slim chance the underdog has of remaining top dog.

Mark Riley is the Seven Network’s political editor. He is the 2018 Walkley Award winner for commentary writing.

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