Winning the battle for people’s hearts and minds is exceedingly difficult when their minds have been firmly made up.
That is the challenge facing Scott Morrison. It is one that the more considered members of his Government now accept. It is also the ingrained belief of the commentariat, even those firmly rusted on to the conservative side of politics.
As Don Ameche declared in the underrated movie of the same name: “Things change”.
But for this thing to change would require a tectonic shift in the political landscape that is not apparent to any reasonable observer.
So, the plan for Morrison in the new year is to make one last attempt at changing people’s minds by going in through their hearts.
He intends to do that by using the summer break and, particularly, the annual period of national reflection around Australia Day, to lead a fresh discussion on values.
This conversation will pose the larger questions of what it is to be an Australian and how best can we harness our sense of national pride and collective purpose to set our country on a course for a profitable and harmonious future.
In politics, we call it “the vision thing”. It is something all leaders should do. Morrison believes this is now his time, probably realising that if he doesn’t do it now he might never get the opportunity. At least, not in Government.
It is a familiar, yet essential process that helps define our national character, taking stock of our physical and cultural resources, assessing the standards and principles that set us apart from the rest of the world and providing a contemporary explanation of the Australian way.
They can be valuable exercises for political leaders, especially those who are attempting to establish or re-establish their own persona in the eyes of the voting public.
For Morrison, this question of national identity is something that he spends a lot of time musing over. He first articulated his version of the Australian narrative in his maiden speech in 2008:
“My vision for Australia is for a nation that is strong, prosperous and generous: strong in our values and our freedoms, strong in our family and community life, strong in our sense of nationhood and in the institutions that protect and preserve our democracy; prosperous in our enterprise and the careful stewardship of our opportunities, our natural environment and our resources; and, above all, generous in spirit, to share our good fortune with others, both at home and overseas, out of compassion and a desire for justice.”
These are the themes he will expand upon in the new discussion, as he ingrains the importance of national character and the strength of communities in shaping our future.
In doing so, he will draw heavily on the experiences of John Howard in the hope of emulating his spectacular political recovery in 2001.
If polling is the heartbeat of politics, then Morrison’s Government now, like Howard’s then, barely has a pulse. The coalition is flatlining at 10 points behind Labor and on a path to seemingly inevitable destruction.
The more optimistic inhabitants of the current ministerial wing, though, quickly point out that Howard’s government trailed Labor by 13 points less than a year before the 2001 poll. The defeat of the Court government in the West in February of that year, Peter Beattie’s landslide victory for Labor in Queensland and the loss of the Federal seat of Ryan at a by-election all signalled an impending Armageddon for Howard. But he won.
This rather wishful reflection, though, casually ignores two key events that completely changed the political landscape in the months leading up to that election: the Tampa affair and September 11.
Those events redrew a campaign fought almost entirely on national security grounds, playing into Howard’s strongest political suit and allowing him to engineer a stunning 2 per cent swing towards his government.
Circumstances now are quite different. The Government is attempting to capitalise on its advantage in national security at every opportunity, but not gaining the traction it would like.
But there was another element of Howard’s pre-election strategy that is often lost in the analysis of his unlikely 2001 victory.
Looking to reset the electoral landscape about a year out from the poll, he delivered a speech to the Melbourne Press Club outlining his own values statement.
In it, he detailed four principles he said best defined the Australian character and underpinned the approach his government took on policy.
One was self-reliance, which he defined as: “a brave acceptance of unclouded individual responsibility”.
Another was “pulling together”, which he described as a pioneering virtue binding communities and families at times of adversity and a guiding doctrine for cohesion in a multicultural society.
The other two? These will sound familiar: “a fair go” and “having a go”.
They are, of course, the quintessential Aussie values the current Prime Minister has distilled into his crisp, if rather cringy, aphorism of providing “a fair go for those who have a go”.
It seems clear that, like Howard in 2000, Morrison is embarking on a plan to neutralise as many of the more potent policy debates as he can in the final days of this year before pushing the “reset” button in January, beginning with his own values statement.
In announcing this week that Adelaide would become the new home for the National Space Agency, Morrison declared enigmatically that: “This is what vision looks like.”
And by the end of January, we should have a fair idea about what the rest of his vision looks like as he applies the emotional packer whackers in an attempt to restart his Government’s heart and win over the voters’ minds.