How Shorten the Redeemer met Morrison the Disruptor – and decided to fight back | Katharine Murphy | Australia news
Bill Shorten has been campaigning constantly since Labor lost the election in 2016, so the presumption going into the campaign proper was that the Labor leader was 100% match fit. Turns out he wasn’t.
Before I drill into this a bit more, let’s be clear upfront that we can ignore the punditry about Shorten having a terrible week because he fluffed his answer on superannuation, and failed to engage his brain in response to a television journalist indulging in a “look at me” moment on the hustings over climate policy to try to engineer a sense that something was actually at stake.
We can ignore it because it’s over-egged and, even if it was valid, none of that matters. It was the first full week of the campaign and both sides think no one is watching yet. We are still doing practice laps, and will be until after Anzac Day. Nothing fundamental shifted in week one.
But we did learn a few things. We learned that Scott Morrison’s strategy is to run over the top of the trench firing bullets every which way, in an effort to disrupt Shorten’s rhythm.
Morrison has to run very hard, punishingly so, in fact, because he has few other assets to deploy in this contest. Peter Dutton needs to be quarantined in Queensland, and absolutely invisible in the southern states, given that he’s a vote loser there. Mathias Cormann, front and centre in the last campaign, is a bit player in this one.
Josh Frydenberg is likable, and helpful to Morrison, but he’s distracted by the campaign being waged against him in Kooyong and needs to weigh his interventions carefully. Simon Birmingham, the 2019 campaign spokesman, is a bit like Frydenberg – affable and professional – but he’s probably not going to win the government votes in Queensland. The Nationals leader, Michael McCormack, is lovely bloke and a team player, but about as helpful in the current contest as Elmer Fudd.
So Morrison has to carry the can. He has to be the prime minister and the main attack dog executing the daily destruction, or at least the components not being spearheaded loyally by the Daily Telegraph.
But that’s a difficult balancing act. He can’t be too shouty, because voters have clocked shouty Morrison and that bloke’s a turn-off. There’s another problem, apart from the drag on his personal brand, and it’s this: getting shouty only encourages disaffected voters to tune out, and Morrison won’t win on 18 May unless he can electrify the contest and draw voters back in. As things stand, the electoral mathematics are stacked against him.
So, if we summarise, the tempo Morrison was trialling this week was disrupt, disrupt, disrupt. His objective was to stay on message and tangle up Shorten up with some aggro, softened with a smile and a bit of jolly bus banter with travelling reporters. (See guys, I’m not tetchy at all and, as long as you are all here, documenting my every move, you are telling the voters I am still in this contest.) That basic package was overlayed with some cheery visuals: a few rounds of pool in Corangamite, a bout of earnest carrot inspection, off to the pub with the locals, a bit of lawn bowls, go Winx, go Sharks.
Shorten was running a different campaign. Looping back to my opening point about match fitness, here are a couple of quick observations. The Labor leader has kept himself ticking over in campaign mode during the past three years by doing town halls around the country. Lots and lots of them.
Town halls are part of the campaign tool box but are run at a different tempo. They keep you sharp because you never know what questions are coming, but they also allow you to ease into your conversations.
There is nothing easeful about elections. Campaigns are staccato and transactional. You either land the key point or you don’t, and the daily press conference dynamic is always combative, significantly more so than normal, because everyone is on the clock and looking for the building blocks of their stories and packages.
While the underlying dynamic is relentless, Shorten wanted to project a sense in the opening week of preternatural calm. One of my quick-witted colleagues by about day three had dubbed the Labor leader “Shorten the Redeemer”, and that summation of his campaign affect is bang on.
I suspect the presentation was a combination of game-day nerves and core strategy. Labor knows Morrison has the harder job, knows it’s going to be difficult for the Liberal party’s one-man band to walk the line between landing punches to the face and being prime ministerial, knows it is in a position to roll in attacking players to supplement Shorten if needs be (Kristina Keneally, Chris Bowen, Penny Wong and others), which I think explains the combination of calculations behind keeping things low-key and keeping the leader above the fray.
But as a good political mate of mine sometimes says, everyone has a strategy until the first bullet flies past your head, and Morrison was firing from all directions in an effort to force his opponent off his stride.
If Morrison’s first week on the trail was about exploring whether Labor’s candidate and campaign machine could be disrupted, making the frontrunner seem suddenly vulnerable, Shorten’s opening experiment was about finding out whether projecting calm could subdue the aggro and unhinged beast of an election campaign.
At this juncture, we don’t need my judgment about the success of that venture, because we have Shorten’s. We can just plot the behaviour of the candidate to find our answer. The arc of the week was Shorten the Redeemer, then STR supplemented by attack players, then Shorten I’ve Had a Gutful showed up, minus his attacking column, to hit back against the escalating nonsense about climate policy that had built up over the previous 48 hours.
Calculations about how you present to the world vary day by day in campaigns but Thursday’s decision to show up indicated Shorten believed he had to get into the ring rather than spectate at his own prize fight.
I suspect that was the correct judgment, given that Labor is taking all the risks in this campaign by asking voters to endorse a reform agenda, rather than riding in anyone’s slipstream. If there’s an agenda there, best to prosecute it.
The recalibrations of the week on the Labor side, the dialling up and dialling down, can, of course, be overanalysed. We political reporters do a lot of that.
But I think the adjustments do point to an interesting question, and it’s this. Does Shorten have Morrison’s measure yet?
Close watchers of politics could reasonably conclude that Shorten had Tony Abbott’s measure, and Malcolm Turnbull’s measure, because the Labor leader is still on his feet and the other two are now on the sidelines. In large part this is because Shorten had sharper political instincts, which led to them being weakened and left vulnerable to their colleagues’ regicidal impulses.
But Morrison is a harder target in some respects because the Liberal leader has a well-honed talent for getting out from under when the building collapses, and is nowhere to be found once the royal commission is launched into how that building fell apart. Morrison is a politician who thinks like a campaign director and carries an invisibility cloak.
Going up against Morrison in a head-to-head is a bit like wrestling smoke, and I’m not sure that Shorten is two steps ahead of his opponent’s internal calculations in the way he was facing Abbott and Morrison.
I might be wrong about that, of course, and this challenge doesn’t matter from Labor’s perspective if the election is already over, and Australia voters have already decided it’s time for a change of government. If that’s the case, they are unreachable for Morrison.
But I suspect that an anticipation deficit will matter if the 2019 contest is still live.