A tale of two campaigns: Riding the wind and sheltering from the storm

By Chip Le Grand and Katina Curtis

When the Morrison campaign bus pulls into the tiny town of Whitemore in Tasmania’s aptly named Meander Valley, it is met with a charmingly bucolic scene.

The morning sun has just risen above the fields and at the local tennis club, kids are running across the courts while their mums, dads and grandparents group around an outdoor stove, waiting to meet the bloke asking for their vote on Saturday.

If you doubt this election could be decided by a handful of votes in a handful of seats, you need only know that Whitemore is a community of just 15 farms and in a final, frenetic week of campaigning, Morrison has come to visit two days before the poll.

Morrison was there to spruik his candidate in the marginal seat of Lyons; Susie Bower, a woman whose laugh cracks like a bullwhip over the sound of eggs popping on the barbeque. Graham Dent, 72, has been farming since he was 16 and seen plenty of PMs come and go. Which direction is Morrison heading?

“I think he is closing the gap,” he muses. “But I don’t know whether it is quite enough.”

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison in the tiny farming town of Whitemore.Credit:James Brickwood

The choice of campaign stops in the final week and days of a federal election campaign, a time when many voters are only just starting to weigh up the choice on offer, tells us plenty about how the Coalition and Labor campaign headquarters think they are tracking. Up close, the demeanour of the candidates tells us something else.

Where the past six weeks have been a trial that Labor leader Anthony Albanese has endured, Scott Morrison gives the impression that, like an electoral cyborg programmed to dole out grants to sports clubs and tour new housing estates, he never tires of the set-piece silliness of modern campaigning.

The night before he drove out to Whitemore, a place where the tennis club is at the centre of community life but the courts are in need of repair, Morrison was feeling relaxed enough to slip on a hoodie, brave the cold air and play a round of mini-golf with his wife Jenny.

At the 19th hole, the Morrisons, the PM’s consigliere Ben Morton and principal private secretary Yaron Finkelstein shared a quiet drink with their campaign team and journalists who’ve been tailing them across the country. It was partly superstitious – they did the same thing at the same holiday park three years ago at a similar stage of the ‘miracle’ campaign – but gives no indication that Morrison’s re-election prospects are lost in the rough.

On the same evening in Sydney, Albanese looked exhausted. He had just walked off stage after delivering a passionate speech to a room of 400 Italian-Australians at Club Marconi, in Sydney’s Bosley Park, where he put his party’s case and took umbrage at the Liberal Party’s “It won’t be easy with Albanese” play on his name.

He had shaken dozens of hands and looked into countless smiling faces under the glare of the TV lights but now, just for a moment, he was in dire need of a place to sit down and escape the din. He was led by the club management behind a curtained off area and was grateful to see a small table and chairs waiting.

Where Morrison says campaigning is a doddle compared to governing, Albanese is struggling with a cruel quinella; the after-effects of a COVID infection and a difficult, testy relationship with a travelling media pack that has turned the daily conference into a blood sport. It’s not that the questioning is harsher, but Morrison copes better with interjections by barrelling on through with his message.

On Friday, all that would have been forgotten for a while as Albanese was joined by Julia Gillard, a former prime minister who rarely enters back into Australian politics. The pair were mobbed by kids at an Adelaide school.

Albanese has been at his best during his less scripted events. At twin stops in pre-poll booths on opposite sides of the country – Pearce in Perth’s northern suburbs and Peter Dutton’s seat of Dickson in Brisbane – the Labor leader joked easily with volunteers and rallied his candidates.

Anthony Albanese holds Labor frontbencher Mark Butler’s baby Charlie as he meets with former prime minister Julia Gillard.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

“She’s going to make a lot of noise in Canberra,” a volunteer enthused about Pearce candidate Tracey Roberts. “Be careful what you wish for,” Albanese shot back. In Brisbane, a voter who gave his name as Darren stopped for a selfie with Albanese and said he had his support. “And however many million to go – but we are getting there!” Albanese retorted.

As we reach election day, a campaign that began with the Liberals fighting to hold Kooyong, the seat of Robert Menzies, has finished with Labor defending Werriwa, the seat of Gough Whitlam. Whatever Saturday’s result, Australian politics is being turned inside out.

The election is still Labor’s to lose but what started with the Morrison government seemingly heading for crushing defeat has taken an abrupt, late turn to a place still unknown.

On Friday, the prime minister spent all day in Perth campaigning in seats that, only a few weeks ago, hard-heads within his party had given up for dead. Albanese began his day in Adelaide, in the inner-city electorate of Sturt, a seat on a hit list of 20 that Labor is targeting in a final blitz.

To understand why Liberal strategists believe the tide not running with Labor as it was at the outset of this campaign, the Western Sydney seat of Werriwa is a good place to start. Labor has held it since the war but Liberal internal polling has their candidate, local accountant Sam Kayal, within the margin of error of wresting it from sitting MP Anne Stanley. The re-election of Liverpool’s Liberal mayor Ned Mannoun has convinced the Liberals that the ground is shifting beneath the ALP.

On Thursday afternoon, Morrison travelled from Launceston to Western Sydney to make just one stop; a visit to a community centre in Hoxton Park, in the heart of Werriwa, to announce funding for a swimming pool development.

Scott Morrison made an unprecedented foray into the Labor seat of Werriwa on Thursday.Credit:James Brickwood

In his speech, he barely mentioned the pool. Instead, he road-tested on a new audience what has become his closing argument: the need to put the pandemic behind us and let families, rather than government, regain control of their lives.

“All of the things that had governments telling us where we could go, what we could do; we have had enough of that,” he says. At the back of the room, Morton and Finklestein nod appreciatively at what they are seeing and hearing.

On the other side of the country, in the Liberal-held marginal seat of Swan in Perth, Morrison was endorsed a day later by the unmistakable figure of Tony Galati, a potato farmer turned independent grocer who now lives on billionaire’s row in Mosman.

Dressed in his ubiquitous work shorts and sleeveless shirt, Galati explained that he’d contacted the Morrison campaign and asked to come and meet the PM. “I am not into politics,” he says. “I care because I think if we go the other way a lot of Australians will be sorry. My opinion is that in the last 10 years Australia has been a good place to be. Why go with the unknown?”

At the centre of the government’s final pitch is the proposal to enable first home buyers to put some of their superannuation savings towards a deposit. Although it was only announced last Sunday, senior Liberal figures now describe it as the signature policy of the campaign.

Morrison has spent all week promoting with it a convert’s zeal. Whenever Morrison talks about the policy, he repeats a three word slogan: It’s your money. The Liberal Party believes this phrase, carefully work-shopped in focus groups, has a potency beyond the housing debate in places like Werriwa.

Could the Liberal campaign in Gough’s old seat be an elaborate bluff to protect a weak hand? You can’t count it out but Mark Latham, the former Labor MP who used to hold it, doesn’t think so. “Morrison wasn’t there today for a haircut,” he says.

Anthony Albanese and his partner Jodie Haydon on Fitzroy Island in Queensland.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Latham, who is now a One Nation MP in the NSW upper house, explains the electorate has moved geographically since he held it and now contains more aspirational housing estates and developments. Old fibro homes are being pulled down and replaced by double stored brick renders and Latham says there is also a cultural renovation underway.

“The penny has dropped for conservative ethnic groups that Labor is no longer with them on religions freedom and gender issues,” he says. Latham expects these issues will also show up in Saturday’s vote tally in seats like Parramatta and Greenway.

The community centre where Morrison visits is stacked with Liberal Party volunteers. In modern campaigns, the parties rarely expose their leader to a room of genuinely undecided voters. Faiyaz Ali, a 50 year old IT worker, has lived in the seat for 18 years, says the best thing about this election is that a seat long discounted by the Liberals now has the full attention of both major parties.

“I haven’t seen this kind of push in the past,” he says. “Politicians are reaching out to ordinary people. People feel that all of a sudden, they are interested in us.”

Where the first few weeks of the campaign were notable for the absence of a substantive policy divide, the competing ideas on housing have created a clear choice for young couples trying to buy a home. The Liberals say they can dip into the super, Labor’s is offering governing to partner them through a shared equity scheme.

The most telling exchange on this came during Morrison’s appearance on A Current Affair this week. Host Tracy Grimshaw subjected the PM to a bruising interrogation about his failings of leadership. It was a rough 15 minutes of television, but the PM’s campaign team would have liked how this came out:

“It is not their money until they retire,” Grimshaw said. “They are supposed to save it until they retire to keep them off the pension.

Morrison: “No, I’m sorry Tracey, it is their money. It is their money. It is not owned by the super fund, it is not owned by the government, it belongs to them.”

It is common ground in this campaign that people don’t want the next three years to be like the years Australia has just experienced. The question facing voters is whether the government needs to change or merely the times.

Albanese has been on the offensive in the final week of his campaign. His travel list has been almost exclusively Liberal-held seats: Brisbane, Pearce, Hasluck, Swan, Bennelong, Dickson, Ryan. Only the Italian event was on Labor ground – in Fowler, which would be safe for the party if not for residual angst at having parachuted Kristina Keneally.

Both parties have now accepted they may not be able to govern in their own right.

“How many greens do you need?” an educator at the Perth childcare centre asked Albanese who was searching for shapes to finish his puzzle. If he gets to 75 seats in the lower house, he’ll need just one Green – Adam Bandt.

Labor believes community anger towards Morrison for his handling of the pandemic is still simmering beneath the surface of this campaign and some Liberals agree. On the day Morrison spoke to an Australia-Israel Chamber of Commerce lunch in Melbourne, Liberal Party elder Michael Kroger offered a frank assessment of the public mood.

“There is a narky undercurrent, a feature that people are angry and they will hit whoever comes along,” Kroger says. “That could be Scott.”

In his final press conference before all polling booths open, Morrison spoke directly to people who will be tempted to punish the government for the miserable years of the pandemic. “Australians have been doing it tough and yes, they are fatigued and tired,” he said. I understand that frustration but what is important is we channel our decisions and our focus on what comes next.”

He also has a blunt message about the past two years; never again.

“I’ll tell you what we are not going back to,” he told reports in a new housing estate in Armstrong Creek on the edge of Geelong earlier this week. “We are not going back to those daily press conferences of people talking about COVID every day and putting the threat of shut downs and lockdowns and interfering in people’s lives.”

Albanese says Australia’s post-pandemic problems require urgent action that Morrison won’t take. He talks of crises in skills training, aged care, child care and the rising cost of living and says he is offering practical solutions.

“All of the problems which are there now will be worse, unless you have a government that looks beyond the 24 hour media cycle and addresses the challenges,” he says. “This government is tired. They’re not even pretending at this election that they have an agenda for this term, let alone next one.

“It seems to me that changing the government after the crisis that we have had, a pandemic, is precisely the right time to change. Because you need new ideas, a new energy.”

The problem for Labor is that, in this campaign, Morrison is the one who appears energised. He will fly home to Sydney today with the wind at his tail. Albanese has one more day to weather the storm.

Additional reporting James Massola

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