It wasn’t meant to be like this.
Scott Morrison must have thought the job of prime minister was all too easy. Within two weeks of becoming leader, he was already leading the preferred prime minister rating over Labor leader Bill Shorten, was magically able to brush off all questions about how and why the Liberal Party removed Malcolm Turnbull in an August 24 coup, and it seemed like it was just a matter of speaking forcefully over the top of people and making up material on the run, and the return to an election-winning position would appear just around the corner.
But it also appears the day Morrison became prime minister, may also turn out to be his high-water mark. In the most recent Newspoll analysis, Morrison has now entered his own negativeland – 41 per cent of those polled are satisfied with his performance, while 44 per cent are dissatisfied.
This follows the events from the Wentworth by-election, where the Liberal Party lost the seat after a calamitous final two weeks in the campaign, where there was confusion about a consideration to move the Australian embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem; several backflips over the rights of religious schools to expel gay students – or not; uncertainty over whether asylum seeker children were going to be moved from Nauru; and the continued lack of action over climate change policy.
The two-party preferred vote is now 46 per cent for the Liberal National Party, and 54 per cent for the Labor, and with a uniform swing on election day, would result in a loss of at least 19 seats. This result is the 45th consecutive Newspoll result to have the LNP in an election-losing position, and the 150th election-losing result in all polls since August 2016.
While we can never discount future events on the political horizon, there are now so many factors stacked against Scott Morrison and the Liberal National Party, it’s difficult to see where the opportunities can appear for them to avoid the impending electoral disaster.
The redistribution of seats for the next general election means the LNP is nominally on 74 seats, Labor on 71 seats, and six crossbench MPs. The LNP will need to hold all of its currently held seats and gain at least one other, just to achieve the same position it’s in now.
No party has ever been consistently behind in the polls for so long, and managed to win a general election. The only historical equivalence the LNP can point to is the 1992 British election, where the Labour Party was ahead in all polling for almost three years, but ended up losing on election night. But the British system is a first-past-the-post system, and polling methodology has changed substantially since that time.
And the most critical factor: time. Realistically, there are only two opportunities for the Prime Minister to hold an election – early March or mid-May 2019. The latest a general election can be held is May 18 2019, but there are many obstacles in the pathway of earlier dates, and even May 18 will hold significant problems. The election would need to be called soon after the NSW election on 23 March – risking voter fatigue in Australia’s largest state –and the campaign would have the combined effects of Easter holidays and Anzac Day in the middle.
For a government that currently has little traction, the scheduling of the next election will be difficult. Governments choose a date that provides them with the best chance of winning an election or, conversely, the least chance of losing an election, and it’s the latter territory the Liberal National Party finds itself in, where it will trying to save the electoral furniture and appeal to the narrow base that it keeps convincing itself it needs to hold onto.
In the absence of substance, the government will continue with its scatter-gun approach to announcements and stunts, the latest promise from Minister for Energy Angus Taylor to “reduce electricity prices” from January 1 2019 is as hollow as former Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s promise of a $550 household savings “windfall” back in 2013 after repealing the carbon tax.
It’s unclear why the government has chosen energy as its battleground. Politically, it has been a disaster for them since Malcolm Turnbull decided to attack the South Australian Government’s energy plan in early 2017 and focused attention on “bringing electricity prices down”.
It’s a market it now has very little control over, and has no policy mechanism in place to manipulate prices, except for Minister Taylor’s suggestion that he will write to electricity providers so they undertake and ensure “sizeable reductions in current standing offers for your electricity customers are in place effective 1 January 2019”. That will be some kind of special writing skill if the Minister manages to pull this off.
But the chances of reduced energy prices before the next election are slim, as are the government’s chances of victory at the next general election, irrespective of which date Scott Morrison chooses.