Australian Federal Election 2022 - Parliament House
ComplianceLegalTax & AccountingMarch 23, 2022

Australian Federal Election 2022: The current state of affairs – Part 2

This Federal Election analysis is brought to you by the CCH Political Alert team of experienced Parliament and government analysts.

The scare campaign

Among the prominent media commentators, there is a widespread view that the Government’s recent scare campaigns on national security, defence and, to a lesser extent, the economy are not cutting through and are unlikely to do so.

Nine newspapers’ chief political correspondent David Crowe argued that scare campaigns could work but are not on this occasion. He wrote: “Scare campaigns are ugly but scare campaigns work. Ask John Howard, who ran hard on border security in 2001 and knocked Labor off-balance well before September 11 changed the election campaign. Knowing that history, Labor caucus members naturally respond to Morrison by complaining about his big scare. But complaining about a scare does not stop it. Having the media on your side does not stop it, either”.

But he also wrote that Labor had successfully handled the Government’s attempt to develop a scare campaign over its changes to the immigration character test and the firearms legislation. “Albanese and the key frontbenchers, including Home Affairs spokeswoman Kristina Keneally and multicultural affairs spokesman Andrew Giles, could see the train wreck ahead if they went to the election blocking a Bill that did not give the government the power it wanted to deport someone convicted of assault.

“The refugee advocates were not happy, but they understood Labor’s position. And they had a calculation to make, also. Did they want a Labor government that stops the use of temporary protection visas for thousands of refugees? Or did they assume Labor is certain of victory and could take any political risk in the campaign to come? According to Labor’s report on why it lost, one of the lessons from the last campaign was that too many stakeholders “banked” a Labor victory and started arguing over the spoils too soon. In the end, of course, they were all left fighting over nothing.

“This is the reality of managing a scare campaign. Albanese and the leadership team calculated that the danger of a government attack on the “character test” was serious. At the same time, the actual change to the law was not significant enough to warrant a rejection. According to the government, this was a backdown – and a humiliating one. Immigration Minister Alex Hawke got what he wanted. 

However, his success was undercut by his admission that the government would run out of time to get the Bill through the Senate before the election. “So, it was a wedge, not an urgent change. Even so, Albanese made sure to turn up in Parliament to stand on the same side as Morrison when the vote was held.”

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“Labor saw the next scare coming. Morrison signalled in the media he would challenge Labor to pass a change to firearms law that would impose mandatory sentencing on offenders – something caucus members have rejected in the past. However, this time, Albanese knew it would need to pass with Labor’s support. To do otherwise would invite another claim that he was soft on crime.

“Labor’s manager in the lower house, Tony Burke, moved on Thursday to suspend standing orders and launch the debate on the firearms bill. This took the government by surprise, with no ministers ready to speak, but Dutton responded quickly by putting the bill to a vote as soon as possible. It passed the House.”

“Within minutes, Labor reversed years of policy and sacrificed its old concern that mandatory sentences were wrong because they imposed an outcome on judges. It was another back down. But it was a rational political move to clear the decks for the election. “It will be an angry, vicious campaign,” says one Labor frontbencher. “They are going to go hard on driving wedges, attacking individual character, relying on fear and stoking division.”

In Nine newspapers, commentator Niki Savva wrote that Mr Morrison has ramped up the scare campaign. She said, “Given how clever Morrison has been with numbers, the inescapable conclusion is that he has calculated. Eventually, his fear campaign will work in his favour, not because people see him as their protector or their saviour, but because he has become the devil they know.”

She noted, “Morrison’s Trumpian, extravagant attacks on the opposition over China, which went way beyond the usual weaponising of national security, were dangerous, unprecedented and calculated.

“Ignoring warnings from the serving head of ASIO, Mike Burgess, and the former head of ASIO, Dennis Richardson, that he should stop. Otherwise, he risked damaging the national interest. Morrison continued to bludgeon. He was involved in some undeclared macho contest with Peter Dutton to see who could take out the Opposition Leader. He was prepared to lose skin to get the issue up, even though when people are looking for a safe pair of hands, it looked as smart as taking your mask off while welding.”

In The Australian, the conservative commentator Paul Kelly wrote of the dangers in Mr Morrison’s scare campaign. He wrote, “It is nearly two generations since China was an issue at an Australian national election, but the Morrison government sent the indelible message this week that it wants national security and strength against China injected into the coming election context.

“This will be a daunting task with many different risks. The risk for ALP leader Anthony Albanese is being branded as soft on national security, while the risk for Scott Morrison is that his three-year successful pushback against Beijing’s intimidation of Australia will now be discredited as a mere political project.

“Morrison will run this campaign until voting day. The government’s deepest fear is that Albanese might win the election without having his history, values and character being brutally assessed. Above all, this campaign is driven by a huge Liberal tactical mistake – while Labor has branded Morrison for 12 months as a lying, cheap marketing man, the Morrison government has singularly failed to brand Albanese.”

In The Conversation, Michelle Grattan wrote, “Simon Welsh of the Redbridge Group, a Labor aligned consultancy firm, says its focus group research has been finding people have a general sense of tension increasing in the world. So far, however, that still sits behind their concern with the domestic bread and butter issues. But, as of now, we are in a dynamic, rapidly changing situation. Morrison is trying to bring China – on which he is attempting to wedge Labor – into the Ukraine story. “’ China, of course, is watching this very carefully,’ Morrison said. ‘And that’s why I’ve been at pains to say that China needs to take as strong a position as other countries in the world and in denouncing what Russia is doing.’”

In Nine newspapers, Sean Kelly argued that Mr Morrison is trying to capitalise on voter anxiety. “While it might at first sound trivial, one of the most striking features of last week in politics was the clash of emotional atmospheres, as NSW and Victoria announced the removal of several pandemic restrictions. Singing and dancing were back! QR codes were mostly gone! Density limits were on their way out! These are real changes with real impacts on how people feel about their lives. “Once upon a time, Scott Morrison’s government would have focused its energies upon such news. But last week, it seemed instead to be committed to manufacturing quite a different vibe. One after another, the scare campaigns being rolled out have variously been called out as a little desperate, or (not a trivial point) potentially harmful to our national interests.”

“But what was just as notable was the shift towards depicting a nation in which we were suddenly up against a series of crises, with some vague and vibey sense of law-and-order/national security at their centre. Criminals had to be deported, firearms seized, China stood up to. The disaster was just one parliamentary vote away.”

“Scott Morrison is trying to shift the election campaign onto issues where he believes Anthony Albanese is weak, national security and law and order. This is, intriguingly, almost the opposite of what Morrison promised at the last election. Then, Morrison promised quietness. He was not planning to do much, and we would not have to pay attention. He was making politics as small as possible. Now, he is shouting at us. He is making politics as large as it can be. He is attempting to usher us into a national mood defined by the presence of crisis. The reason is obvious: he needs our attention as he attempts to reframe a political debate he has recently been losing. As with so much in politics, this makes sense in political terms but absolutely none in any other context. Too much is being sacrificed.”

He also wrote, “In waiting until the last moment to call an election, Morrison is, in part, waiting for something to happen. It is still possible that events arrive that make his confected approach seem an appropriate and organic approach to the world as it is. After all, he just got one, in the form of the speech from ASIO chief Mike Burgess warning of foreign interference in our elections. The Chinese laser incident was perhaps another, and Russia might yet provide one more.”

In Nine newspapers, David Crowe argued the Government was seeking to play on anxieties that were not confined to defence and national security. “Australians will be told competing for horror stories in the coming election campaign to tap into genuine anxiety about events close to home and around the world. Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese both want voters to worry about the future to convince the community their opponent is a risk.

“The latest Resolve Political Monitor suggests the Labor leader has a more compelling tale. Morrison and his cabinet ministers have been assuring Australians they have a plan for the economic recovery that will deliver stronger growth, more jobs and a better standard of living. Voters are not so sure. The new survey shows lower confidence compared to the moment of sunshine before the Omicron variant swept through the community, and it shows many workers do not expect to see their incomes grow at all this year.

“So when Albanese tells voters they need a change of government to help lift wages and tackle the cost of living, his message touches real anxiety about the years ahead. The outlook index in the Resolve Political Monitor sums up these concerns. Based on whether people feel the national outlook is getting better or worse, the index stood at 110 points in October but fell during Omicron and landed at 88 points in January. It rose to 96 in February but remains lower than at any point since winter. This is a worried electorate that does not trust government claims about sunny days ahead.”

Michelle Grattan also sought to explain why Scott Morrison had shifted from the Coalition’s potential strength on the economy to national security. “A crisis gives the PM a potent new focus. As Paul Kelly observes in his just-published book Morrison’s Mission: How a beginner reshaped Australian foreign policy, “Morrison’s character is that of a compulsive political activist. He is always on the move, talking, travelling, doing.”

“Labor is leading comfortably in the polls, but for Anthony Albanese, the Ukraine crisis presents, at the very least, a political challenge. This is not a matter of a wedge – no one can suggest any lack of bipartisanship over Ukraine. Labor was immediately and solidly behind the initial sanctions, and Albanese will ensure it will continue in step with the government. But such a major conflict, even one far removed and in which we are not directly involved, changes the domestic atmosphere and plays to the status quo”.

How the switch to defence and national security and the rising atmosphere of threat from the Russian invasion of Ukraine plays for Scott Morrison’s re-election strategy will become more apparent over the coming weeks. But the initial soundings from opinion polls at the early stages of the national security campaign are not promising for the Coalition.

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