The shellacking the South Australian Liberal government suffered at the weekend shattered myths that have dominated the past three years and it spells big trouble for the Morrison government in Canberra.
The first is that the pandemic has acted as a sort of vaccine against defeat for incumbent governments – after all three have had significant victories during its worst days.
There was no such inoculation for Steven Marshall’s Liberal government despite a previous two years of success in holding the contagion at bay. On Sunday the Prime Minister did not venture an explanation – only the observation that this election was fought “on state issues”.
Of course it was, but the Morrison government’s incompetence in preparing Australia for the Omicron surge over the summer with a lack of rapid antigen tests, a low third vaccine booster shot uptake and the urging of the premier to open up early cannot be discounted.
Nor can the reminder that South Australia’s health system is not unique among the states for a desperate need of better resourcing and upgraded delivery that is a shared responsibility with Canberra.
The disruption to the family reunions and holiday plans of millions of Australians and the surge in infections and deaths took a huge toll on the Prime Minister’s standing, as evidenced in a string of opinion polls this year, just as they did to the premier in South Australia.
Sure, the ructions that rocked the state government with scandals and defections to the cross bench sapped voters’ confidence in its stability and unity, issues that were skilfully exploited by Labor with its energetic and articulate leader Peter Malinauskas.
Morrison comforts himself with the thought that “Anthony Albanese is not Peter Malinauskas” – and for good measure he reminded us that his Labor opponent is not any of the other premiers.
He especially nominated Queensland’s Annastacia Palaszczuk and Western Australia’s Mark McGowan.
Albanese is certainly his spruced-up self and unfortunately for the Prime Minister the opinion polls are finding that Australians see in him an acceptable alternative. More than that, they see the Labor Party as a much more attractive proposition than the Coalition.
Saturday’s Adelaide result challenged another myth that opinion polls can no longer be relied on as a measure of what’s happening in the electorate.
Campbell White, whose YouGov organisation conducts the Newspoll, proudly points to the success of its refreshed methodology in correctly picking up the state-wide swing to Labor not only on Saturday but also for the Queensland and WA state elections.
White told The Australian, YouGov has used the “opportunity to move polling into the 21st century by shifting to online polling using targeted, stratified sampling methods”.
The closer the election gets the more predictive the polls become simply because they are measuring contemporary attitudes.
And if those attitudes have been hardening as they appear to be in the Morrison government’s regard, is it little wonder that federal Liberals are worried, very worried?
Labor research in South Australia found that Scott Morrison was a serious negative for brand Liberal in the state. They had corflutes at polling booths picturing the premier with the PM.
Opposition Senate leader Penny Wong, a South Australian, said the research found one in two voters were less inclined to vote for Marshall’s candidates when reminded they were of the same party as the Prime Minister.
A similar reaction is being picked up in New South Wales, which is a particular concern for Liberals facing challenges from progressive independents in their hitherto safe urban seats.
Liberal Party research in the state has found former premier Gladys Berejiklian is even more popular now than she was in office and she will be begged to campaign for these besieged Liberals.
Scott Morrison, on the other hand, is reported to be viewed as “toxic” to the government’s chances and will be asked to stay away. Surely a futile strategy in this day and age of mass media and mobile devices.
Labor’s national president Wayne Swan says the “person who has done the most damage to the Liberal party brand in Australia in the last three years is Scott Morrison”.
He says the SA result “should have all of his MPs trembling.”
Swan believes the weaponisation of Labor Senator Kimberley Kitching’s death against the party is only the beginning of desperate politics from a sinking government.
The problem for front-running Anthony Albanese is it is not only the Liberals playing grubby politics – the bitter Labor sub-factional war in Victoria has been feeding the “bullying” narrative against the party.
Now that the senator has been laid to rest, there is a hope her “family and friends in the party” will lay down their cudgels. The fear is they will put saving their own diminishing power in the party ahead of defeating Scott Morrison.
It may be unwarranted pessimism. The Liberals have an internecine war of their own in NSW and voters tend not to vote on the dark arts but rather who they judge will best look after their interests.
Last weekend, state factors or not, lends weight to that judgment going against the Liberals.
Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics