It’s clear Anthony Albanese and his Labor team are not out to create great art – as the precisely cautious campaign launch at the halfway point of this election illustrated.
Francis Ford Coppola – one of the all-time greatest filmmakers whose masterpiece The Godfather is being celebrated 50 years since its first screening – was once asked what it took to make great art.
He offered a single word: “Risk”.
Coppola went on to elaborate a little, saying he was never afraid of risk.
“I always had a good philosophy about risks,” Coppola said in an interview 11 years ago. “The only risk is to waste your life, so that when you die, you say, ‘Oh, I wish I had done this’. I did everything I wanted to do, and I continue to.”
Deconstructing the way the 2019 campaign unfolded into the worst nightmare a leader and party can awake to – losing the supposed unloseable poll – Albanese and Labor decided early on not to take risks, not to allow Scott Morrison to roll out his one magic trick, the ability to grab a controversial proposal and divide and conquer.
Three years ago Morrison did this by exploiting fears and anxieties about Labor’s big, bold, risky tax-and-spend plans, a tactical search and destroy mission turbo-charged by the toxic unpopularity of the ALP leader Bill Shorten.
Author and political columnist Sean Kelly, who wrote a political/psychological study of Morrison called The Game, identifies this as the Coalition leader’s defining tactic of creating binary choices.
“Without an opponent to simplistically position against, Morrison has struggled to define himself,” Kelly said this week.
“The formula this has led him to is almost aphoristic in its vagueness: He is known while his opponent is unknown.”
This is where Labor has demonstrated it has Morrison’s measure so far in this campaign and, absent any wayward behaviour like the first-week stumbles Albanese fell into, could be the pavement to victory.
Labor’s Perth launch represents all you need to know about the tactical and strategic agility of a party which just three years ago wrote new chapters in the Wikipedia entry for political mistakes but has learned from every one of them.
The location was central. The party has its best chance of winning additional seats in Western Australia – probably three; Swan, Pearce and Hasluck – and its quest is helped by having on hand the most popular political leader in the country, Mark McGowan.
McGowan’s speech was all federal Labor and Albanese could have hoped for. He was, in turns, parochial, self-deprecating and exultant of the ALP’s ability to manage public finances.
The premier who has his hands on the best set of accounts in the country could not be challenged.
Also, McGowan hit Morrison where it really hurt. He linked the foolish decision by the Coalition government to intervene in 2020 on the side of Clive Palmer to lift the border restrictions in the west to the equally foolish move by the Liberal and Nationals to give the mining billionaire’s United Australia Party electoral oxygen through preferences.
Against this gold-star warm-up, Albanese rolled out a series of solid Labor plans for everything from implementing “in full” Uluru Statement from the Heart to having electric vehicle charging stations to make it possible to drive an EV across the Nullarbor and putting nurses in nursing homes “24/7”.
There was plenty more, but none of it was sharp enough, big enough or controversial enough to allow the political killer instincts Morrison relies upon to kick into gear.
Morrison has lashed at two aspects of Albanese’s launch speech. He dismisses contemptuously the idea of having a referendum on an Indigenous “voice” to Parliament – something that won’t help the Coalition vote in Far North Queensland, the Northern Territory or some of those inner metropolitan, supposedly safe Liberal seats under insurgent attack from independents.
The other issue he wants to meld as a connection with middle Australia is the ALP plan to allow a modest number of lower-income earners to get into the housing market through a shared equity scheme.
These have been used successfully in other countries and are supported by various state governments. Morrison backed similar schemes in 2008 and 2017, but now he reckons it’s a sneaky way of Labor grabbing capital gains from the family home.
If it was a bigger scheme, one that is easier for people to grasp in detail or it looked more sinister than it is, Morrison might be onto something. As it is, he looks like a tired vaudeville act trying to work up the crowd with material at least two seasons old.
Morrison exposed his campaigning weakness in the lead-up to calling the election when he branded Albanese a “blank sheet of paper”. In the minds of many Australians this has been true and most are only now getting some idea of who the Labor leader is and what he’s interested in doing.
For the Liberal leader, this is a fatal flaw in the old magic trick. How can you create a binary choice if the so-called bad thing is a “blank sheet of paper”?
Today that weakness is up in lights when Morrison becomes the story, with the binary choice facing voters seen as tough times under him or the promise of “better” under Albanese.
The Reserve Bank, as expected, raised the official cash rate on Tuesday afternoon with a “super-sized” increase and the question of Morrison’s record as an economic manager is the hot topic whether he likes it or not.
Morrison’s response – saying everyone knew it wasn’t his fault – shows just how much he really doesn’t like being on the losing side of a binary choice.
That he’s there courtesy of Albanese’s superior campaigning is in his head and it’s making a noise he can’t stand.