As the longest-serving member of the Canberra press gallery, Rob Chalmers could be expected to have been old school.
Chalmers, who toiled in the galleries, Old Parliament House and New, from 1951 to 2011, was many things and being old school was definitely one of them.
He had indecipherable shorthand, loved a longish lunch, always opened a conversation with a question and during the latter half of his career kept a whiteboard next to his keyboard.
The words on this meticulously tended scorecard changed frequently. They were divided into two columns, one listing the reasons why the government of the day might win re-election, the other why that might not happen.
It wasn’t a perfect guide to politics but it was as good as you’d get scouring the half dozen or so national and metropolitan daily newspapers and listening to the ABC news and current affairs in the morning.
The 2003/04 election temperature gauge was fascinating. While Simon Crean ruled the roost in the ALP, John Howard had his nose well in front but things swung the other way after Mark Latham took over the Labor leadership.
Latham might have put Labor back in the game but in the closing months, the wily Howard willed victory his way. On Chalmers’s board of pros and cons, the top reason Howard might win was “Latham”.
You could imagine Chalmers, who died just under a decade ago, doing something similar in 2019 with the word “Shorten” replacing Latham. He wouldn’t have missed the signs.
Remembering Chalmers 10 years after his death, the idea of constructing one of his whiteboard scorecards is timely and worthwhile.
Scott Morrison is still favourite to be re-elected when Australia goes to the polls, most probably in the fourth or fifth month of 2022. This poll was set for late this year but rolling political fumbles have pushed out that timetable.
In the “pros” column the top spot is held firmly by “handling the pandemic” which is shorthand for keeping Australians safe, protecting the country from the health emergency seen around the globe and softening the economic hammer blows feared – and expected – a year ago.
We have had our own experience of COVID but Australia has become one of the places everyone else in the world would rather be. Getting out of the health/economic crisis has astounded policymakers, politicians and the population.
As Morrison told the Business Council’s extravagant congratulatory dinner this week, Australia has come back “six months earlier and twice as fast”. This is the experience of many if not most voters who, as calculated by psychologist Abraham Maslow in his famous hierarchy of needs, will be inclined to reward the government.
So with big ticks on keeping Australians safe through the pandemic and protecting those same people in the face of the economic fallout, Morrison deserves to be at least the four- to five-on odds the bookies are posting.
The cons side of the whiteboard is where things get interesting for Morrison and his opponent Anthony Albanese.
The government’s biggest negative right now is that it’s failing on the vaccine rollout. It’s inexplicable given the room we’ve had to move on this front, but here we are. There is time for the government to get things back on track even if they have to get the states to do the hard work and claim victory for themselves. What they don’t have is much time – if they haven’t righted this ship by Budget time, they will be in trouble on that other vital front, competence.
This said, the one constant in this year of pandemic is uncertainty even if Australia has benefited on the upside more often than not. It’s easy to imagine Liberal/Nationals ads showing life in this country contrasted with scenes from the United States, Britain and Europe.
Morrison also has to convince a significant proportion of Australian women he understands their concerns and experience and is going to do something genuine about it. This is shaping as the most serious challenge Morrison has ever faced and, again, he is running down the clock on this problem.
It is more difficult than getting people to believe he wants to do something for the climate and energy debate that goes beyond pandering to the gas and resources corporations.
Morrison would like the climate debate to be in his “reasons to be re-elected” column because he thinks he’s managing to nudge the Coalition away from coal while keeping resource sector’s hi-viz workers in his tent. It might be an illusion of overconfidence, as some of his Nationals colleagues already believe.
Labor is hoping the climate/energy debate will drop out of the “pros” column for Morrison, where it was decisively in 2019.
On his whiteboard, Chalmers would have had many other issues listed on one side or the other. Exploiting the fear of China would be a plus for Morrison, as would his relentless backing of the military (despite some missteps here and there).
Failures would include worsening the plight of many in aged care, despite reports, exposés and increased spending. Not dealing with integrity issues and its many ramifications – cronyism, benefits for donors and the absence of accountability and transparency – will also figure.
Also, a government close to nine years old by the time of the election collects and carries disgruntlement from myriad decisions, baggage from scandals and general negative perceptions.
Elsewhere, the “political business” handicaps of unfavourable redistributions and retirements by an increasing number of sitting MPs also hinder Morrison’s chances.
The interesting aspect of any Chalmers whiteboard would be where the names Morrison and Albanese sit. The Prime Minister desperately wants to avoid being a reason for his government losing the election. After the last two and a half months, Morrison’s judgment can be listed as a reason to doubt re-election.
Meanwhile, the Labor leader won’t want to occupy the slot of shame Bill Shorten and Mark Latham found themselves in – as a reason people vote to re-elect the Coalition.
Looking at our imagined version of the Chalmers scorecard, the government has its nose in front but there are too many “cons” in the reasons against re-election for comfort. Scott Morrison has a lot of work to do – which is why he is looking harried and might be part of the reason he’s losing his grip.