Had the Labor Party strategists asked that question of the former marketing man – returned as Australia’s prime minister – ahead of last week’s election, they might have learnt he was everywhere. And much closer than they thought.
Morrison wasn’t supposed to win, at least not according to opinion polls that tracked his fractured, crotchety and tired centre-right coalition as trailing Labor into and during the five-week campaign.
Instead, Morrison, the 51-year-old master reinventor, switched to Energizer Bunny mode and launched a lean, solo, presidential-style campaign that criss-crossed his country’s 4000km width, defying the gravity of Labor’s 25,000 volunteers and its younger, sharper front bench, unified by six disciplined years in opposition.
He was a one-man frenzy who convinced enough voters in the right seats that if Labor’s Bill Shorten was shifty, then so were his party and policies. Morrison, threadbare on his own policies – save for tax cuts – ensured voter attention was on Shorten’s elaborate and risky manifesto that sought to redistribute wealth.
At its core, Labor’s policy was designed to move money from the rich to the poorer; the well-off, including the comfortably retired, would pay more tax.
The proceeds would then be used to hike Government spending on education, health, childcare, combating climate change and more – the things voters for years have said they want.
Labor’s spending plans were ambitious: there was an extra A$22 billion for nationwide infrastructure, A$16 billion for climate change and renewable energy and A$8 billion for health. It all added up to at least A$60 billion. To fund it, Labor planned to curb tax breaks for shareholders and property investors and for superannuation. It would tax proliferating family trusts and hit high-income earners by taxing them more.
It amounted to the redistribution of money from the wealthier to Australia’s low- and middle-income earners on a scale not seen in the lifetime of most voters.
And, of course, it created legions of losers – quite of few them loaded. Morrison simply had to storm the country with one killer line: “Labor can’t manage money, so they’ll come after yours.”
Many believed him. Worse for Shorten, in working-class regions – especially across Queensland and New South Wales coal country – the Labor vote leached away amid perceptions that green left city folk had captured the party’s climate-change policy and turned the party against coal miners and blue-collar workers.
Since his teens in Melbourne, the 52-year-old earnest former union lawyer has been burning to be a Labor prime minister. He is more reticent, less revealing, than ebullient reinventor Morrison. Shorten is an avowed republican who chose a governor-general’s daughter as his vivacious second wife. The backroom operator also had large roles in removing two Labor prime ministers.
It seems that in Shorten, voters were unsure the man they were seeing was the one they would get.
That could not be said of his policies. They were writ large, long and loud. But their rejection – for reasons right or wrong – must mean no Australian political leader will any time soon go to the people with a detailed plan. That is too easy a target for a canny opponent with no real plan of his or her own.
That’s a loss for democracy. Now Labor needs a new leader. Or a casting director.
This article was first published in the June 1, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.