Scott Morrison has finally called an election, but his reputational battle with Anthony Albanese is well underway. Elections are commonly decided on leadership perceptions; are they strong, capable, caring, decisive? The character of candidates is seen as crucial to the outcome, and right now Albanese is winning the character contest.
Morrison had been struggling with the fall out of the Brittany Higgins allegations and the behaviour of several ministers when he seized on allegations that Labor’s late Senator Kimberly Kitching had been ganged up on by colleagues to portray Albanese as one of the bully boys.
Any traction Morrison had was undercut when Liberal Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells launched an extraordinary budget night broadside, stating the PM was “an autocrat and a bully.. lacking a moral compass and having no conscience.”
“In my public life I have met ruthless people,” she said. “Morrison tops the list.”
It was damaging not just as it was friendly fire, but because if fuelled existing doubts about Morrison’s character following the leaking of several text from his colleagues, including Gladys Berejiklian who stated he was “a horrible, horrible person”, and Barnaby Joyce suggesting he was a “hypocrite and a liar”.
Political leaders usually begin their terms with a ‘bank’ of reputational credit, which is gradually eroded due to missteps, misfortune and unfolding events. There are only so many ‘I don’t hold a hose’ remarks that any leader can afford.
Momentum is running against the Prime Minister, who is wearing most of the blame for a slow response to the floods in Queensland and New South Wales, and these extreme weather events highlight the realities of climate change. I suspect the widespread, taxpayer funded advertising campaign promoting our push to net zero has done little to override the image of Morrison in Parliament, joyfully wielding a lump of coal.
Past battles have also resurfaced, with allegations that Morrison kneecapped a preselection rival by suggesting people wouldn’t vote for a Lebanese who looked like a Muslim.
Meanwhile Albanese has been pursuing a small target strategy, staying silent as the chorus of criticisms of Morrison rises from his own ranks. He has quietly undergone a makeover, slimmed down and been popped into some well cut suits.
Although he may not be a known quantity to much of the electorate, the strategy seems to be working. According to the latest Roy Morgan Research trust monitor, Albanese isn’t the most trusted politician in the house - that honour goes to Labor Senator Penny Wong - he sits at number two. And the most distrusted politician in the country, Scott Morrison.
Morrison is a canny campaigner and his mission over the next six weeks is to turn those perceptions around. In the absence of any significant missteps from Albanese, it is difficult to see that happening.