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Leaders eye federal election while vision falls by the wayside

The Prime Minister’s rhetorical contribution to the role of Australia Day in the public consciousness is to assert that January 26, 1788 – the date when British ships landed in Sydney Cove – was not “a particularly flash day” for those who arrived here on the First Fleet. Note the offhand colloquialism, deployed deliberately.

The Prime Minister faced a backlash after his First Fleet comments.

The Prime Minister faced a backlash after his First Fleet comments.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

When government backbenchers and even the deputy prime minister spout pro-Trump talking points after Trump has orchestrated an attempted neo-fascist takeover of the US government, for the PM it’s just a matter of free speech. But should a few Big Bash clubs approach Australia Day differently, they warrant an instant prime ministerial rebuke for getting political.

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That is an especially piquant criticism because the prime minister is perhaps the most political national leader of modern times. Having seen Tony Abbott go too hard on right-wing economic policies and then witnessed Malcolm Turnbull try to be a ‘progressive’ liberal and a conservative warrior at the same time, Morrison pointedly runs his government managerially, from nowhere and everywhere on his party’s political spectrum.

His purpose is to get the government re-elected by doing whatever needs to be done to achieve that end. Not for him the grand gesture, the bold reform. His job is to get through each day. History will likely record that his government oversaw a successful response to COVID-19, no little thing. But the success has often been built on ceding decisions on restrictions, closures and even quarantine – a Commonwealth responsibility – to state premiers.

Premier Daniel Andrews speaks to the media about the state’s pandemic response.

Premier Daniel Andrews speaks to the media about the state’s pandemic response.Credit:Joe Armao

Similarly, the government may well come to be seen to have eventually taken meaningful action on climate change. But historians will probably search in vain for the series of Morrison speeches extolling his devotion to the cause. He will not risk upsetting his party and many of his voters by taking an overt stand; instead, it must be done under the table.

Morrison’s method works because he applies it as the incumbent prime minister. The Labor leader Anthony Albanese, on the other hand, is pursuing a riskier course from opposition based on his reading of what thwarted the ALP’s chances at the 2019 election. He says Shorten’s lack of popularity and an offering of too many policies was the problem and as a result, he’s waiting until the last moment to reveal all. It’s a convenient position for a seasoned politician who over the years has not been regarded a big ideas man.

Bill Shorten (left) and Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese.

Bill Shorten (left) and Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

The longer he puts things off, the harder it will be to sell his policies to voters. The talk within the caucus about replacing Albanese before Morrison calls an election is real. It could come to nothing, but Shorten’s public intervention this week increases the possibility of a challenge.

What is focusing the minds of caucus members who are becoming increasingly desperate about Labor’s position is that another election loss would give the Coalition 11 years in office – equivalent to the Howard era.

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Despite what Albanese’s backers say, the caucus rule supposedly prohibiting a mid-term challenge is a straw man. If anything close to half of the caucus was to support a no-confidence motion in the leader, the rule would be exposed for what it was: a hasty pre-election fix when Kevin Rudd was reinstated only weeks ahead of the 2013 election. A spill would follow.

In this time of small-bore politics, the ALP’s outlook at a national level does look bleak. But no one can say it is sleepwalking towards a nasty election experience; it has its eyes well and truly open.

Shaun Carney is a regular columnist.

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