Coalition’s khaki election risks turning into Dad’s Army
“We have known for a very long time that Sogavare did not have our interests at heart,“Jennings says, declaring Australia should have taken a tougher stand sooner, given it was obvious where things were heading from September 2019 when Solomons switched recognition from Taipei to Beijing.
“Our softly softly approached led him [Sogavare] to believe he could get away with anything,” Jennings says.
He believes the government should enact emergency procurement measures to buy equipment such as missiles to lend weight to Morrison’s “red line” threats and that Australia should have had the foresight to offer Solomon Islands a naval base years ago, although he suspects the defence establishment would have opposed it.
Jennings says Defence Minister Peter Dutton has been frustrated by the bureaucratic intransigence, Morrison had been more relaxed and Foreign Affairs had a resigned air of helplessness. By the time news of the agreement between China and the Solomons broke, it was already too late.
Morrison disparaged Labor’s pledge to establish a Pacific defence school to train the armed forces of nearby nations, to increase foreign aid, add $12 million a year for the Pacific Maritime Security program, revamp temporary workers visas and to fund the ABC to enable it to resume transmission to the region as “the Q&A solution”.
It’s that kind of immaturity, like accusing Labor of being on China’s side (that led the audience in the first debate on Sky last week to groan audibly), which keeps Morrison as a key issue in the campaign.
If that was all that went poorly for the government it would be bad enough, but it wasn’t.
Rampaging inflation means Reserve Bank governor Philip Lowe has to increase interest rates unless he wants to risk structural damage to the economy and his own reputation. But there is no guarantee in this campaign that the switch in focus to the economy will cement the government’s standing as the superior managers.
Liberals insist ongoing fears of the risk of change can still work to their advantage. Labor reckons cost of living is their issue.
Add to that the divide in the Coalition between bush and city over climate change. Senior National Matt Canavan says the net zero by 2050 target is dead while the candidate for Flynn sees it as an optional extra.
Nationals including Darren Chester, former leader Michael McCormack and Michelle Landry lined up to tell Matt Canavan to pull his head in. So did his very good friend Barnaby Joyce. Chester likened Canavan to the last Japanese soldier emerging from the jungle years after the war ended.
Nationals believe the appearance – as well as the fact – of disunity will cost the government more votes in the south than it gains in the north, that seats like Nicholls in Victoria which the party is struggling to hold will now be at greater risk, not to mention the inner urban Liberal seats like Kooyong, Wentworth, North Sydney and Curtin.
Morrison’s sly description of Labor’s climate policy as a “sneaky” carbon tax won’t wash in those seats where climate change rates highly – a point Josh Frydenberg showed he understands fully by his much more robust response.
While many voters have yet to make the leap to Albanese, if the election were held today Labor would win. But it isn’t.
There is still enough time for the Coalition to scrape its way if not to outright victory then to hung parliament territory, although Labor insiders tracking Morrison’s movements are intrigued by his visits to seats they reckon he has no hope of winning.
“He’s trying to fake it because they can’t send him to seats where they are in trouble,” one said. Maybe. Or maybe he knows something they don’t, particularly around the Hunter in NSW.
When Albanese emerges from COVID isolation there will be only 22 days of campaigning left, including Labor’s formal launch in Perth on Sunday. That’s his chance to recast. Much as Labor believes China’s deal with Solomons has punched a hole in the government’s national security credentials, it welcomes the refocus on the economy.
Albanese has to convince Australians they are worse off now than they were three years ago, that he is safe, and they can trust him to do better, then hold his own in the remaining debates. Every moment of every day will matter.
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