When Morrison took over as prime minister in 2018, he held a similar position to what Albanese currently holds. At the time, a Labor man told Michelle Grattan: “The Prime Minister is a blank canvas. Both parties try to fill in the colors.
But by the time the campaign began, Morrison had won that contest. He had filled in the colors himself, mostly with Cronulla’s blue and black.
Not too long ago, it looked like Morrison was trying to win this contest again – but this time the fight was on Albanese’s blank canvas. Using a variety of parliamentary tactics, Morrison attempted to color his opponent, portraying him as a specific risk: someone who would be weak on national security and public order, hostage to the left of his party.
At some point over the past few weeks, this strategy changed in subtle but important ways. At yesterday’s press conference, Albanese – unlike Shorten three years ago – was not mentioned once. The contrast was stark, but only with – a strangely anonymous phrase – “Labour opposition”. This suggests two possibilities: that “Labour” might provoke a stronger negative reaction from voters than Albanese itself; and that Morrison may have realized that if he wants to portray his opponent as a “blank page” – an expression he has started using recently (his first attempt was “blank page”) – he must leave a blank page for as long as possible.
Albanese, in his press conference on Sunday, disagreed with Morrison’s characterization of him – although he more or less admitted the political problem by once again giving his own story. The most striking moment, however, came when Albanese asked, in the clearest language possible, what Morrison’s plan was for the next three years. He also issued what sounded like a bit of a challenge to the media. Morrison’s premiership had suffered, he said, from having gone through the last campaign without having to define his programme.
It was a fair point, and a standard by which both leaders should be held in this election – as should the press. A strange aspect of the past few days has been the widespread media verdict that this will be a bitter and personal election. This may be true of the intentions of the two candidates but ignores the fact that the media has a lot of power in the matter. What questions will they ask? Will they scrutinize or simply ignore the political differences that both sides claim exist?
The more interesting unknown factor is whether either side will use the remaining weeks to make dramatic political announcements that could reset the contest. It’s not possible either. In 2019, Morrison laid out his strategy at the start and stuck to it. Similarly, Albanese announced its strategy at the start of its mandate and has never wavered. Both were rewarded for trusting their own judgment – and therefore would feel justified in doing so again.
This is another reason why Morrison’s recent change in his approach to Albanian was interesting. Even with the clock ticking, he was uncharacteristically ready to make a change. It could have been desperation, or it could have been agility; it was probably both.
Perhaps over the course of the campaign a leader will become desperate and therefore nimble – or perhaps both men will stubbornly stick to their plans. After all, how does a politician decide when a crisis really is a crisis, and not just another small setback that can be fixed with a good photo op, a sharp publicity, and a few cleverly deflected questions?
Jacqueline Maley cuts through the noise of the federal election campaign with news, opinion and expert analysis. Sign up to our Australia Votes 2022 newsletter here.