It was informative on election night to watch ABC television’s Annabel Crabb and Andrew Probyn, among others, blaming the opinion polls for the failure of so many journalists and commentators to predict the Coalition would prevail on May 18.
Sure, the opinion polls got it wrong this time. But not dramatically so, as American psephologist Nate Silver posted on his FiveThirtyEight blog on May 23. Even a poll that has Labor leading the Coalition by 51.5 per cent to 48.5 per cent on election eve gives the Coalition a chance in view of the margin of statistical error involved.
Naturally commentators will pay attention to opinion polls. After all, it is the only empirical evidence we have about the likely result. But the role of journalists is to challenge evidence, not merely to accept it. For the most part, this did not occur in the lead-up to the federal election. Why?
The problem is that many Australian journalists and commentators are on the left. Some are green-left, others are left-of-centre and others social democrats. There are but a few conservative right-of-centre types working in what has been called the fourth estate.
Take the ABC, for example. It is a conservative-free zone. There is not one conservative presenter, producer or editor for any of its prominent TV, radio or online outlets. Nine’s newspapers (The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age) are not much better in this regard. Then there is SBS,Guardian Australia , The Saturday Paper, the New Daily, Network Ten’s The Project and so on.
The journalist Left in Australia generally favours a Labor or Labor-Greens government. But it will accept a Coalition government if it is led by a Liberal Party prime minister or opposition leader who is not a social conservative. A small-l liberal such as Malcolm Turnbull or Julie Bishop is OK. But not a party led by social conservatives such as Tony Abbott, Peter Dutton or Scott Morrison.
That’s why, with some exceptions, the Canberra press gallery broadly accepted Turnbull’s political coup against the incumbent prime minister Tony Abbott in September 2015. And that’s why it would not accept Dutton’s political coup against Turnbull in August last year that resulted in Morrison becoming prime minister.
Then there is the phenomenon of projection. It is common for individuals with strong views to project them on to others. Many journalists declared that while a small-l liberal such as Turnbull could win an election, a social conservative such as Morrison could not.
Take the comment made by The Saturday Paper’s Paul Bongiorno when he appeared on an ABC Radio National Breakfast program chaired by Fran Kelly on April 5, before the election campaign began. He declared the Morrison government “has gone into this campaign with both hands tied behind its back”. He added that the Liberal Party’s “credibility (is) in tatters due to the fact that the person leading it is not Malcolm Turnbull but it is Scott Morrison”.
This was hopelessly wrong. In 2016, Turnbull decided on an early election in which the campaign ran for about eight weeks. This was far too long. It turned out Turnbull wanted to be positive, but his core message was nebulous. It was one of the worst campaigns by an incumbent government in recent Australian history. The Coalition lost 14 MPs and many of its seats were reduced to marginal status.
Turnbull was overthrown in August last year not so much because the Coalition trailed in 38 successive Newspolls. He was toppled because the Liberal National Party primary vote in the Longman by-election on July 28 last year fell below 30 per cent.
Queensland-based parliamentarians such as Dutton knew they could not hold their seats under Turnbull and Labor would win government. In time, most of the parliamentary Liberal Party agreed.
In the period between becoming Prime Minister and the election, Morrison set about winning back what Turnbull had lost. He was assisted by his colleagues — in particular, the Liberal Party’s Josh Frydenberg and the Nationals’ Matt Canavan played key roles — and by an able staff led by John Kunkel and the Liberal Party’s head office led by Andrew Hirst. Kunkel had previously worked for John Howard and Hirst for Abbott. It was an experienced team.
Unknown to many of the press gallery, some of whom sneered at the Coalition, Morrison rebuilt the Liberal Party base. First, he won back the social conservatives who had felt unwanted in Turnbull’s time. Then, as the election loomed, the Liberal Party’s financial position improved. Morrison led this revitalised outfit into political battle promising economic stability. Moreover, unlike Turnbull, Morrison was prepared to go negative in pointing to the downside if Bill Shorten became prime minister.
Many a contemporary journalist does not understand the abiding appeal of faith. Morrison was mocked by some for his fundamentalist Christianity. But, as Labor’s Chris Bowen and others have noted, Labor lost votes in last month’s election due to a feeling in some seats that it was not doing enough to protect religious freedom. This was a concern not only to Christians but also to Buddhists, Hindus, Jews and Muslims.
The Coalition always had a path to victory: namely, win socially conservative seats in northern Tasmania, western Sydney and Queensland north of Brisbane; then hold seats in South Australia and Western Australia, and limit losses in Victoria. In fact, the only seats the Liberal Party lost in Victoria were notionally held by Labor due to the redistribution. And the Liberals won Chisholm in eastern Melbourne. In short, the Liberal Party held its ground in Victoria without Turnbull.
Morrison led the Coalition to a narrow victory in terms of seats won. But many previously marginal Coalition seats have become safe or reasonably safe. And, as Simon Benson pointed out in these pages on Thursday, Labor now holds seven of the 10 most marginal seats, with one other held by an independent.
Only a fool would predict the outcome of the 2022 election. Just as only fools believed that Morrison could not prevail.
Gerard Henderson is executive director of the Sydney Institute. His Media Watch Dog blog can be found at theaustralian.com.au.