'Liberals’ road to re-election not as smooth as you think'
At the end of last year, as Labor MPs left Canberra for the summer break, several highlighted this fortnight in their diaries.
The last parliamentary period before the budget, they marked it as the deadline for Anthony Albanese to lift his game and turn around Labor's fortunes. Some were already convinced he was finished.
Based on Monday's Newspoll, if the election were held this weekend, Albanese would win. While even his closest supporters aren't getting ahead of themselves, it is a remarkable turnaround after a terrible year for all oppositions.
During the pandemic, the prevailing view in Canberra has been that Scott Morrison would be almost impossible to beat at the next election. Australia's world-leading performance in crushing the virus means he has deserved that favouritism.
The PM, perhaps remembering how he won the unwinnable poll in 2019, has consistently pushed back against that narrative. While that victory felt emphatic, given universal expectations of a Labor triumph, the Coalition only claimed 77 of 151 lower house seats.
The 2019 Liberal election review - which barely caused a ripple compared to Labor's post-mortem - warned of the risk of ignoring their "narrow path to victory".
"There is no room for any complacency," it said.
"In order to win the next election in 2022, the Liberal Party will need to seek to gain seats rather than just hold the ones it has."
Last month, rogue backbencher Craig Kelly quit the party, costing Morrison his working majority. Then Nicolle Flint announced she would walk away, putting her South Australian stronghold seat of Boothby in play, given she only scraped home by 3047 votes last time.
This Friday, new electoral boundaries in Victoria and Western Australia will be revealed, likely abolishing a Liberal-held seat in WA and creating a Labor seat in Victoria.
Combined with Newspoll putting Labor in front with a 39 per cent primary vote for the first time in two years, John Howard's "iron law of arithmetics" is suddenly shrinking Morrison's path.
In Tuesday's party room meeting, Morrison recalled walking Papua New Guinea's Black Cat Track, and the focus required to navigate its dips and bends.
"We've been on narrow paths before, colleagues, and we've walked them together," he said.
"Sometimes the path is wide and the walk more gentle, but the path is now narrow, so we must watch out for each other."
Those in the room say Morrison's analogy was more about the trouble in the parliamentary workplace over the last month, rather than the political problems stemming from that, but Liberals concede it has been a shocking period for the government.
From the day ex-staffer Brittany Higgins went public to allege she was raped, Morrison and his team have struggled to respond - both in tone and in practice - to the anger her story provoked about the treatment of women in politics and beyond.
On Monday, as tens of thousands of people marched across the country, the PM decided not to attend the protest outside parliament. It was the right call - Morrison's appearance alone would not have mollified the crowd, although Minister for Women Marise Payne should have represented the government.
But his clunky, pre-prepared speech later in Question Time misread the mood, especially in contrast with Albanese's fiery response, and government MPs looked flat.
It didn't help that as the rallies kicked off, Christian Porter moved to sue the ABC over the story that forced him to out himself as the minister accused of raping a teenager in 1988.
Some in government described the Attorney-General's defamation action as a circuit-breaker to head off an independent inquiry, and they were enthusiastic about the prospect of taking the national broadcaster to task in court. They appeared ignorant to the risk of the case dragging out for months.
There are other bumps in Morrison's road. The vaccine rollout has started slowly, increasing the pressure on next week's expansion. Meanwhile, JobKeeper ends on March 28, prompting Josh Frydenberg to warn of a "rough couple of months ahead" as at least 100,000 people are expected to lose their jobs, right when the dole benefit is cut by $100 a fortnight.
The long-awaited tourism support package, centred on 800,000 half-price flights, has also had a rough landing as the government scrambled to add destinations while ignoring pleas for Melbourne to be included.
On all of these issues, there is a way through for Morrison. His ultimate problem is that maintaining the electoral status quo will not be enough.
The 2019 review warned that unless the party started winning more Victorian seats, its path to victory would "remain worryingly narrow". Instead of focusing on that mission, the branch remains consumed by factional feuds and leadership instability in the state parliamentary team. It is even proving difficult to find good operatives to fix the campaign machine.
And while NSW looks positive for the government, there are potholes in Queensland (where internal turmoil has seen the state director quit) and in WA (where the branch is broke and the party was annihilated in last weekend's state poll).
Be in no doubt: it will be a long and winding road to the election.
Tom Minear is Herald Sun national politics editor
Originally published as Liberals' road to re-election not as smooth as you think