It's Albanese's to lose, as Morrison looks for some momentum

Scott Morrison isn't a guy who likes to humble himself. And so his Friday acknowledgement he could be "a bit of a bulldozer" was circumscribed.

"Strength and resilience" had been needed in recent years, he said. But the future would be different, and "I know there are things that are going to have to change with the way I do things".

The fact he's promising a new "gear" is effectively an admission of how much of a drag he's become on the Liberal vote.

Despite Albanese's campaign hiccups, at the end of this penultimate week, based on the objective evidence, the election appears his to lose.

The Australian's YouGov poll, which surveyed almost 19,000 people across all lower house seats between April 14 and May 7, has Labor on track to majority government.

This isn't predictive - it's a snapshot. Both sides know the final campaign days provide risks and opportunities.

A sizeable number of voters have yet to firm up their decisions. In particular, how will soft Liberal voters who are put off by Morrison break? Between those who opt to swallow hard and stick with the government and those who can't stomach the PM any longer?

But to state the obvious, Morrison has a short time in which to try reduce a big margin. Last-minute scare campaigns can play effectively; unexpected developments can change the dynamics. But that's only if enough voters in the right seats retain an open mind.

The Liberals have left their launch, in Brisbane on Sunday, until the last moment. New policy will be announced. Morrison needs to garner some momentum from it for the home run.

Next week will see the release of important economic data, on unemployment and wages. The government will hope the unemployment figure, most recently 4 per cent, will have a three in front of it. That would be good news for its economic pitch.

The wages number could play to Labor.

Wages growth was 2.3 per cent in the year to December. Any increase on that for the year to March would be expected to be small. The Reserve Bank has forecast wage growth of 2.7 per cent in the year to June, indicating it doesn't anticipate much in March.

If next week's figure is modest, Labor will be able to use it to highlight its case that many people are going backwards in real terms, given the 5.1 per cent inflation rate.

Opposition leader Anthony Albanese (left) and Prime Minister Scott Morrison face off during the second leaders' debate. Picture: Getty Images

Opposition leader Anthony Albanese (left) and Prime Minister Scott Morrison face off during the second leaders' debate. Picture: Getty Images

One skill in politics is to be able to turn a negative into a neutral, or a positive, and Albanese did this in the argument over wages and inflation this week.

He initially slipped up, when he embraced the desirability of the minimum hourly wage being increased by 5.1 per cent, to match inflation. The reasons he should not have been so precise have been well canvassed.

But when subsequently he translated such a rise into "two coffees a day", the proposition would look to many voters more than reasonable (regardless of some counter economic arguments).

Morrison jumped on Albanese's wages position, with the put-down that he was "a loose unit on the economy". But that meant the PM was advocating a real wage cut for the lowest-paid workers.

The Albanese-as-risk claim is about the best attack line the government has, but when the debate is about wages, the government is fighting on Labor's preferred turf.

If Albanese's campaign has had mistakes and glitches, Morrison's is undermined by the very obvious fact he's leading a divided party.

Hardly any Liberals would have heard of Katherine Deves before she shot to prominence as Morrison's captain's pick for Warringah. Now her views on transgender issues, which the PM thinks will work for him among some ethnic voters, are causing the Liberals serious internal and external angst.

In a video, former prime minister Tony Abbott, who lost Warringah to independent Zali Steggall in 2019, has urged reluctant Liberal members in the seat to get behind Deves.

"The more I see of Katherine Deves the more impressed I am with her courage, with her common sense, with her decency and with quite frankly her capacity to win this seat back for the Liberal Party," Abbott says.

Voters' disgruntlement with Abbott's high-profile campaign against marriage equality was a factor in his defeat in 2019. His words about Deves suggest he remains tone deaf to the views of many in the party and the public within his old seat.

While Abbott lavishes praise on Deves, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, fighting for his political life against a teal candidate in Kooyong, was again distancing himself from Morrison's defence of her.

"I myself have been very clear in rejecting what Katherine Deves has been saying," he reiterated on the ABC.

Morrison has said that in his "captain's pick" candidates for various NSW seats he was anxious to run women.

A study by the ANU's Global Institute for Women's Leadership, released Thursday, of candidates from the major parties found only about 20 per cent of female Coalition candidates are running in safe seats. This compares with 46 per cent of male candidates. More than half (51 per cent) of Coalition women candidates are running in marginal seats - under 6 per cent - compared with 25 per cent of male candidates.

Some "80 per cent of female candidates in the Coalition are [...] running in seats they are unlikely to win, or that are precarious to hold. The equivalent proportion of men running in these seats is 54 per cent," the study says.

If the Liberals lose this election, addressing the women problem will be among many issues confronting a shattered party.

Meanwhile, women present a major obstacle in Morrison's attempt to pull this election out of the fire.

The female teal candidates will be attractive to women voters in those seats. More generally, Morrison is significantly more unpopular with women than with men. Women voters could be in the vanguard if May 21 delivers him a mortal blow.

  • Michelle Grattan is a press gallery journalist and former editor of The Canberra Times. She is a professorial fellow at the University of Canberra and writes for The Conversation, where her columns also appear.