A special virtue attaches to plays which remind the drama of how much it can do without and still exist.
The first staffer says it just before eight o’clock: “We’re fucked. Yep, completely fucked.”
The swings in Queensland are coming through. Herbert is gone. “It’s like Hillary at 3p.m. on that awful night,” a staffer says, “when everything would just have to go right if there’s any hope.”
Shorten’s election party is held in the function room of an airport hotel. On one side of the building is an industrial estate and on the other is the airfield. In the corners, balloons are clustered like grapes. The lights burn pink on people’s skin. Outside, the moon is unusually large.
Early on there’s a good feeling in Braddon. It looks as if they’re ahead in Corangamite. A staffer says that if they hold in Tasmania, win Corangamite and hold Lindsay, there’s no way the Liberals can keep government.
“Just put me out for an hour,” he says, “and wake me up when it’s done.”
Anthony Pratt arrives, wearing a Prada jacket. His father was close with Shorten. The richest man in Australia doesn’t know quite where to stand. “He’s been very good,” Pratt says. “He’s done it with great aplomb. The NDIS and those guys down in the mine. They say there’s no small parts, just small actors. And Bill’s not a small actor. He’s just a great talent. There are some things you need talent for and I think Bill’s got that immense talent.”
Trays of party pies are offered around. Very quickly, there is the feeling of a wake, only without the warmth or fond stories. Barnaby Joyce wins comfortably and the room boos. There are long, sad faces. People’s eyes are underlined with resignation.
Tony Abbott is making a concession speech. He has lost to Zali Steggall, an independent. He claims the evening as a victory for the Coalition. “Where climate change is a moral issue, we Liberals do it tough,” he says. “But where climate change is an economic issue, the Liberals do well.”
Longman in Queensland is lost on One Nation preferences. The Liberals have won Bass in Tasmania. By nine o’clock the room has emptied by a third. People look hollowed out. The wait staff bring out platters of sour-tasting cheesecake. “This is a terrible night,” a staffer says. “Fucking terrible.”
At 9.30, Antony Green calls it for the Coalition. Peter Dutton quotes Paul Keating: “This is the sweetest victory of all.” People’s jackets smell more and more of cigarettes. The air smells of wine and warm breath.
On the screen, Scott Morrison makes his way to the side of stage. Bronwyn Bishop is there and when she hugs him her nails look like red beetles on his back. He shakes hands with Philip Ruddock and then John Howard. This is the party he has got back together.
Morrison’s forehead glistens under the lights. His first line as returned prime minister is religious: “I have always believed in miracles.”
At the Labor function, they cut the sound. The corners of Morrison’s mouth twist as he forms silent words. He is thanking the quiet people who have won him this victory. Just after midnight, Bill Shorten’s bus pulls out from the back of the hotel and disappears into the darkness.
ONE MORNING IN APRIL
The cyclamens are indifferent. Their faces are pink and beautiful, turned downwards against the cold. It is Thursday and Scott Morrison is in the prime minister’s courtyard. He is announcing an election.
“Earlier this morning, I visited the governor-general here in Canberra,” he says, “and he accepted my advice for an election to be held on the 18th of May.”
As he talks, Morrison holsters his thumb in the crook of his forefinger. He rocks on his feet and the shoulders of his jacket shift independently of his head. “We live in the best country in the world,” he says, “but to secure your future, the road ahead depends on a strong economy, and that’s why there is so much at stake at this election.”
He promises, again, a surplus. He says one and a quarter million jobs will be created in the next five years.
“We will maintain those budget surpluses without increasing taxes, and pay down the debt,” he says. “We will deliver tax relief, as we have, for families, for hard-working Australians, for small businesses, allowing Australians to keep more of what they earn. We will keep Australians safe, as Liberal–National governments always do. And we will keep our borders secure, as you know we will. And we will be able to guarantee the increased funding for the essential services that Australians rely on. Schools, hospitals, medicines, roads – all guaranteed by a stronger economy.”
Morrison has the face of a man delivering bad news, not yet certain how bad it really is. His eyes are curtained with seriousness. His voice dips at the end of each phrase, like a mourner bowing his head before going into church.
“There is more to do and a lot has got done, and we are getting on together with the job,” he says. “So at this election there is a clear choice. It is a choice that will determine the economy that Australians live in, not just for the next three years but for the next decade. It’s a choice between a government that I lead and the alternative of a Labor government led by Bill Shorten. You will have the choice between a government that is delivering a strong economy and will continue to do so, or Bill Shorten’s Labor Party, whose policies would weaken our economy. You will get to decide between a government that has fixed the budget or Bill Shorten’s Labor Party, that we always know can’t manage money. You will have a choice between a government that is lowering taxes for all Australians, or Bill Shorten’s Labor Party, that will impose higher taxes that will weigh down our economy. It’s taken us more than five years to turn around Labor’s budget mess. Now is not the time to turn back.”
Morrison says he believes in a fair go for those who have a go. He says that is part of the promise made by all Australians, to make a contribution and not seek to take one. The phrases bring satisfaction to his face. He enjoys repetition. He is pleased by rhyme.
He says this is an election about the future. He promises not much. He points again to the economy, to national security and to border protection. There is nothing new here. The speech is an appeal to the recent past, and a hope to continue living there.
He says the election is about who you trust to manage the economy. He says that is what every election is about. He says a strong economy is the path to higher wages. He talks about the champion in all Australians. He says he plans to release those champions, in homes and hospitals and workplaces. “Make no mistake,” he says. “Elections are all about questions of trust and our record of delivery on the things that Australians rely on, the economy they live in and the services that they rely on is very clear and our plans to continue to deliver that are very clear.”
A new phrase occurs to him, and the neatness of it opens his face a little. “It’s crystal-clear, at this election,” he says. “It is a choice between me as prime minister and Bill Shorten as prime minister. You vote for me, you’ll get me. You vote for Bill Shorten and you’ll get Bill Shorten.”
It takes just on twelve minutes. The parliament is dissolved half an hour before government science agencies are due to answer questions about the mine approval given to Adani two days earlier.
This is an extract from Erik Jensen's Quarterly Essay, The Prosperity Gospel: How Scott Morrison won and Bill Shorten lost. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.
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