“I mean, they really don’t like him,” one MP said, as if emphasising the point was the equivalent of brandishing a crucifix at a vampire.
Yet, Shorten fell one seat short of reducing the Turnbull government to minority in 2016, so the punters can’t hate him that much. And almost every poll that registers the community’s dissatisfaction with him also shows his party is on track to decimate the Coalition.
So there is a much deeper flaw in the zealots’ belief that tapping a primal fear of Shorten will save the government: it’s not a sufficient reason for the Coalition to stay in office.
Without purpose, power can’t be sustained. The government is fighting almost utterly unburdened by the weight of ideas; evidenced by the time it spends countering Labor’s plans. This week’s late stab at building the facade of a climate policy screams of a vast policy wasteland.
The void can be traced back to time wasted in Opposition. From 2007 to December 2009 the Coalition’s leadership wars distracted it from thinking about renewal. By 2010 Labor was busily engaged in self-harm so there was no need for regeneration, just daily tactical responses to abject government failure.
Abbott went to the 2010 election promising to return Howard-era stability, with the added bonus of that cabinet’s B-team. He weaponised the view that the Opposition should “oppose everything and propose nothing” and utterly defined himself by what he was not.
Abbott came so close to victory in 2010 he carried the same mantra through two elections: stop the boats, end the waste, cut the carbon tax and reduce the debt.
There were successes. The boats were stopped and the Coalition did toil to get the deficit under control. But big cuts demand hard choices and can only be found where the Commonwealth spends most: social security, welfare and health.
The Abbott Opposition had never levelled with the electorate about how tough those choices would be. Worse, it had never thought terribly hard about the choices it would make, or how it would explain them.
This was exposed in the 2014 budget and the Coalition never recovered.
Then there were the deeper signs that the Abbott government was an ideological billabong – like the sole woman in cabinet and the revival of relic honours.
The weight of this sparked the Liberal leadership wars and, thereafter, any attempts at mild renewal by Malcolm Turnbull became the battlefield.
The Coalition’s time in government now looks like tinkering at the engine of a Model T Ford as the world drove by in a Tesla. It has not understood that the West’s wrenching loss of trust in the big institutions of church, business and state presents it with an existential threat; the Coalition doesn’t just support these things, it is these things.
By contrast Labor has spent its time in Opposition well.
Labor has planted a big stake in the ground by deciding that a progressive party cannot be a small target. Its leadership now has answers for where they think the nation should go and what aspirations they hold for it. That means striking a policy balance between the generation and distribution of wealth. It means dealing with the responsibilities of those who have the capacity to contribute and the rights of those who don’t. You can agree or disagree with its policies but you can’t say you don’t know what Labor stands for.
There is a risk that Labor’s radical retooling of the way taxpayer funds are spent will alienate some voters but the times may well suit Shorten. If elected his challenges will come in managing the impatience and competing expectations of the progressive coalition he is building to win.
One hopeful sign for the Coalition is that Scott Morrison knows that his platform needs to be built on the foundation of clearly articulated liberal values. To fill the void he has to have a budget, so going to an early election was never a viable option.
But the Coalition he leads is so bitterly divided over values it is a tribe without a common language; unable to even organise itself to find ground on which to stand and mount a fight.
And, right now, it looks like “the punters” are preparing to meet the Coalition on polling day by pouring bio-fuel into their chainsaws.
Chris Uhlmann is the Nine News political editor.
Chris Uhlmann is political editor for Nine News.