The ‘red wall’ and what it means for Australia’s election campaign | Katharine Murphy

Voters in Britain are familiar with the concept of the “red wall” – a group of regional constituencies in the UK that traditionally voted Labour, but flipped to supporting Boris Johnson.

For Australians unfamiliar with the lore, it’s a simple story. Johnson won the 2019 election by forging a new coalition of traditional Tories and pro-Brexit working-class voters antipathetic to the then Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Much was written at the time about this electoral realignment; swathes of people had moved away from voting according to their economic interests, and were now more motivated by identity and cultural affinity – a shift that also underwrote Trumpism.

The red wall concept has surfaced in dispatches in Australia during the opening two weeks of the 2022 election campaign.

There’s been sustained speculation among journalists and some pundits about whether Scott Morrison is currently attempting a Johnson-like flip, writing off heartland seats in metropolitan Australia at risk from the so-called “teal” independents and hunting for gains in outer suburban and regional Labor-held seats, like Hunter and Parramatta, to offset the losses.

There’s a few things to say about this. Now you’ve heard the red wall story, it will feel very familiar. This recruitment exercise is not new in Australia – for the Liberals, this has been a 30-year project.

John Howard used various culture wars to chip off a chunk of Labor’s traditional base. Tony Abbott weaponised carbon pricing to that end, and the scars of that corrosively cynical foray persist until this day. Morrison has pursued the same core objective, narrowcasting relentlessly to men who might vote Labor. In 2019, one of the pillars of Morrison’s recruitment strategy was the entirely bogus “war on the weekend”.

In 2022, the speculation about Morrison and red wall strategies has surfaced in the context of a transgender rights debate that has erupted during the campaign.

The current debate has been catalysed by two things – the first is the deeply offensive and insensitive views of the Liberal candidate in Warringah, Katherine Deves, and the second is Morrison’s decision to publicly back a private member’s bill from the conservative Liberal senator Claire Chandler banning transgender women from playing women’s sport.

Trans rights is an established part of the culture war repertoire in Britain and the US, but the same toxic debates haven’t yet taken off here. If you follow politics closely, you’ll know the prime minister was limbering up pre-election to entrench his religious discrimination legislation as the cultural wedge of the 2022 contest – but his own people shot his missile out of the sky when they crossed the floor and effectively killed that bill. So we’ve had, are having, this trans debate – which is grotesque really, given the vulnerabilities of the community, particularly young people.

During the past fortnight, Morrison has used this issue to foreground his own conservative values; court fractious elements of his own base contemplating voting for Clive Palmer or Pauline Hanson because of vaccination mandates and lockdowns; and also to recruit Labor defectors alienated by what they would consider the excessive relativist progressivism of contemporary culture.

There are different views around the government about whether Morrison’s persistent signalling is a cunning plan or a found strategy (and by found strategy, I mean a snookered prime minister is making a virtue of necessity). I’ll need to unpack this a bit I suspect.

The cunning plan scenario is Morrison and his brains trust sees the sustained contention as a net positive for him and the campaign – the latest successful instalment in a three-decade centre-right Australian project to hollow Labor’s base and fully entrench the Coalition federally as the natural party of government.

There are costs – to be sure. It’s possible the government loses Wentworth or North Sydney as progressive Liberal voters make it clear they’ve had enough of Morrison and his plots and his brinkmanship. But small losses don’t matter if you can shore up the base, stem a leakage of votes to populist rightwing insurgents and pick up new voters who identify with your message.

The found strategy scenario is Morrison is in irretrievable trouble. The “teal” seats are already gone, and marginals are also at risk. If you are the party leader in this scenario, all you can do is try to blast your way back into the contest, and if you can’t, then sandbag as many seats as you can.

Sometimes you break back, or sandbag, by giving voters something new to chew on. But there are risks of course. The main risk is voters will become seriously irritated by the fixation on an issue they regard either as completely confected, abstract or immaterial.

It is unclear to me whether the current conversation shifts votes when people are concerned about housing prices, inflation and jobs. Brexit, and the identity politics that hung off that, was potent. “Axe the tax” was total bollocks, but potent. But is this issue?

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Just as there are two ways to look at Morrison’s tactical motives, one offensive and the other defensive, there are also two ways to look at his decision to dig in behind Deves – a candidate who on any measure of decency should be gone.

The first probability is Morrison chose Deves deliberately to ignite a culture war about trans rights that would smoulder away in the background in an election predominantly about economic management. Deves would speak to cohorts of persuadable voters, but at a micro level.

But in the way of campaigns, where controlled burns can escalate into bushfires, the Morrison/Deves bespoke culture war has now become a macro issue. It now imperils the government’s chances of hanging on on 21 May because the whole wretched foray reinforces Morrison’s negatives among progressive Liberal supporters – his refusal to adopt a serious climate policy, his implacable obduracy on a federal integrity commission, and his complete botch up of last year’s #MeToo reckoning.

But the problem is Morrison is now trapped.

He might want to dump Deves to minimise the risk of a teal wash. But that’s now fraught, because if Morrison cancels the Warringah candidate, he not only loses face, he will galvanise groups like Family Voice or the Australian Christian Lobby or other well-organised conservative religious forces – as well as generating pearl clutching histrionics in the Murdochsphere. If Morrison dumps Deves, cue unhinging among the Fox News mini-mes who proselytise to the Liberal party faithful.

Heavy is the head that wears the crown.

Speaking of crowns, Labor will do everything in its power to dislodge Morrison’s between now and 21 May, and particularly over the next seven days while Anthony Albanese is in isolation recovering from Covid-19.

Last weekend, insiders were reporting pressure was mounting on Labor’s campaign director, Paul Erickson, and the advertising team to go negative against Morrison.

Why negative so early?

Labor’s marginal seat holders, out canvassing and phone banking around the clock, were reporting swinging voters were more persuaded by negative messages about Morrison and his record than by their own positive policy pitch. This was particularly true in Queensland, where Labor has an enormous (perhaps impossible) job to do to bring Morrison’s numbers down. The view there is if Labor can turn this election contest into a referendum about Morrison, then victory is possible.

Labor’s first negative advertisements about Morrison screened this week, before Covid forced Albanese off the hustings. The Labor campaign will deploy the front bench over the next seven days to fill the void.

While it is very unhelpful for Albanese to lose momentum just as he had found his confidence on the hustings – particularly given a lot of voters are still on the fence because they haven’t seen enough of him – some in the Labor brains trust see (or perhaps hope) there is upside.

Frontbenchers can go harder against Morrison than Albanese could on the hustings because putative prime ministers generally don’t get to be prime ministers by presenting as street brawlers.

And if you want the campaign to be a referendum on Morrison – perhaps your best chance is to make him a solo act.