Head to Head: Cheryl Kernot and Christopher Pyne break down week four of the campaign

Cheryl Kernot and Christopher Pyne offer their take on the fourth week of the federal election campaign.

Cheryl Kernot and Christopher Pyne offer their take on the fourth week of the federal election campaign. Photo: TND

Welcome to The New Daily’s weekly head to head with former leader of the Democrats and Labor MP Cheryl Kernot and former Liberal Party minister Christopher Pyne.

Every week until election day, we’ll be asking them to analyse current events and offer insights into life on the campaign trial.


The PM has made his fifth visit to Parramatta but he does not seem so keen on visiting Wentworth. What does this tell us?

I suspect Morrison’s got a little bit of a sniff on Parramatta, but it also helps him say he’s been so busy that he can’t go to Kooyong or Wentworth or North Sydney or Goldstein. Turning up five times in Parramatta will get all of us talking and keeps journalists busy. John Howard was in North Sydney. He was talking to [Liberal MP facing an independent challenge] Trent Zimmerman. Trent might have been happy having Gladys with him but I don’t think John Howard represented everything that Trent Zimmerman cares about. They don’t have the depth of people that Labor does.

The difference that’s still not being talked about is how much Morrison’s appearances, wherever they are, are incredibly tightly managed. I did laugh about the story about the woman in the fruit shop who was yelling: “Go Albo!” I wasn’t sure if that had been soundly thought through or if this was the only place he felt safe. But that was the shop playing Toxic by Britney Spears. You can’t control everything.

Mr Albanese has been allowing frontbenchers’ input at press conferences. Is this, as critics would have it, papering over weakness?

The NDIS question put to Albanese was unrealistic. Labor has a much stronger team on display and it’s a big asset to the campaign. When I was leader of the Democrats and journalists would ring up with a question of some kind, I’d say: “Why don’t you speak to our defence and foreign affairs spokesman?” They’d say they wanted to speak to me. It’s really hard to get across that a leader is a leader of a team. Nor do I believe Morrison knows the details of every major policy. There’s a bit of hypocrisy around this idea of who should know what.

If you’re a shadow minister, or a minister, you are immersed in the nitty gritty detail of that portfolio in a way that no leader is. It’s just not possible for a leader. It is unrealistic to expect everybody, every leader to be across the detail of every policy. Were we ever put on the spot about details like this in parliaments past? No, no, never. No. Gotchas have been around forever. The price of petrol and milk and the unemployment rate. But they weren’t quizzing frontbenchers like this about this detail.

Who’s really making a difference to the public debate in this election? The bloody media! Even though we are seeing some useful journalism about policy it is not what gets asked at the circus of the announcement of the day. You ask yourself: Where does this get us as a country?

Labor launched its official campaign a week ago. Did they change the agenda? Or, per Harold MacMillan, are events really running the show?

I really liked the ALP launch. I thought it was powerful in its simple authenticity. I wasn’t looking for hoopla. I was looking for something that worked well. The introductory speeches were clever. When you have got Penny Wong, the most trusted politician in Australia, on the bill that helps. They played to the strengths they had and Albo rose to the occasion.

The message about putting care services back into Labor’s core policy was strong. Gender equity in the Fair Work Act would have gone over a lot of heads but it is a very important practical step. They spoke to their big themes quite well. I don’t think it suggested a lack of ambition. But I think it’s a dose of reality.

You can’t go back and do what Bill Shorten did. At the time, I thought it was incredibly ambitious and wonderful. But based on what happened in 2019, everybody now knows who’s running the show. Policy formation is now influenced by avoiding giving the Murdoch media front pages of nonsense to run their own smear campaign. Isn’t it awful that our election is influenced this way?

The PM has made his fifth visit to Parramatta but he does not seem so keen on visiting Wentworth. What does this tell us?

Leaders go where they can help most with winning seats. Scott Morrison has been campaigning in Coalition-held seats like Parramatta, Geelong and McEwen. That suggests that the campaign believes it has a real chance. Anthony Albanese is campaigning in Lingiari – a 5.5 per cent Labor seat – that suggests the rural and regional areas are proving a problem.

Scott Morrison has not been campaigning in places like Wentworth because the Coalition already holds that seat. And by campaigning in Wentworth, he is not necessarily going to change the outcome. Wentworth is a very specific campaign between an independent and [Liberal MP] Dave Sharma; [the Prime Minister] obviously believes that he can make up seats in Labor areas.

The equation for securing the seats you need is more complex than it seems at first. In 2004, the Liberal Party lost Adelaide and Hindmarsh but won Kingston and Makin. Seats can all change in different directions on one polling day only to produce a net difference of zero. If that happens, Labor won’t win.

Mr Albanese has been allowing frontbenchers input at press conferences. Is this, as critics would have it, papering over weakness?

The Labor campaign has been messy and continues to be messy. It’s one thing to not be presidential. It’s another to look disciplined.

I wasn’t quite expecting the Labor campaign to look like they have been surprised to learn there is an election on. They’ve had three years to prepare. And the six-point NDIS plan that Anthony clearly didn’t know until he was handed a policy note by staff – unless Anthony looks like he is entirely across his own program the doubts about changing horses mid-race are only going to keep growing.

The NDIS question was always an obvious one for a journalist to ask. That’s not a gotcha. That’s a follow-up from yesterday. This is sloppy staff work but it’s left the boss looking very flummoxed and it’s revived issues from the first week of the campaign. And it is all leaving the government in the hunt even though it shouldn’t be after nine years.

The Labor campaign may look recognisably dishevelled. But this is not the Anthony Albanese that I know. I think he would be disappointed too in the impression that this has created. It’s all possibly a feature of something that the government has been saying which I had not taken seriously until now. He hasn’t been battle-hardened in the last year or two because of the pandemic. The Opposition has really had very little coverage.

By contrast, Scott is a very, very strong campaigner. And because the media’s opinion of the Coalition and Scott Morrison is so low they underestimate him. Because they just can’t fathom as a group the idea that people would want to vote for the Coalition – and that’s why the Coalition wins so many elections. That leaves the press gallery absolutely flabbergasted because they don’t know anybody who is not voting Labor or Greens.

Labor launched its campaign a week ago. Did they change the agenda? Or, per Harold MacMillan, are events really running the show?

I thought Labor’s was a perfectly adequate launch. I just don’t think launches make much difference to people’s voting intentions. A bit like posters on Stobie polls, as they’re called here in Adelaide. You’ve got to have actually changed people’s minds. They’re usually an opportunity to announce a significant policy and dominate the news for the next sort of 36 to 48 hours. I didn’t see that happen. But it certainly wasn’t a negative for the Labor Party. I mean, they’re playing very safe. It’s a very safe Labor campaign. They’ve probably learned a lot from the last time around.

In the issues that have been dominating the agenda, like interest rates, inflation, Solomon Islands, command of detail for things such as the unemployment rate, then the agenda is being set by events. They have had greater influence than Labor getting the debate onto their preferred areas of things like health, education, and social policy. That hasn’t happened. If Labor loses the election – and I still think Labor is favourite to win – but if Labor loses the election, it will be because they haven’t defined the terms of engagement.

But I don’t think a great deal of anything is changing the conversation at the moment. People are saying things like: “I’m sick of Morrison lying.” That is big picture stuff. I still have my personal theory that these campaigns are a complete waste of time. If the aim was to inform the public about policy announcements then this one’s come very quickly on the back of the budget. Much of what they’re doing is re-announcing the budget. But it’s like a circus. People will watch because they’re a bit mesmerised. But as for the details?

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