Prime Minister Scott Morrison has all but washed his hands of campaigns to save inner-city moderate Liberal MPs facing serious challenges from “teal” independents.
Mr Morrison made his fifth campaign stop in Labor-held Parramatta on Thursday, a push into rival territory that would usually be a show of confidence.
But it also highlighted the seats where the Prime Minister has been conspicuous by his absence – the fight against incumbents in blue ribbon seats in North Sydney, Wentworth, Goldstein and Kooyong.
Mr Morrison would not answer directly if he would campaign in Wentworth or if he was “toxic” in the inner-city. But his non-answer was more revealing.
The Prime Minister suggested the independent challenges were a sideshow from the real campaign: An effort to secure majority government.
“[This campaign] is a choice between a Labor government and […] a Liberal-National government,” he said.
“I’m particularly focused on the contest that is happening between your two alternatives for government.”
He seemed to confirm that the Coalition was now broadcasting two campaign messages – a national appeal with Mr Morrison at the helm and narrowcasting on a different frequency in four crucial electorates.
One Coalition campaigner put it bluntly: the Prime Minister’s personal unpopularity and record on climate and an integrity commission is kryptonite to progressive Liberals.
It has fallen to another Coalition MP, the Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, himself fighting to retain the seat of Kooyong, to make appearances in the seats.
But as a debate against independent challenger Monique Ryan showed on Thursday, Mr Frydenberg has a tricky job balancing the roles of national Coalition pitchman and local campaigner.
He outpointed Dr Ryan on the state of the economy. But one admission seemed to acknowledge the difficulties being tied to a broader campaign posed to his reelection bid.
“If people vote for me – people need to know that if they want to keep me as a local member, and they may have an issue with something that the Liberal Party has said or done and they want to give us a kick for that – at the end of the day that may not leave me as being the local member,” he said.
It was on climate change that the challenger, Dr Ryan, perhaps scored her most substantial hit. She has recently backed a policy for advancing the rate of cutting emissions by 2030 that would be a significant advance on Labor but especially the Coalition.
“This is a man who votes with Barnaby Joyce, every time, against what is essentially our national interest,” she said.
Liberal campaigners concede these four seats are crucial.
An idea recently floated that the inner-city seats might be replaced by gains elsewhere on the electoral map would be an electoral gambit one Coalition strategist describes as “crazy brave” for a government which cannot afford to lose a single seat.
Seat polling is not always reliable but points to the seriousness of the challenge.
Last week Dave Sharma was shown to be down 53 to 47 points after preferences in Wentworth. More recently the Australia Institute had independent challenger Zoe Daniel out in front in Goldstein on a 12-point lead so stonking as to strain credulity.
Speaking to TND, incumbent MP Tim Wilson, Daniel’s opponent, does not say directly when asked if Mr Morrison’s apparent withdrawal from races such as his is a help or a hindrance. But he did suggest the national campaign was not the answer.
“The antidote to the multimillion-dollar astroturf campaigns of the party of so-called ‘independents’ is genuine connection by local MPs,” he said.
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