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Analysis: An awful realisation dawns on the Morrison Government

Scott Morrison started talking on Tuesday morning and it seemed for a while as if he didn't know how to stop.

There he was at Beefy's Pies in Kunda Park in Maroochydore, fresh off his "Scomobile" bus, wearing the silly hat and being fair dinkum, which on this particular occasion involved a seemingly stream of consciousness monologue that started with which horse he was backing to win the Melbourne Cup (Youngstar, it came sixth) through to why Labor was evil.

External Link: @ScottMorrisonMP:#MelbourneCup at Caloundra, QLD

Along the journey there were lightning stops at all the old reliables of the Coalition credo: infrastructure, getting taxes down, getting electricity prices down, taking on the big energy companies, reducing small business paperwork.

Just in case any of us were wondering, the Prime Minister also gave us a run down on what a few of his ministers were doing that day.

Busy, busy, busy. Your government at work.

"We're here because we're not just backing Youngstar today, we're backing small and family businesses all around the country, our Government," the Prime Minister told journalists.

"And that has been the theme over our last five years.

"You know, that's how Australia's economy is going to continue to grow", Morrison said. "By ensuring we all work together."

External Link: @ScottMorrisonMP: We're backing Queenslanders by connecting up the north to the south to keep the economy moving.

You heard him right: the economy is going to continue to grow by us all working together.

This from the leader of a Government which is so divided there is almost no significant policy issue that the Prime Minister can safely discuss.

Malcolm Turnbull's appearance on Q&A on Thursday night might have reminded everyone that the disunity ended his prime ministership, but the greater problem is not what he says, but the day-to-day reality that Mr Morrison has inherited, and is constrained by: exactly the same divisions.

Malcolm Turnbull names "the insurgents" behind the leadership spill.

But the real problem is…

But that is not the problem Australia faces, Morrison argued.

"I don't want to see an industrial landscape in this country which throws back to the 1970s with strikes and call outs which is suffocating our economy."

Yes, it appears the much greater risk is of industrial mayhem that, implicitly, would apply if Labor was in government and at the behest of the trade union movement.

There has been lots of commentary through the week about Scott Morrison and his bus, and his visit to the races, and the whole "average bloke" thing.

A blue bus with the prime minister's face on the back and political slogans written across the windows

Politicians on both sides have observed that the risks in the strategy involve giving up the one thing a Prime Minister has that the rest of them don't: authority and a certain gravitas which comes with the job.

But there is really something more important going on at the moment in politics which all the discussion about the tactics of the bus trip only really illustrate.

This is that at some point in the past few weeks, since Wentworth, the awful realisation has dawned on the government that it is actually, really, heading for defeat at the election.

Sure, it's been behind in the polls for a long time. But sometimes in politics a combination of factors changes the mindset from one in which losing is likely, but still hypothetical, to a reality.

A composite image of Kerryn Phelps, Dave Sharma and Scott Morrison.

Loss a real possibility now

In this case, the combination of factors boil down to: time — there's now only effectively a few months at best until polling day; the fact that the Coalition has played its highest risk card and changed leaders and things have just gotten worse; and the Wentworth by-election has raised questions about both Scott Morrison's campaigning skills and preparedness to bend serious policy issues to political circumstances.

Normally, governments lose their minds and do the really crazy policy announcements — for example, Kevin Rudd announcing he was moving the navy in 2013 — in the final days of a general election, not in a by-election months before.

The Senate comes back next week for a sitting, then there is just one more parliamentary fortnight before the summer break and every MP knows that once that break is over, we will be into an election campaign, declared or otherwise, with an election needed to be held by May.

As if to highlight the sense of doom, people within the government were speculating earlier in the week about holding a half-Senate in order to delay the House election: purely to hold on to government for that little bit longer.

Why call an early election?

The two real scenarios for election timing are for a May poll, or for the Prime Minister to call a slightly earlier March election, which would be called when the political year traditionally kicks off on Australia Day.

Why, you might ask, would anybody bring forward an election they think they are going to lose?

Someone who has been in this position — of leading a government that believed it was doomed — observed this week that, in such a situation, you gaze forward over the months towards a later date, you contemplate how you are possibly going to fill them when you have no real policy options, you contemplate how on earth you keep the messages on track and your colleagues disciplined, and it weighs you down like a physical burden.

How do you limp on until May? You just want it to stop.

And calling an election campaign holds the prospect of both disciplining your colleagues and creating a momentum that may have been eluding you.
You know how much trouble the government is in now because, not only do the internal divisions mean there is not a lot of room for Scott Morrison to move (other than by splashing money around after an improvement in the mid-year review of the budget is announced), but because suddenly everyone has started to focus on what a Labor government would look like and do.

Policies that go back to before the last election are being scrutinised afresh with all sorts of alarming predictions of economic collapse attached to them.

Bill Shorten, standing on a stage in front of a bus with Labor advertising, speaks to a crowd on Sunday June 26, 2016.

What if Labor won?

Bill Shorten, meantime, is giving serious speeches about foreign policy and his frontbench is calmly batting back the policy scares.

The pragmatists of the business community are presuming now that Labor will win the election and are brushing up their contacts and their briefs on what that would mean for their operations and the economy more broadly.

Coalition MPs are still finding ways to explain how they can win the next election. And the reality is, of course, that stuff just happens in life and politics which transforms the playing field — like the Tampa incident — which mean it can't be ruled out. Just ask NSW Labor and Luke Foley.

But this does not change the reality that a psychological bridge has been crossed in federal politics in the last few weeks, and everything that happens from now on will be seen from the other side of the stream.

Laura Tingle is 7.30's chief political correspondent.

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