On the final manic drive to the ballot box, we approach the national crossroads with justified trepidation: are we heading towards the light or is that another runaway train coming to plough us down?
We pollsters and pundits (and we progressives in general) are all experiencing our own form of PTSD after the car crash that was the 2019 election, where we misread the warning signs and plunged off an electoral cliff.
The final Guardian Essential Report of the campaign finds Labor with an advantage that, if replicated nationally and flowing through the final 7% of undecided voters, would deliver a change of government.
But there are caveats to these numbers reflected in the regional differences outlined above. In truth, this national election is at least three separate, but ultimately converging, contests.
One election campaign is being fought in middle-class suburbs of our major cities, where cost of living and housing prices are biting. These are seats the Coalition held on to in 2019 on the promise not to wind back tax concessions, but with these policies off the table, Labor is making its case for safe change.
A second election campaign is being fought on the fringes of our major cities where there are more low-information voters in Labor-held seats who Scott Morrison believes can be won over with tightly targeted culture wars.
Finally, there is the battle in high-income inner-city seats where the Liberal party’s few remaining moderates are facing a reckoning for the party’s ongoing neglect of climate change, government integrity and gender equity.
Because of the fragmented nature of the contest, national trends are not determinative, and ultimately election night will be a question about distribution of vote as much as it is one of size.
There are other markers that give an indication of how this journey ends. Through the campaign we have charted the relative popularity of the leaders, where Morrison is now in net negative, while Anthony Albanese sits in net positive, basically reversing the standings of Morrison and Bill Shorten three years ago.
Another key indicator is voter choice: what is the question voters are asking themselves as they enter the ballot box? Trying to proffer a fair read-out of each side’s essential propositions, for the Morrison government it’s been about a safe pair of hands to manage the economy, while for Albanese’s Labor it has been about the need for government to confront the problems the nation is facing.
Lining these two choices up show that it is Labor’s frame that is defining the contest. Indeed, in recent days Morrison has conceded he has lost the voter choice battle and is attempting to recast himself as a positive agent for change. The challenge he faces is that if change is the voter choice proposition, it is hard to see the status quo prevailing.
So what happens now? The windscreen is way too dirty to predict the outcome on Saturday with anything resembling confidence. The only certainty is that when we look in the rearview mirror on Sunday morning at what has just happened, it will all be crystal clear.
If Labor wins a majority it will be because: Albanese has delivered on a disciplined three-year strategy that learned from the shock of 2019 by eschewing performative politics and ruthlessly focusing on winning government. Labor will have earned power by playing a constructive role though the first year of the pandemic when many state oppositions tried to score cheap points, but then being relentless in holding the government to account through 2021 when the government dallied on vaccines, neglected quarantine and politicised border closures.
The reality will be that Morrison lost this election in 2019 with his Hawaiian sojourn, the handshake and the hose. This dodging of responsibility framed every later act of neglect: of women, of climate, of aged care, of the NDIS all coming home to roost in the campaign until his personal reputation was fatal on his party. His final days will be remembered for a chaotic and disjointed campaign where he seemed to deliberately sacrifice progressive seats to the teals.
If Morrison manages to hold on: it will be his “second miracle”, another triumph of tactics and testimony to his mastery of the game that electoral politics has become. Enough voters will have accepted that “you couldn’t blame ScoMo for the pandemic” and that Australia did well enough compared with other countries. The Deves gambit to narrowcast bigotry to specific targets will have done its work. Morrison will emerge with immense personal authority inside the government, caring even less for accountability having seen how little performance actually matters.
Labor will be left ruing their leader’s day one campaign brain fade that became an iconic political moment, giving a feral press pack a taste of blood in the water that was never sated. There will also be regrets that Albanese presented too small a target and that he left it too late to reveal himself to the electorate, allowing the government to define him on the basis of his missteps. After running “too hot” in 2019, it will be determined that Labor overcorrected though its conscious decision to take passion out of the broader progressive movement.
If we end with minority government determined by independents: it will mean Australia is ready to fundamentally rewrite its political faultlines. The result will reflect the reality that more Australians have moved from the major parties to new alliances of post-material urbanites and outsider nativists.
After a vitriolic campaign against the independents, Morrison will be incapable of cobbling together a stable minority, squeezed by the Nationals on the right and the teals on the left, pushing and pulling into areas the other side just won’t go. A Labor minority negotiated with the teals, Greens and other independents will have a greater chance of success, although the lessons of 2010-2013 may preclude a formal power-sharing agreement. With an angry and divided opposition egged on by a shrill Murdoch press, it will be a wild ride, but one with the potential to create a more collaborative model of politics in Australia into the future.
Which road? Right now, all of these futures are possible as we enter the final straight. If I had to make a call, I think the tide has turned on Morrison and government will change. If history is our guide, that change will be decisive. A narrow win from opposition will be truly historic, but one we will take all the same.
But just as I cautioned on election eve 2019, while the champagne should be put on ice, we would all be well-advised to keep the scotch close at hand on Saturday night.
* Yes, this adds up to 101%, but that is because the three figures have all been rounded up.
• Peter Lewis will discuss the findings of the Essential Report with Guardian Australia political editor Katharine Murphy and Australia Institute deputy director Ebony Bennett at the special election eve time of 6pm on Wednesday. Bring a drink! Register here