“Of course it is,” the gentleman responded. “Every one of us around this table supports the Demons.”
These were the truly long-suffering: members of the Melbourne footy club, which has seen more dry gullies in the last half-century than you’d want to remember. They understood disappointment and pain and holding on to blind hope.
They were Labor supporters, too, all dressed up for what was supposed to be Bill Shorten’s triumphal election-night knees-up.
But Labor was going down the gurgler at the end of the last quarter. Again.
Their chat edging towards lament, I wandered off, mulling on how I and just about everyone else who ought to have known better had got it so wrong.
Hindsight is the great clarifier. Bill Shorten had spent much of the campaign declaring “when you change the government, you change the country”.
It occurred that he was channelling Paul Keating, who’d used the remark in 1996, when his government had been defeated by John Howard.
For Keating, however, this line was not an encouragement but a warning. A little awkward, then, to hear it used as Labor’s rallying cry in 2019.
Anyway, it didn’t work. The voters, it emerged, didn’t want to change the government. Or the country. Not for Shorten.
We’d predicted too easily that Labor, even with a leader so lacking in cut-through, would oust a government hogtied by leadership chaos and the elevation of Scott Morrison, a last-man-standing showman armed with marketing slogans and a policy bag emptied of all but a tax cut and a last-minute government guarantee for first-home buyers.
Morrison had claimed the mantle of superior economic manager, boasting the country’s books were “back in the black”. The books actually showed deficit this year and no more than a prediction of a surplus next year, with an economy slowing, to which he’d said, risibly: “I said we brought the budget back to surplus next year”.
How could he hold on? With some panache, it turned out.
In the absence of policies, Morrison danced across the country as Mr Everyman, Mr Devoted Dad and Mr Prayerful – precisely who he is. And those he needed, the ones in the marginal seats beyond the inner cities, found that he was good, whatever they might have told the pollsters, and he told them he believed in miracles and quiet Australians.
Voters all over the place, however, wouldn’t cop Shorten. Those north of the Tweed wouldn’t cop being told by southern lefties and greens that they were selfish bogans because they valued jobs over a climate crisis they and their Facebook feeds chose to believe didn’t exist.
Older Australians feared their retirement was in jeopardy.
Who thought there was a win in promising to take money away from retirees, even if there was a dry argument that their franking credits were an unearned gift and only a relative few would lose income? And then, when predictable screaming broke out, who thought it was a good idea to say “if you don’t like our policies, don’t vote for us”.
Why, that would be Shorten’s would-be Treasurer, Chris Bowen, who imagined for a crazed day or two after the election went south that it would be a good idea to offer himself as Labor’s latest leader.
We had suspended judgment, hypnotised by polls. Which all turned out to have been a crock. The same polls that had been used to bring down two Liberal prime ministers. What if they were wrong all along?
There was talk after election night that what had happened was “unprecedented”, a term generally reserved for those without memory.
In fact, it wasn’t much more than the Coalition’s return serve for Keating’s impossible comeback of 1993. How could Labor have lost its memory of that event?
Go back to 1993 and you’ll find a prime minister, Paul Keating, assumed by just about everyone, including the polls, to be facing defeat by an opposition leader, John Hewson, armed with a massive suite of economic and social policies all wrapped around a 15 per cent GST.
And glory be, Keating, burdened with a minus 25 per cent “approval” rating, demolished Hewson by portraying his big plan as a recipe for unemployment and the end of Medicare, among other horrors. “A vote for Dr Hewson is a leap in the dark,” Keating thundered.
Keating increased his government’s cohort to 80 seats. The Coalition was left with 65.
All these years later, Shorten’s Labor offered Morrison the opportunity to claim, over and over, that its big tax-and-spend program was not just a leap in the dark, but an attack on retirees and a gigantic tax grab.
With the numbers totted up, Morrison has taken his Coalition to 78 seats, and Shorten has shrunk Labor’s position to 67.
Serve returned, Morrison is revelling in a level of authority similar to that Keating enjoyed after his 1993 win.
As our philosopher friend mentioned, the next election, due in 2022, is just around the corner.
Keating’s next election was just around the corner too, in 1996. And he and Labor were swept away.
It’s the only part of the story that might offer hope to long-suffering Labor members.
Still, you wouldn’t have wanted to spend too much time dwelling on it at that table at Shorten’s wake: the Demons, once supreme, haven’t seen a flag since 1964.
Tony Wright is the associate editor and special writer for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.