In politics, as in war, battles are won and lost in the middle. You must take the citadel, claim the centre.
But the centre is not just a piece of space. It is not just a marginal seat or a margin of error. It is also a place in the human heart, a place where things feel balanced and right.
Australians have forever voted for reliability over recklessness. In the era since World War II it has taken little short of catastrophe or atrophy to cause a change in government.
Our entire compulsory and preferential voting system is designed to produce not the best outcome but the least worst. It is the core of our democratic stability. Mild frustration is its fuel and Australian voters have been nothing if not generous and patient with their political masters.
But it is nonetheless a fragile thing and many cracks have emerged in it this week.
It is easy to forget that Scott Morrison’s miracle victory was not a landslide but an eggshell. It was an astonishing political feat and a damning indictment on Labor’s undergraduate assumptions but the wash-up still left a lot of beached whales and one of them – the rogue MP Craig Kelly – has now gone back out to sea.
That puts Morrison back where Gillard was and where Turnbull almost was and where all of us have pretty much been for the last sorry decade.
Morrison went to the 2019 election with no policy platform that any average punter could name and then went AWOL in his baptism of literal fire. Had an election been held during the bushfires of 2019-20 Albo would have been ferried into the prime ministership even if he was dead on a stretcher.
At that point the only thing that could possibly have saved Morrison was an as yet unimaginable crisis. Amazingly, one came along, and his whatever-it-takes attitude to politics – he is, after all, a friend of Richo – saved his bacon and ours.
With nary a second thought the Liberal hardman embraced Keynesian economics and ploughed public money into people’s pockets. It might not have been his idea but who cares? The economy – the whole country – survived and thrived.
Morrison’s strength is that for all his Godliness he seems to believe in nothing in this temporal world. He is a political warrior who makes politically expedient choices and in his response to COVID-19 they have thankfully been for the greater good.
But his pragmatic instincts have failed him this week. Not in the problematic areas of Craig Kelly or Brittany Higgins but in the basic right of Australians to survive.
It has been common knowledge for years now that the current rate of the dole is unliveable, a position now held by everyone from John Howard to Barnaby Joyce to the Business Council of Australia. It has stagnated at absurdly low levels for decades to the point where even getting dressed for a job interview or buying a bus ticket to one is unaffordable. Rent is unthinkable.
The mass lay-offs caused by the COVID-19 shutdowns only underscore how precious and fleeting jobs can be. There may well be a handful of bludgers out there taking the piss but there are a hundred times more ordinary people desperately struggling to get by.
Some of them are older and know they will never work again, some still have hope. Either way an increase of $3.57 a day is hardly going to be the difference between survival and oblivion.
The current extra benefit is a modest $150 a fortnight. While few were expecting it to remain that high, I would have thought the sensible and fair thing to do would be split the difference, round it up and thus give an extra $80 a fortnight.
For the meagre $25 a week the Coalition is currently offering you’d almost say why bother? You’re going to look mean and miserable anyway so either save yourself the money or make it a decent amount and reap the reward.
It is astonishing to think that the government was handed a policy on a platter that was morally right, economically right and politically right and yet still somehow managed to stuff it up.
For both parties this is a battle that must be fought, one that taps into the heart of middle Australia and its innate sense of fairness and decency.
Up until this week I thought that the Coalition had seized Australia’s political centre. Now Labor has an opportunity to reclaim it.
And when you win the heart you win the fight.