Backbenchers give Morrison more to worry about in key marginals

Here are a few things that should worry the government today. First, with the number of days left in the campaign now down to single digits, a YouGov poll released last night has Labor on track to win 80 seats.

“The election is in the hands of the Australian people. It’s not in the hands of pollsters or modellers,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said today.

But one of Morrison’s final chances to reverse that trend — the third leaders debate last night — passed by without race-shifting incident. 

Then, in the morning, a typically eye-opening Niki Savva hit revealed the campaign for Katherine Deves — the alienating, train-wreck candidate for Warringah, tainted by her transphobic comments — was being run out of the Prime Minister’s Office.

It confirms suspicions that Deves exists as a kind of culture war dogwhistle to socially conservative voters in Labor’s suburban Red Wall. But that strategy, along with growing momentum around teal independents, has coalesced into an existential threat for Liberal moderates, worried about their own future in a party that could irreversibly shift to the right no matter who forms government next week.

Today, NSW Treasurer Matt Kean, the wettest of Liberal wets, warned that the teal wave could purge the party of moderates and drag it towards crazy land, currently inhabited by the US Republican Party. Tony Abbott, meanwhile, urged Warringah Liberals fleeing the sinking ship to fight in other seats to stay and back Deves.

The anti-trans stuff resurfaced today when Morrison, alongside Bass MP Bridget Archer, was announcing a $55 million mental health partnership with the Tasmanian government. An emotional Archer spoke with rare honesty about her own struggles with mental health issues. But she then faced a series of questions about the struggles of transgender people, in light of Deves’ comments.

“We can all do better,” was the key line in Archer’s response.

The MP was one of five who crossed the floor in February to provide greater protections for LGBTIQA+ students during debate over the government’s contentious religious freedom legislation.

That sense of independence may be Archer’s best asset as she fights to keep the ultra-marginal seat. It was Morrison’s third trip to Bass this campaign. So far this week, he’s also been in Liberal-held Bennelong, Robertson and Reid, a sign his campaign could be on an increasingly defensive footing in the final stretch.

Speaking of Reid, controversy around Liberal MP Fiona Martin continued for a second day. At a debate on 2GB yesterday, Martin appeared to confuse her opponent, Labor’s Sally Sitou, with another Asian-Australian woman, Tu Le, after alleging the former “couldn’t run in Fowler”.

It was Le who lost Fowler to Kristina Keneally and the Labor machine, not Sitou. The Labor candidate demanded an apology, but Martin has continued to double down, pointing to old reports Sitou was considering running in Cabramatta (not Fowler). 

“I am the granddaughter of Greek migrants,” Martin said in a follow-up post today.

“My record makes clear I would never direct a racial slur at anyone. There is no place for racism in Australia and it should be called out.”

Earlier, Morrison backed his MP, claiming it “wasn’t the case” Martin had confused Sitou and Le. Watch the video and judge for yourself.

For the Morrison camp, it’s another unwelcome gaffe in a key marginal seat. There’s actually been a few this week — the LNP’s Vivian Lobo, running in winnable Lilley, has gone underground after being investigated by the AFP over alleged enrolment fraud. Jerry Nockles running in Eden-Monaro might actually live interstate. Maria Kovacic, running in Parramatta as “the real Eel”, doesn’t really live in Western Sydney.

No wonder Anthony Albanese had a spring in his step today, another worrying sign for Morrison. The opposition leader was in Flynn (LNP +8.7%), a regional Queensland seat higher up the electoral totem poll, where he made an announcement on battery manufacturing.

Speaking in front of whirring machinery that at times drowned out questions, Albanese looked as in control of the press pack as he had at any point in the campaign. Another worry for a government holding out hope that another Albo gaffe could shift momentum back its way.