With families forced to manage the pandemic themselves, voters have a very personal stake in this election contest
We are entering the business end of the Australian Political Open with the reigning champ “Slo-Mo” up against the league-loving lad whose identity he has appropriated, Albo.
Scott Morrison is in trouble. Hampered by a clear lack of preparation, the master of the topspin has failed to deliver what was needed over summer with a series of ugly double-faults when all that was required was a basic service.
Meanwhile, his botched match-up with the world No 1 highlights his poor ongoing record in international competitions, reinforced by his tendency to prioritise showmanship over hard work and blame others for his own unforced errors.
After starting this title defence strongly following a boilover victory in 2019 that left his opponents choking on the champagne they had prematurely popped, the champ dropped the second set after failing to show up on court just as the 2020 summer action was heating up.
While stabilising in the third set by adapting a safety-first mindset and actively embracing his opponents’ baseline approach, he squandered this advantage incurring multiple infringements for delays.
Now deep in the deciding set, Slo-Mo is attempting to absolve himself by arguing that balls flying off the rim to wreak havoc in the crowd have actually touched the line.
But as this week’s Guardian Essential Report shows, the Australian voter’s hawk eye is not buying it, rating his recent form poorly and stripping him of his net positive rating for the first time since the Hawaiian Open debacle.
A critical factor weighing the final outcome of this showdown will be the crowd. And what is particularly striking here is the degree to which the public has a personal stake in this contest.
Over the past two decades the Political Open has become more a spectator sport, an emotional ride too often devoid of personal consequence as the crowd passively watched from the sidelines.
What was promised as a summer of freedom has actually been a summer of queues and fear and illness and frustrated plans
In these contests players can get away with trick shots for the lols; convincing pensioners they were going to be taxed to death (Open Final 2019) or people in the suburbs that asylum seekers were clogging up their roads (Open Finals 2001, 2004, 2007, 2010 and 2013).
But this summer the action has had greater meaning as people live the consequence of the Slo-Mo playbook: from the availability of rapid antigen tests to Covid vaccine booster supplies to supporting industries in lockdown, the public is experiencing what happens firsthand when a titleholder loses command of their game.
In another question this week more than half of respondents indicated they had been personally affected by a summer of mistakes; young people, in particular, have been feeling the effects of the mishits.
What was promised as a summer of freedom has actually been a summer of queues and fear and illness and frustrated plans, but most of all a summer of confusion.
When the punters don’t have access to clear information, or worse, when they can’t do what they are meant to because the authorities have not provided them with the means to do it, then the game changes.
When families are forced to manage the pandemic for themselves and their leader is doing nothing but playing the predictable strokes and pretending it’s all going to plan, then politics ceases to be a game at all.
And when we are all told it is our “personal responsibility” to resolve this disconnect, we can end up shifting our allegiances to the other side. That’s what is happening right now.
More than one-third of those watching say they are now less like to support Morrison and even allowing for those diehard Albo fans, this includes up to one in five Liberal voters who say they are less likely to stay in his corner. (Notably too, nearly a third of independent and small-party voters say his fracas would make him less likely to woo them back to the blue corner.)
As any tennis player will tell you, once the momentum shifts it is really, really difficult to turn things around mid-rally. That’s where Morrison is in the final stage of this epic contest, bringing out the Hail Mary big shots, anything to land a winner that he can build on.
We know he has a deep bag of tricks and he won’t leave a single one in the sack. Like a political Nick Kyrgios, he will bring the colour and bluster and curated photo-ops, but is he actually doing the work required to go the full distance?
As for his opponent, the journeyman leftie has been conserving energy and making his opponent do all the running around. Maybe more Ash Barty, he was the only member of the last Cup-winning team to emerge with their dignity intact and is looking fitter as the match wears on.
Provided he can hold his nerve and keep his radar honed, the onus is now on Albo to move up to the net. Game on!
• Peter Lewis will discuss the findings of the week’s Guardian Essential Report at the special time of 2:30pm on Tuesday – free registration here