The Politics    Wednesday, April 13, 2022

VoteSeeker

By Rachel Withers

Image of Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese during a press conference in Melbourne today. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese during a press conference in Melbourne today. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

Attention turns to a Labor fail that actually matters

Journalists finally seem ready to ease up on flogging Anthony Albanese over his rates gaffe from Monday, although plenty were willing to flog him for changing tack when it came to no longer staying at press conferences until all questions were answered. Today’s presser was a little more focused on policy than pop quizzes, though unfortunately for the Labor leader it wasn’t the policy he was trying to announce: a new plan for bulk-billed urgent-care clinics to ease pressure on emergency departments, which has been well received by GPs but which others say doesn’t go far enough. Instead, the media was rightfully asking about yesterday’s news that Labor has dropped plans for an independent review into the abysmal JobSeeker rate (about $46 per day), and that it would not commit to any increase if it won government. This poses far more important questions for Labor than what the cash rate is. How many more progressive policies is Labor going to shed in its attempt to become a small enough, “fiscally responsible” enough target to win government?

Welfare groups have expressed their dismay over the news, confirmed yesterday by shadow assistant minister for Treasury Andrew Leigh at an Australian Council of Social Service policy forum. Speaking to RN Breakfast this morning, shadow health minister Mark Butler said that Labor had campaigned strongly for last year’s minor increase, after the temporary COVID-era boost to the payment was scrapped. It’s a claim that Guardian Australia inequality reporter Luke Henriques-Gomes described as “bold”, noting that he’d seen Labor advocate much harder in other policy areas. 

Answering questions in Melbourne today, Albanese tried to say that the party’s stance on JobSeeker hadn’t really changed, adding that it would be fiscally irresponsible to increase payments at the nation’s current debt levels. One could argue that going ahead with the Stage Three tax cuts, which will be far more expensive than a $95/week increase to JobSeeker, is the far less fiscally responsible course of action; but Albanese confirmed today, in another self-flagellating interview with The Daily Telegraph, that he was fully on board with them. Questioned on the current figure (in what appeared to be another lame attempt at a “gotcha” question), Albanese reminded reporters that he understood what it was like to live on a fixed income, that he had grown up with a single mother on the pension. But what is the point of Albanese trumpeting his lived experience of welfare if he isn’t willing to stand up and do something about it? And why not just stick to the commitment to have a review?

For Albanese, it drew an unfortunate contrast with Greens leader Adam Bandt, who appeared at the National Press Club today to spruik his policy platform, including a $7.5 billion a year plan to include dental under Medicare, which the party says could be funded by its billionaire tax. (This prompted an excellent array of headlines implying that Clive Palmer himself was going to fix the nation’s teeth.) “The money is there to pay for these big plans if we have the guts to take on the billionaires and the big corporations,” Bandt said, referring to his dental plan, though he could just as easily have been referring to welfare. Bandt’s position on the JobSeeker rate was clear: payments needed to be lifted above the poverty line, and it was something Australia had found a way to afford during the pandemic – and could afford to do again. “In a wealthy country like ours, no one should be living in poverty,” he stated. His refusal to engage with yet another “gotcha” on the wage price index – “Google it, mate” – received a round of applause, as he hit out at those turning the election into a “fact-checking exercise”. “Elections should be about a contest of ideas,” Bandt said. “Politics should be about reaching for the stars and offering a better society, and instead there’s these questions that are asked about ‘Can you tell us this particular stat or can you tell us that particular stat?’” 

It was not the only way in which Bandt made Albanese appear gutless today. The Labor leader had tried to knock back Monday’s “gotcha” as “the old Q and A stuff”, but he then engaged in the game by having a guess, rather than putting the question to bed. Labor has a far more difficult line to walk than the Greens in this campaign, both when it comes to trying to win over middle Australia and not pissing off the press pack. And there’s little doubt that Labor would be getting hammered over the costs if it did commit to a JobSeeker increase. But it’s nevertheless painfully disappointing to see a major left party that can’t even commit to a review into how much suffering people are experiencing. Many voters don’t care whether Albanese can reel off figures from the top of his head. But they do care what he’s going to do about the figures that directly impact how they live.

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Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.

@rachelrwithers

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