The Politics    Friday, April 22, 2022

A narrow focus

By Rachel Withers

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison looking through a F-18 Super Hornet engine at TAE Aerospace, near Ipswich, today. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

Prime Minister Scott Morrison looks through a F-18 Super Hornet engine at TAE Aerospace, near Ipswich, today. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

What were the real issues that defined week two of the election campaign? (And no, it wasn’t Albanese getting COVID)

Political journalism over the past 24 hours has been heavily focused on the fact that Labor leader Anthony Albanese has COVID-19, and what that will mean for the day-to-day coverage most voters don’t really care about anyway. (And no, it’s probably not Labor’s “worst nightmare”.) While some wondered if this might bring a renewed focus on policy, or on the rest of the Labor front bench, which the party always planned to utilise under its war-gamed Plan C(ovid), most of the questions today aimed at campaign spokesperson Jason Clare were focused on what this means for the campaign, whether it is a positive or a negative, where he might have got it, who else might have it and – bizarrely – whether Clare’s presence meant he is the next leader. (There were at least 11 missed opportunities to ask about Clare’s shadow portfolio, or literally anything else, by my count.) Of course, punters will probably barely notice that Albanese isn’t doing press conferences for the next seven days, just as they barely notice most things at this end of the campaign. But there were several issues that really did matter this week, and which are worth another look.

The China–Solomon Islands security pact took up a lot of time in pressers this week, as it should, with the Coalition’s blind insistence that it and only it can be trusted to manage national security now much harder to maintain. (Today’s key revelation: Australia knew about the deal in some form before it was leaked online, despite what the government says.) The blunder is probably not, as Labor has claimed, the worst since World War Two. But it’s no doubt true that, as former SA premier Mike Rann points out, the Murdoch media would be screaming bloody murder if this had happened under Labor’s watch. The Murdoch media is attempting to scream bloody murder at Labor anyway, with The Australian digging through stuff that deputy leader Richard Marles has previously said about China’s involvement in the Pacific. (How this excuses the government’s current stuff-up, which even breakfast TV hosts have labelled “embarrassing”, is unclear, though the PM is hammering it anyway.) In return, the ALP is now circulating old Morrison lines on China, but as the ABC’s Stephen Dziedzic tweeted, “not sure any of this gets us very far”. Less attention has been paid to what this China rhetoric will mean for the Chinese vote in crucial seats, or for our relationship with our largest trading partner more broadly, although some have tried.

Wednesday’s first leaders debate, meanwhile, seemed to indicate that undecided voters are far more focused on social services and integrity – areas in which Labor is campaigning – than on drones or cancel culture (which Morrison played around with again today). Despite the insistence of seven Liberal backbenchers earlier in the week that a federal corruption watchdog was not a major issue with voters, several audience members at Sky News’s Brisbane forum wanted to know what the leaders were going to do to restore faith in politics. (Sky commentators expressed their surprise at this after the debate, saying that they thought corruption was “just a teal independent issue”.) The prime minister has continued to defend his broken promise to establish a federal integrity commission, running the fallacious line about former NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian being unfairly investigated over “who her boyfriend is”. (“Sickening”, Morrison added this morning.) It remains to be seen what findings the NSW commission will hand down on the Berejiklian matter and how they might affect Morrison’s ability to use her as a shield; nevertheless, it seems the issue of integrity is closer to the front of voters’ minds than the Coalition might like. (Leaks such as this probably don’t help the matter.)

It is also instructive to look at the topics that haven’t been covered as heavily as the scare campaigns around boat turnbacks and cashless debit cards. Climate change has been all but ignored, as Guardian Australia’s Greg Jericho noted yesterday, despite the fact that it is the most pressing issue of our time. The biggest role the topic seems to have played in the campaign this week was through Energy Minister Angus Taylor’s highly questionable power bill modelling, which was splashed across the News Corp front pages on Tuesday. As The New Daily reported yesterday, the modelling was based on false assumptions (much as expected), and the experts that the minister had selectively quoted were in fact highly sceptical of his claims about Labor’s renewables plan. Women’s issues also aren’t getting much of a look-in (other than “in sport”, that is), despite Wednesday’s Essential polling revealing that undecided female voters could decide the election. A Raise Our Voices survey released today showed, among other things, that 94 per cent of respondents agreed that it’s important for the government to be diverse, and there was a high level of familiarity with stories about Brittany Higgins, Grace Tame and the Jenkins report.

The Anzac Day long weekend is, to everyone’s great relief, another chance for a “reset” on the campaign, for both teams to prepare for upcoming portfolio debates (in which we will hopefully get to hear a little more about policy). But it would be instructive for all parties to take another look at the issues raised by voters on Wednesday night. As Labor’s front bench comes to the fore with Albanese isolating at home, we could have a more interesting and dynamic campaign in the week ahead – if only the press pack will allow it.

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Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.

@rachelrwithers

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