The Politics    Friday, April 29, 2022

Battle of hustings

By Rachel Withers

Image of Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese in Sydney today. Image © Steven Siewert / AAP Images

Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese in Sydney today. Image © Steven Siewert / AAP Images

With Australians feeling the squeeze, the press pack grills Labor over Albanese’s absence

It was another depressing day to be watching the battle over who should run the country, amid quibbling about who worked harder while sick with COVID-19. With Labor leader Anthony Albanese completing his isolation period overnight (only for his deputy to test positive this morning), the press pack decided to buy into Scott Morrison’s ridiculous pot shots about Albanese’s “quiet week”. (The PM’s boasts about having gone “directly to the floods in northern New South Wales” when he finished isolating were simply a reminder of the fact that he delayed calling a national emergency until he could be there.) Why isn’t Albanese fronting the press conference? journalists demanded to know, of a man who has been advised to take it easy, and who nevertheless spoke to media multiple times today, including at the airport before his flight to Perth. Why won’t he do the exact debates the PM has agreed to? they asked (the PM is still rejecting a Press Club offering). It was an unedifying spectacle from the media, and I’m sorry to have even covered it here. But it seems worth noting that these were the kinds of questions asked of the Opposition at the end of a week in which we saw a shock inflation hike, rising electricity prices and reports of a nationwide rental crisis, not to mention serious questions about national security and climate. 

This week the Coalition seemed to be losing its edge in all its favourite areas, notably defence and the economy. The cost-of-living issues that are apparently beyond anyone’s control just keep coming: today it’s electricity, with a report showing wholesale prices up 141 per cent in a year, mostly thanks to the falling reliability of coal, with still-rising costs expected to flow onto consumers. The topic of power bills came up on RN Breakfast’s excellent politician-on-politician segment, with Environment Minister Sussan Ley bringing it up herself to rail against Labor’s plans. But as host Patricia Karvelas and Labor’s Tanya Plibersek both pointed out, prices are currently surging under the Coalition. (The press pack did raise the report with shadow treasurer Jim Chalmers, only to demand to know why Labor’s renewables plan wouldn’t bring down prices sooner; meanwhile, the PM’s response was essentially that price rises are “outside of our control”.) And as for that housing crisis? Doesn’t exist, said former PM John Howard, while admitting that “a lot of the reasons for housing being expensive in Australia has been baked into the system over the years”.

In terms of the economy more broadly, Australian Industry Group chief executive Innes Willox warns we are headed towards an economic downturn in the next 12 to 18 months, as business leaders call for ­urgent policy solutions to fix labour and skills shortages. The McKell Institute has released a report finding that Australians experienced a fall in real wages of 1.2 per cent in 2021 (even worse in Queensland and Western Australia), with wage growth to only get worse without a change in policy settings. (Morrison continues to insist there’s nothing a Labor government could do.) None of this, of course, stopped the PM from opening today’s press conference by declaring, shamelessly, that the election was a choice “between a strong economy or a weak economy”, with the implication that the former rested with him. The media is nevertheless doing its best to run interference. As Centre for Future Work policy director Greg Jericho notes, the AFR seems to be arguing that all economic problems since 2013 are actually Labor’s fault.

And when it comes to the Coalition’s supposed strength on national security, things just keep getting worse here too. The rhetoric from Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews – who suggested that China timed the announcement of its Solomons security pact to influence our election – continues to raise eyebrows. Experts are baffled, with the chair of Defence Studies at the University of Western Australia, Peter Dean, suggesting that it was either “wild speculation or a spurious claim”, and certainly not helping Australia’s relationship with our Pacific neighbour. Morrison, meanwhile, hit back at the Solomon Islands leader, Manasseh Sogavare, who noted in his parliament today that he wasn’t told about AUKUS until it was made public. Morrison has since accused his counterpart of parroting China’s lines, suggesting Sogavare changed his view based on “other influences”. So much for working to repair that relationship, as former spymaster Nick Warner, who oversaw the start of the Australian-led peacekeeping mission to the Solomon Islands in 2003, argued for in the AFR this morning. No wonder the Coalition is back to beating the drum about boats.

Climate change played a larger role than it did last week, thankfully, although mainly because the Coalition decided to reopen the climate wars. The “carbon tax” scare campaign against Labor doesn’t seem to have had the effect it once did, however, with the media much faster to pick it apart. (Guardian Australia continues to roundly demolish it, and even some elements of Sky News knocked it back.) And the “moderate” Liberals are obviously terrified to go near it, with the attack likely having done further harm to their individual electoral chances – even the environment minister seemed unwilling to call the Labor policy a “carbon tax” on RN this morning, while still trying to twist things around to say that enforcing the Coalition’s own mechanism to limit emissions was bad. Climate change is also playing an increasing role in the Solomons stoush, with a group of Pacific elders today warning that climate change, not geo-strategic tensions, is their biggest concern, arguing that Australia and the United States are still not doing enough.

It was, on reflection, a far more productive and policy-focused week than previously, with the media able to stay focused on the economy and national security because it wasn’t so focused on gotchas from Albanese. Unfortunately, now that he’s out of isolation, journos appear to have returned to form, asking pointless questions about his whereabouts and screaming that he isn’t subjecting himself to their questions often enough. Let’s hope, when he is feeling up to a press conference, they can avoid asking him what the cash rate is. Although, if the predictions of a looming Reserve Bank announcement are anything to go by, that might be a good question for the PM next Tuesday.

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Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.

@rachelrwithers

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