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After a messy first week, it’s increasingly clear that the election campaign will be about the authenticity of the leaders. By Karen Middleton.

Can Albanese overcome a messy start to the election campaign?

Anthony Albanese on the campaign trail in Melbourne this week.
Anthony Albanese on the campaign trail in Melbourne this week.
Credit: AAP / Lukas Coch

After a blunder on day one of his campaign to run the country, Anthony Albanese received a discrete Liberal endorsement.

Beyond the early sympathy from former prime minister John Howard – who initially absolved the Labor leader of forgetting key economic numbers – another former minister delivered an indirect but pointed affirmation.

“I think the most valuable commodity in politics in the 21st century is authenticity – that you are authentic,” former treasurer Joe Hockey told ABC Radio in Canberra this week, in a conversation about Australian and American politics. “If people feel you’re a fake, if people feel that you’re pretending, they will see through you and punish you. And rightly so.”

Declining an opportunity to join his former colleagues in attacking the Labor leader, Hockey refused to comment directly on Albanese’s inability to name the unemployment rate. He doubtlessly recalled his own political train crash on his first day as Financial Services minister in 1998, when he sought to parade his knowledge of Asian economies and wrongly described the ringgit as the currency of Indonesia rather than Malaysia. So he knows what it’s like to make a humiliating mistake. He also knows the pivotal role of authenticity in the current election contest.

Political researchers and pollsters report that authenticity is one of the biggest things Albanese has going for him, among otherwise uncertain public sentiment about what he represents. They also report that authenticity is Scott Morrison’s Achilles heel.

In the focus groups that make up the qualitative research informing political campaigns, Albanese doesn’t register much in terms of positive sentiment – in fact, he doesn’t register much at all.

With an opponent who now registers strongly negative, this could be a virtue, but only provided the benign sentiment about Albanese doesn’t turn into a sense that he isn’t a safe pair of hands, isn’t across the detail and isn’t up to the job.

The risk of that idea taking hold is the great danger for Labor at the end of week one of a six-week campaign, ahead of polling day on May 21.

This is why Albanese’s inability to name the official interest rate of 0.1 per cent, and his stumbling stab at the unemployment rate, wrongly guessed at 5.4 per cent when it is 4 per cent, could end up being about more than just the failure to quickly recall numbers.

It is also why Morrison and the Coalition are linking the first-day mistake to these very messages and hammering them over and over. And over.

Defence Minister Peter Dutton launched an authenticity attack on Wednesday. “This guy is trying to pretend he’s something that he’s not,” Dutton said, adding: “Anthony Albanese is not the real deal. He’s not genuine. He’s not sincere and he’ll twist and contort and tell anybody anything they want to hear.”

The Coalition’s messaging is relentlessly focused on the Labor leader and relentlessly negative.

On Thursday, Morrison seized on a statement from Albanese that he no longer supported offshore processing of asylum seeker claims – against Labor policy – because turning boats back made it redundant. Albanese later reversed that.

“Anthony Albanese has had every position on border protection,” Morrison said. “He’s supported everything he’s opposed and he’s opposed everything he’s supported. And we’ve seen that across so many issues, so I’m not surprised that Australians are confused about what he stands for.”

The Liberal Party launched a new round of Facebook advertising this week, most of which featured video of Albanese’s numbers mistake or messages suggesting the Labor leader was unreliable.

After a blunder that was politically much worse than Joe Hockey’s past currency confusion, Albanese is now having to lean even more heavily on authenticity. Trying to make a virtue of it, he “fessed up”, said he “owned” his mistakes. In the latest of what is becoming a string of pop-culture references, he quoted a Taylor Swift lyric and vowed to “shake it off”.

“It’s good that it happened early,” one Labor insider says of the stumble. “But it’s also bad that it happened early … It could be an early wobble or a bump in the road. Or it could be the beginning of an effective story that this guy is not intellectually and temperamentally up to the job.”

Banishing any trace of that thought is the key task of the Labor team. Albanese sought to reset with a big health announcement, promising 50 urgent-care clinics across the country.

Morrison had his own travails in week one. He faced questions over the reported $500,000 payout to former staffer Rachelle Miller, who alleges she suffered abuse during a consensual affair with her then boss, Alan Tudge – allegations Tudge denies.

Morrison also repeated his previous support for a Liberal backbench senator’s bill banning transgender athletes from single-sex sports, and then was forced to rule it out when it emerged his candidate in the Sydney seat of Warringah, Katherine Deves, had described transgender children as “surgically mutilated and sterilised”. And he faced critical questions over abandoning plans for a national integrity commission.

Albanese also faced criticism after it was revealed Labor had abandoned plans to support an early further increase to the JobSeeker payment.

But it was the numbers stumble that set the tone.

John Howard was campaigning in Western Australia on Monday when journalists asked him about Albanese’s failure to name the key figures. His initial response was: “So what?”

But after Morrison and others refocused their messaging to be almost entirely about the mistake, Howard changed his tone. He suggested the numbers were essential knowledge.

Howard’s former chief of staff, Grahame Morris, said Albanese’s mistake was not necessarily fatal but that its timing, at the start of a campaign, was damaging.

Morris pointed to focus-group research published in The Australian Financial Review on Thursday that identified a lack of enthusiasm for either leader and “as a result, little enthusiasm for change”.

Ipsos research conducted on Tuesday night in the marginal Liberal-held Melbourne seats of Chisholm, Deakin and Higgins, and the Labor-held Sydney seats of Parramatta and Greenway, found participants in both groups struggled to identify any strengths in Albanese other than that he “wasn’t Bill Shorten”, his predecessor.

“A mistake like this just cuts through,” Grahame Morris told ABC24. “Can he come back? Well, of course he can.”

The AFR also reported that the focus groups described Morrison in unflattering terms, including that he was smirking, unkempt, immature and dishonest.

Former Shorten adviser Ryan Liddell suggested voters had long memories. “If the Liberals think that the last three days are going to erase the last three years of Scott Morrison’s government, then they’re kidding themselves.”

In his own public commentary this week, promoting his book, Diplomatic, Joe Hockey also spoke about political relationships and matters not easily forgotten. He wasn’t asked about the fact that he and Albanese remain friends across the aisle.

They both entered parliament at the 1996 election and joined forces at the time to mount an ultimately successful grassroots campaign to ease the aircraft-noise burden over their electorates and have it spread more evenly over the suburbs around Sydney Airport.

At an event at the Australian National University, Hockey explained why he chose to leave politics at the 2016 election, after Malcolm Turnbull had ousted prime minister Tony Abbott.

“I didn’t like the people I was working with anymore,” he said. “I am instinctively a team player – loyal. And I just didn’t like the people I was working with.”

Hockey said Turnbull had betrayed him in contesting the leadership back in 2009.

And he named Scott Morrison, who he said had done a deal with Turnbull to replace him as treasurer in 2015.

“And Morrison, you know…” Hockey said, before his voice trailed off and he stopped himself.

He left politics so he wouldn’t become bitter. “If I was still there, you know, I would’ve been consumed by the need to have revenge.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 16, 2022 as "Words and numbers".

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Karen Middleton is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.

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