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The election race is reset as Labor leader Anthony Albanese rejoins the fray, with both sides working to sharpen their focus on key demographics and messages. By Karen Middleton.

Election ’22: Labor resets as Albanese returns

Scott Morrison with veteran Sydney Kinsman in Alice Springs.
Scott Morrison with veteran Sydney Kinsman in Alice Springs.
Credit: AAP Image / Pool / James Brickwood

At its midpoint, after a string of public holidays and with one of the leaders sidelined for seven days by Covid-19, the federal election campaign is effectively starting all over again with just three weeks to go.

Still ahead in the opinion polls, but with sluggish approval ratings for its prime ministerial aspirant, Labor is staking everything on a reset, kicking off with its formal campaign launch on Sunday.

“The Covid week plus the public holidays are like a pre-campaign period,” one Labor strategist says of the circumstances. “… The real campaign starts this weekend.”

The launch event is uncharacteristically early in the campaign cycle – it’s typically in the final fortnight. It’s also unusually located in Perth, among several seats Labor hopes to gain but far from most of the others targeted as winnable.

Labor figures acknowledge their success in these final weeks will depend heavily on leader Anthony Albanese’s performance. “He’s just got to be really careful,” one says of Albanese’s return to the fray, “and project calm competence.”

While Albanese’s illness was initially seen as a setback for Labor – and catapulted campaign spokesman Jason Clare into the spotlight – it has been the Coalition battling controversy in the week of his absence.

Having the Labor leader out of the picture made it harder for Prime Minister Scott Morrison to concentrate his attacks directly on his opponent. By Thursday, he was sledging Albanese for being lazy while he was sick.

“I’m looking forward to him re-joining the campaign,” Morrison told Channel Nine’s Today. “He’s had a pretty quiet week. I remember when I was in iso, I had a very busy week attending Quad summit and doing all those sorts of things.”

Confirmation that the Solomon Islands’ security deal with China had been finalised also blunted the Coalition’s argument that it would keep Australians safer than Labor, especially from a potentially hostile China.

Asked on Sunday about suggestions China planned to establish a military base in the Solomons, Morrison described that as a “red line”, implying it would provoke a response.

“I share the same red line that the United States has when it comes to these issues, and we’re very aware of that and actions that could be needed,” Morrison told journalists at a campaign stop in Alice Springs. “… We won’t be having Chinese military naval bases in our region on our doorstep.”

But the prime minister declined to nominate what kind of response that might be, saying only that the Solomon Islands prime minister, Manasseh Sogavare, agreed with him.

Morrison’s predecessor, Malcolm Turnbull, entered the fray on Tuesday, not exactly in defence of the government’s efforts.

“This is a hose you have to hold,” he said of diplomacy in the South Pacific. “This needs time and attention. You cannot abrogate or step away from responsibility.”

Seen as unnecessarily provocative, Morrison’s “red line” warning also attracted wider criticism.

“It’s not language that I would have recommended using,” Melbourne University deputy vice-chancellor and professor of international relations Michael Wesley said on Thursday.

“We have to remember that Solomon Islands is a sovereign state, as is China, and ratcheting up the rhetoric like putting red lines in the sand is almost goading countries into calling our bluff,” Wesley told Sky News. “I would wind down the rhetoric if I was the prime minister and just keep things relatively calm, keep the background diplomacy going and make sure that this agreement is an agreement on paper only rather than being put into practice.”

Another blow to a key pillar of the Coalition campaign came in the form of the higher-than-expected annual inflation rate of 5.1 per cent revealed on Wednesday. The jump from 3.5 per cent has made a mid-campaign rise in official interest rates next week much more plausible. It would be the first pre-election hike since 2007 – the last election an incumbent Coalition government lost – and the first of any kind since late 2010.

Official confirmation of the sting of rising consumer prices also potentially complicates the Coalition argument that a change of government will risk the economic gains of the Covid-19 recovery. Those on tight budgets can feel them slipping now.

But the electoral contest remains breathtakingly tight and focused more than ever on the cost of living.

Morrison is concentrating his arguments on his government’s record and the steps it has taken recently to ease financial household pressures. He is hitting all the words that research suggests resonate most with voters, including “action”, “shield” and “plan”.

“We took action and we could take action to provide a shield for Australians against these rising costs of living because we’ve been able through our economic plan to turn around the budget to the tune of over $100 billion,” Morrison said on Thursday.

The prime minister highlighted the six-month cut to petrol excise, the $250 cash handout for welfare beneficiaries that was delivered this week and the extra tax relief coming on July 1 for those on low-to-medium incomes.

Albanese, by contrast, is talking up wage rises to compete with inflation and steps to increase productivity. “What you can do is invest in things that boost productivity,” Albanese told WSFM radio on Thursday. He nominated clean energy and the National Broadband Network as investment areas that could deliver a productivity boost.

But the Labor leader’s interviews while in isolation were mixed. In a brutal engagement with Sydney’s Radio 2GB host Ray Hadley earlier in the week, Albanese acquiesced to Hadley’s demand that he repeat, like a bridegroom, a solemn pledge. “There will be no carbon tax, ever,” Albanese dutifully parroted.

It was reminiscent of the exchange that then Liberal minister Turnbull had on 2GB with broadcaster Alan Jones in 2014, except that Turnbull’s retort to a repeat-after-me demand was: “Alan, I am not going to take dictation from you.”

Some in Labor campaign headquarters express frustration that Albanese is often too obliging and does not always listen to advice on the selection of media appearances or how best to approach them.

His appearance at the Byron Bay Bluesfest over Easter – which some blame for his Covid exposure and where he was sprung on unsuspecting and not-all-happy festival-goers expecting Jimmy Barnes – was one such indulgence.

Both sides are focused on key demographics. The Coalition still needs to improve its standing among female voters, who strategists say are more likely than men to be undecided.

Coincidentally, one of the few taxpayer-funded advertising campaigns continuing through the caretaker period is the Stop it at the Start campaign, aimed at gender equality and changing attitudes towards women.

The Department of Social Services confirmed to The Saturday Paper this week that the fourth phase of the advertising campaign was launched on March 27. It stopped on April 11, when the caretaker period began, but it restarted two days later.

“The Department of Finance provided advice on 13 April 2022 that the Stop it at the Start campaign received bipartisan agreement to continue advertising during the caretaker period,” the department said in a statement. “Campaign advertising recommenced on 13 April 2022, and is scheduled to continue until 3 September 2022.”

It is the only advertising campaign that department is running during the caretaker period.

Labor has focused its messaging to women on the so-called caring employment sectors – aged care and childcare, where workers are mostly female.

And the teal independents contesting Liberal-held city seats are also seeking to capitalise on Morrison’s struggle to capture the female vote. Almost all are women.

Another demographic – young voters – are what some are calling a “wildcard” at this election. The Australian Electoral Commission reported a surge in new enrolments just before the rolls closed, taking the number of registered voters to 17.3 million, or an estimated 96.8 per cent of all those eligible.

Commission figures show that at the end of the March quarter – just before the election was called, so excluding that late surge – the national youth enrolment had risen one percentage point in the previous three months to 85.4 per cent. Its target was 85 per cent.

Researchers report young voters are most concerned about housing affordability – an issue barely discussed during the campaign – and feel “completely left out”.

They are less moved by cuts to petrol excise and tax concessions than older voters, because many pay little or no tax and don’t yet own cars.

Those aged 18 to 20 and voting for the first time have also suffered uniquely throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, unable to do what many others before them have – take a gap year, get a job and travel the world. It is unclear how crushed expectations will play out at the ballot box.

Pre-poll voting opens on May 9, so the coming week will see an increase in campaigning tempo from all parties and candidates.

At the last election, in 2019, 4.7 million people, or 31.6 per cent of eligible voters – almost a third – cast their ballots before election day.

The addition of concerns about Covid-19 social distancing to the mix suggests that number is expected to be higher this time. Add to that the reportedly high number of still undecided voters and one conclusion is possible, three weeks out: the volume of the campaign is about to go way up.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 30, 2022 as "Stop-start race".

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

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