Paul Bongiorno
Nobody likes a bad dentist

A shock, a self-inflicted wound on day one of the six-week formal election campaign has put Anthony Albanese on the back foot. That has to be the biggest takeout of week one, making the next five even more fraught for the Labor leader as he tries to persuade voters to give him a go in the top job.

While some in his party are grateful the inability to remember the official unemployment figure of 4 per cent and the Reserve Bank’s official interest rate of 0.1 per cent happened so early in the campaign, that is scant consolation. Not because it shows he doesn’t grasp fundamental economics, as the government and its cheerleaders in the media claim, but because he has given them a stick to beat him with.

Scott Morrison said Albanese’s stab at answering the “gotcha” question on the unemployment rate with a five in front of it “not even a four in front of it ... and it’s going to a number with a three in front of it” showed that he has “no idea what has happened with Australia’s economic recovery”. He accused the Labor leader of spending the past three years attacking him and said it was no substitute for coming up with an economic plan.

This was in itself a telling insight into Morrison’s mindset. He blames Labor for the fact he is unpopular with voters, so much so he is not welcome to campaign in urban seats where Liberals are under real threat from “teal independents”. He even seems to suggest his negative approval in the opinion polls is because he has been tough enough to “stand up to the many challenges that are going on in this country”.

All of this is surely wishful thinking. He has run away from too many of those challenges. But Morrison markets it with smug assurance, even scoffing at Albanese’s short stints as acting prime minister during the Rudd years. He said if the Labor leader thinks filling in for 48 hours is preparation for the tough job of leading the nation, then “he’s got no idea”. With a flourish, he ended that sledge with a new slogan: “This is a tough job and it won’t be easy under Albanese.” Not quite as pungent as “the Bill you can’t afford”, used against Bill Shorten in 2019, but it’s something.

There is no doubt the gaffe or “mistake”, as Albanese readily admitted in a hasty piece of damage control, has boosted morale among Liberals. As one told me, “It means the election isn’t over.” Conversely, in the Labor camp there is a feeling the mountain they have to climb just got steeper.

It was, however, a refreshing change to hear someone aspiring to the top job actually admit they were human, “fess up” to a snafu and not blame someone else. Albanese pointedly said, “I will accept responsibility. That’s what leaders do.” Labor says its research found a positive reaction among voters to this mea culpa, although not necessarily to the lapse itself. Morrison, of course, is in so much trouble because he has established a reputation for blame-shifting and failing to accept responsibility for anything that goes wrong.

Labor’s campaign spokesperson, Jason Clare, spelled out the contrast. He pointed to Morrison’s failure to “fess up” to the mistake of going to Hawaii “when Australia was burning”. Or other failures, such as not ordering enough vaccines when the country was in lockdown last year. Or the failure to order enough rapid antigen tests when supply chain disruptions left supermarket shelves empty. Or to not have helicopters ready for flood rescues. Clare said there were real-life consequences to these mistakes.

The case is compelling. Still, one of Albanese’s former senior colleagues says, “What we need now is for Albo to demonstrate he not only recognises what the country needs but that he knows how to deliver it.”   

This will be a real test of Albanese’s resilience and resolve. His margin for error has narrowed. “He can’t afford another mistake,” said one seasoned campaigner. That is probably too hard an ask given that the most minor slip-up will be magnified in the media – it always is, if for no other reason than as a break from the interminably boring propaganda of the campaign. That and the fact the three biggest media companies in Australia – News Corp, Nine and Seven – are all much more sympathetic to the government than they are to Labor, in line with the Liberal-aligned sympathies of their owners.

While there was some tightening in the Newspoll, Labor is still ahead on primary vote. The two-party-preferred gap has narrowed to six points. It’s a big gap to bridge in the time available – although with the tighter margin, Morrison and his treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, would have to consider the $3 billion given to petrol relief in the budget money well spent. The Roy Morgan Poll has no change, though, showing Labor with an insurmountable 14-point lead. Both this week’s polls would suggest it is still Albanese’s election to lose. Both, of course, were taken before the “mistake” and the blizzard of adverse commentary it triggered.

Working against a second “miracle win” for the Liberals is the plummet in standing of Scott Morrison over the past three years in government. He is a known quantity now and few doubt he is a drag on the Coalition’s vote. He himself knows it and there was more than enough evidence of this in the way he launched the campaign last Sunday.

Unlike in 2019, it is no longer a choice between him and his opponent. He didn’t dare say “vote for me and you get me, vote for Anthony Albanese and you get Anthony Albanese” as he did for his previous Labor opponent, Bill Shorten. No, it’s now a choice between the Coalition and the Labor Party.

In a feat of Olympic-standard callisthenics, Morrison said other people will attempt to make the election about him. They would be wrong. “It’s actually about the people who are watching this right now,” he said. “It’s about them.” But the suggestion it is not about the “Morrison” government is absurd, just as it would be absurd to say it’s not about the “Albanese” alternative. Both leaders have nowhere to hide. As we saw this week, Albanese is not attempting to.

Morrison went as close as he could bring himself to admitting he is not perfect and without flaws. Except he hid again behind his government. He didn’t directly say he was flawed. It is true that you can share around ministerial resignations and scandals such as robo-debt and $20 billion of JobKeeper going to businesses that weren’t eligible, but his fingerprints are all over them. He claimed to be “upfront” but has only ever offered excuses for things such as the vaccine “strollout” and the belated responses to the bushfire and flood catastrophes.

Morrison’s attempts to cover his credibility deficit were on show as he hit the campaign trail. On Tuesday he was accompanied by two senior ministers, the treasurer and Foreign Minister Marise Payne, when he went to the Rheem factory in Rydalmere. His primary purpose was to capitalise on Albanese’s unemployment gaffe by promising 1.3 million new jobs in five years.

One journalist reminded him that in the last election he campaigned almost exclusively on his own. “Today you have campaigned here with Marise Payne and Josh Frydenberg. Is it a sign your popularity is on the nose, you are damaged goods across Australia?” The prime minister said it wasn’t a popularity contest and far from the disunited party he inherited in the run-up to 2019, which he described as “the Muppets”, now he’s “happy to showcase his team every single day”.

He borrowed from an image used by Barnaby Joyce in batting away the popularity bogey. He likened himself to a dentist who you don’t have to like; all you want to know is if they are good at their job. That, of course, is his problem: increasingly people are marking him down for the job he’s doing.

The choice of the Rheem factory was itself curious. There is a cloud hanging over the 500-strong workforce as the company is planning to move manufacturing offshore to Vietnam. Pinged on it midweek, Morrison said he had been assured job losses would be by natural attrition and voluntary redundancy – hardly an assuring prospect.

Just as problematic was the promise of 1.3 million new jobs. You know there is something suss about it when one of the government’s business allies, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, described the announcement as “puzzling” because by any analysis a significant immigration boost, beyond budget predictions, would be needed to achieve it.

Chief executive Andrew McKellar told The Sydney Morning Herald, “there’s limited substance behind it”. He said, “It doesn’t have the detail; it does ring a bit hollow.”

Almost as hollow as the attacks on Albanese’s economic competence from the leader of a government that spent $5 billion on submarines that will never be delivered.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 16, 2022 as "Nobody likes a bad dentist".

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Paul Bongiorno is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a 30-year veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery.

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