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Albanese starts to emerge from the shadows

Opinion

Federal Labor and its leader are making quiet progress in their election march but face challenges despite the Morrison Government’s self-inflicted wounds, writes Michelle Grattan.

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A week after Anthony Albanese announced his climate blueprint, Labor has every reason to believe the most difficult policy it will launch for the coming election has parachuted to a safe landing.

The government has brought out the predictable attacks, but there is no sign of a knock-out hit. Anyway, going too hard is risky, when moderate Liberals are facing campaigns from community independents focused on climate policy.

Labor’s 43% medium-term emissions reduction target isn’t scarily ambitious; the modelling is holding its own in the debate among the wonks; and the backing of business and high state targets undercut the Coalition’s arguments.

Moreover, opposition energy spokesman Chris Bowen is more than a match for his opposite number, Angus Taylor.

After Labor’s disastrous 2019 experience, when he was shadow treasurer, Bowen copped a good share of blame, including from some caucus colleagues. He has a lot to prove this time. His early performances on the climate policy have been strong and feisty.

Of course it’s first days for the policy, which has its vulnerabilities, and it will go down differently in various electorates. But avoiding a crash landing was no small thing – that could have soured Labor’s year end, overshadowing Scott Morrison’s troubles.

Now Albanese is finishing 2021 in as good a place as he could have hoped.

Let’s say immediately that doesn’t mean Labor can be confident of an election win. It only means it looks seriously competitive.

Largely this is thanks to two factors: the traps Albanese has avoided – he has not allowed the opposition to be wedged – and the government’s falling into nearly every possible hole, many of which it has dug itself.

As well, keeping policies back (partly tactical, partly forced by COVID) has preserved a relatively blank canvas for Labor to write on in the election run-up.

Elections at their core are two-horse contests dominated by the leaders. Albanese will never sparkle but he has recently improved his performance and spruced up the way he presents.

At Sunday’s Sydney rally, with new glasses and a sharp suit, he looked more race-fit than all year. Yes, all that is superficial and personal, but in these image-conscious days, such things matter at the margin. They are small signs of effort.

Morrison might wish he could improve his image by attending to the superficial. He has some fundamental problems that are very difficult for him and his strategists to overcome in the next few months.

By his own actions and words, Morrison has trashed much of his credibility, allowing Labor to portray him as a “liar”, which it now does day in and day out.

Beyond that, the Coalition has been mired in scandal, controversy and sheer untidiness. This currently ranges from minister Alan Tudge being investigated over an alleged violent incident to the much-publicised, clumsy but unsuccessful courting of former NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian to run for Warringah.

Next week’s budget update might provide the government with a dash of Christmas cheer, but it won’t eclipse its shocking end to the parliamentary year.

While Morrison and his team have handed the opposition plenty of opportunities in the past months, Albanese’s challenges in the months ahead are formidable.

The Labor leader remains relatively unknown to many people. Imprinting him (favourably) on voters’ consciousness between now and the poll won’t be easy.

He’s not a big, distinctive, compelling personality. Nor is he a fresh face – he was deputy prime minister a long time ago, not that most voters will remember.

He tells his “log cabin” story – being brought up by a single mum in straitened circumstances – but in a self-centred age, how many people listen or care? The best two things going for him at a personal level are that people don’t dislike him, and that they have become dubious about Morrison (to say nothing of Barnaby Joyce).

Albanese needs to stymie the government’s attempts to portray him as weak, or a potential patsy of the Greens – and to do this while avoiding sounding shrill or desperate.

As well as projecting himself, Albanese will need to stay firmly on message and keep that message tight (rather than waffly as is his wont). He’s been disciplined to date, but campaigning for months is exhausting and mistakes can be magnified a hundred-fold.

Labor will also be vulnerable to “scares” and other negative tactics against it. These can be potent, even devastating. Think Labor’s Mediscare in 2016. Think Clive Palmer’s advertising in 2019 (and he’s still around, with money to burn).

In the age of social media, “scares” are particularly dangerous and insidious, and hard to counter.

For example, Labor may successfully neutralise attacks on its climate policy in the national campaign, but in certain areas (in the Hunter, central Queensland) it could be undermined by scares delivered via social media and by impossible-to-track-down players. We saw this with the scare run in 2019 that Labor would bring in a death tax.

If Morrison holds out for a May election preceded by a budget, Albanese will have to deal with the campaign field being rearranged weeks out from the finish line.

Although bringing down a budget just before the start of the formal campaign might carry some risk for the government (it didn’t work well in 2016, but did in 2019), it would position the battle squarely on the Coalition’s strong ground of the economy and force the opposition into quick reactions.

Albanese would deliver the traditional budget reply, which would have to contain at least one big-ticket item and be pitched just right.

One hurdle confronting Albanese in his quest to persuade voters to swing could be their inertia, a lack of impetus for change, especially if the economic outlook is encouraging. Then there is the unpredictability of COVID’s course in early 2022.

With 2021 drawing to its end, the government is worried about how damaged Morrison is, while Labor is nervous that he remains a ruthless, relentless opponent. No one is putting great store in the polls that show Labor ahead on a two-party basis, although not massively so. The fashionable speculation among the commentariat is about the possibility of a hung parliament.

As for the electorate, people are exhausted after two years of COVID. For many, the last thing they want to do is engage with the fractious, accusatory discourse of politicians.

At some point, however, they must make choices. Morrison and Albanese are campaigning as though those choices are tomorrow, but many voters will hang off until the last moment. As people do with so much in the age of COVID.

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.The Conversation

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