Albanese says he’s in the final quarter, so when is he going to start kicking goals?
When Anthony Albanese told his caucus last Tuesday there was a chance of an election on December 11, it raised the question: is this it, then?
If Labor genuinely believes there might be an election in just seven weeks – December is closer than you realise – then that must mean that what we’ve seen so far is not just a placeholder, while Labor gets ready to launch some strikingly different final phase, but the strategy itself.
The election will soon be upon the Opposition Leader.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen
That is, one or two policies (housing, childcare), some themes (“build back stronger”) and – by far the largest part – making sure there’s nothing for the other side to hit.
To be fair, Albanese was really only raising the date as a possibility. A better clue to his actual thinking came two days later, in an interview on ABC radio. Virginia Trioli asked him whether he guessed March or May for an election. “March 5th,” Albanese said.
That might be some comfort to Labor supporters, many of whom have been wondering for some time when, exactly, Labor was going to start its run. But March 5 is closer than it seems, too. This week will quickly go in talk of Glasgow. Then the PM will actually be in Glasgow, and that will take the next. Three weeks after that and politics is over for the year. Voters tune out – this year probably even more than most – until late in January. If Albanese is right, there would be perhaps another 10 days before the campaign proper would begin.
Just after he became leader, Albanese said two things. The first was that you shouldn’t announce your policies early because you did not know what the political context would be until closer to the election. You had to wait until the final quarter, at which point you would “kick with the wind”.
Illustration: Jim PavlidisCredit:
As time went on and COVID made it difficult to begin kicking, observers began to wonder when precisely that final quarter might start. Then, in May, Albanese said the siren had sounded – now it was the “bounce for the fourth quarter”. Soon after, somewhat amazingly, the political wind shifted and began blowing in Scott Morrison’s face.
Since then, that wind has done plenty of damage to Morrison. But what of Albanese? Polling suggests voters don’t have a much better handle on him than they did five months ago. I am sceptical of Labor’s tiny target strategy – if that’s what it is. I think Albanese is running out of time to make an impression, and I tend towards thinking that is a problem for Labor. But I’m not at all certain about this, for three reasons.
The first is that COVID means old assumptions might be wrong. Ordinarily, voters tend to like their federal government to be the opposite party to their state rulers. This time, that could play out very differently in different states. Labor only needs a small number of seats to fall its way, so this matters.
The second is the second thing Albanese has been saying since he became leader. Immediately he began reminding people that, by the time the next election came around, there would be an “it’s time” factor. Over the past couple of years, this line came to seem less relevant: surely Morrison, a newly crowned crisis leader, had created the government anew? But, as commentator Rachel Withers pointed out last week, Albanese has been saying “eight years” a lot lately. COVID made just two years seem an eternity. The trail of scandals and too-clever politics – last week’s privileges committee decision was a case in point – add to the impression. It’s possible Albanese was right all along, and this old government has become old once more.
The third is that a campaign can change everything. Expressing my scepticism to a former colleague last week, I was reminded: who knows what voters will see when they suddenly tune in properly and take a good look at both men? Remember that on the first day of the 2019 campaign, Morrison told voters, “If you vote for me, you’ll get me. You vote for Bill Shorten and you’ll get Bill Shorten”. Perhaps, in 2022, that equation could work the other way.
But that idea misses something. At the last election, voters didn’t know much about Morrison, but they had a sense of what he represented: an unreserved pride in Australia as it was.
In 2022, Morrison will run on that sense of ordinary patriotism again. You can see this already, in Angus Taylor’s description of the government’s minimal climate ambition as doing things “the Australian way”. If Labor asks people to vote against this idea, what is it offering in its place? What is it that Albanese represents?
The interesting fact is that Labor people know this. They’re not in denial: they know that Albanese’s relative anonymity is a problem that has to be fixed. But they will tell you, too, that it’s better than being disliked, and that it’s also an opportunity. They believe it’s both, and they are probably right.
But the truth is that whether you think it is a problem or an opportunity you are left with what amounts to the same question. If it’s a problem, when is Labor going to fix it? If it’s an opportunity, when is Labor going to grasp it?
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