Be afraid. Be very afraid. For 2020 may well be the year of the Albo.
The Labor leader made a lacklustre impression last year. Yes, there was the small matter of an unexpected election defeat he and his party had to deal with. More significantly, however — and what the Canberra Gallery didn’t tell you — was how he hit the rocks after his 30 year marriage to wife Carmell Tebbut disintegrated at the end of 2018. His struggles were as much personal as political; maybe more so.
The Prime Minister attempted to steady the ship with his appearance on Insiders yesterday. Unfortunately, Albanese had already been out there on Saturday, saying all the right things: he supported a royal commission into the bushfires, Labor would do everything it could to facilitate the passage of legislation needed for fire relief and recovery, parliament should devote its first sitting day of year to a motion of condolence and — in a step Morrison should have made himself — asked President Trump to rescind the “exercise caution” warning the US State Department had declared for potential visitors to Australia that put our nation on the same status as Myanmar.
Worse, Morrison had already dug a great big hole for himself the previous Monday; one that Albo will be happy to let him fall into.
One entirely understandable, human — and humane — reply to a serious of pathetic attempts at a “gotcha” moment over the economic impact of the bushfires in his Parliament House press conference with Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and Nationals Leader Michael McCormack may have a profound long-term effect.
The Prime Minister said: “The surplus is of no focus for me, what matters to me is the human cost and meeting whatever cost we need to meet. But I can tell you this: being in the position of strength that we are now, enables us to give what is one of the most significant, if not the most significant response to a crisis of this kind the country has seen.”
Given the kicking he has received, he could have responded with nothing else.
However, it is still early days yet and early in the fire season and Saturday’s Weekend Australian has reported that the cost of the fires so far — fires still burning — will be more than $5 billion.
This is where “the surplus is of no focus for me” will bite, particularly if, as his weekend comments indicate, Albanese is not only focussed but has his mojo back.
The Labor leader, as a member of his party’s Left, has always been a big spender.
Albanese, however, has favoured focussed spending; those so-called “investments” in infrastructure invariably accompanied by pretty pictures and modelling “proving” their economic benefit.
For a long time, left-wing economists, planners and most of the MSM have been telling governments to take advantage of record low interest rates to make these “investments”. In Dan Andrewstan they’ve begun as at least a token attempt to ensure Melbourne doesn’t suffer Sydney’s sclerosis when it becomes our biggest city again sometime in the next 10 years or so.
It’s a siren song that may be impossible to resist.
If the surplus is of no focus to the Prime Minister he will be constantly asked: “why not spend”.
Albanese is a former infrastructure minister. He used his role as infrastructure shadow under Bill Shorten to be constantly out and about, subtly undermining his leader and boosting his personal popularity with his presence on the ground talking up crowd-pleasing projects.
Think of the opportunity he has now.
He will not just be able to talk nation-building, but national recovery. Government spending will be seen as essential to employment and the economy.
As the surplus slips, the pressure on the Coalition will only mount. The backbench will get nervous. Wave after wave of “experts” will be heard on the(ir) ABC, in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age and across radio and TV talking of the need for spending. They will be backed by the Twitterati, whose utter ignorance of economics, let alone the concept that borrowings require repayment with interest that could be better used on the ground than handed to international investors and the banks, best summarised by Jane Caro’s assinine line “I heard someone say once that when a budget is in surplus a community is in deficit. Loved that.”
We also forget, given last year’s shock election result, just how narrow the government’s majority is and its vulnerability with just 77 seats in a 151 seat parliament. It is potentially only one by-election away — thanks, Angus — from grave danger.
All this plays into Albanese’s hands.
The Prime Minister has begun 2020 looking out of touch.
Without a deftness in political skills that has eluded him for the past month, his problems will only mount.
He will be under enormous pressure to spend.
He will also be under enormous pressure over the economy.
If Morrison fails either test he will have sacrificed the Coalition’s trump card — economic management — and Anthony Albanese will look like the true agenda-setter; not just a good bloke but a real leader. Prime ministerial.
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