• John McDonnell

The federal election battlelines are drawn


Anthony Albanese (bottom left) and PM Morrison (right, standing) in Question Time on Wednesday

It is likely to be 6 months before we go to the polls, but the battlelines are already emerging. Labor is adopting a small target strategy, holding back on policy announcements while attacking the prime minister for being a liar and untrustworthy. The theory is that the government is looking old and stale and if its leader can be destroyed and division encouraged, then government will fall into its lap.


On the other side of the aisle, the government is focusing on Anthony Albanese and is portraying him as weak on the economy and national security. The absence of big policies from Labor lends itself to this sort of attack.


During the current week of parliament, Labor has gained comfort from the fact that a number of government backbenchers are openly defying the prime minister over mandatory vaccinations.


Senators Gerard Rennick and Alex Antic are refusing to vote with the government on any matters of substance until the prime minister asserts his constitutional authority and over-rules state public health orders that make vaccinations mandatory. The senators' stance has already led to the defeat of Senator Andrew Bragg’s motion to have a senate enquiry into the ABC’s complaints process.


In the House of Representatives, George Christensen delivered a speech before question time on Wednesday, in which he described state governments as being totalitarian and the premiers as emulating Stalin, Mao, Hitler and Pol Pot.


Labor invited the prime minister to condemn the member for Dawson, which he did unequivocally.


However, Scott Morrison still appears to be wedged between, on one hand, the premiers who are accusing him of interfering with states’ rights and, on the other hand, encouraging right wing extremists and 6 members of his own party who want him to ride roughshod over the premiers. So far, the PM is sticking to his national plan for opening up the economy.


The debate over the economy is developing in a more interesting way. On Sunday’s Insiders program, shadow treasurer Dr Jim Chalmers issued a warning to his fellow Labor frontbenchers that he would not be funding policy proposals that did not have a positive impact on economic growth. Dr Chalmers gave the firm impression that he was concerned at the size of the debt and deficit accumulated during the pandemic. It appears that Labor believes that economic growth is the best way to deal with fiscal consolidation.


Dr Chalmers is aware that there is no need for additional stimulus through public expenditure at the moment. Over half a trillion dollars was pumped into the economy during the pandemic and, of this, about $200 billion has ended up in household savings. This is on top of $1.2 trillion that was already in household savings prior to the pandemic. The hope is that this will wash through the economy during the recovery phase of the economic cycle.


To pump more money into the economy, in the recovery phase, would risk high rates of inflation and high interest rates.


The policy response to these factors leads Labor to the same suite of measures currently being employed by the government.


Labor has therefore adopted an approach of attacking the treasurer, Josh Frydenberg.


At question time on Wednesday, Dr Chalmers asked Mr Frydenberg whether he agreed that he (Frydenberg) was the worst treasurer in the last 100 years. The treasurer responded by citing the current economic indicators and comparing them with the same indicators under Labor.


Labor has also adopted a tactic of alleging that the cost of living has risen while real wages have fallen. However, the treasurer has rebutted this by pointing out that tax cuts have meant that personal disposable incomes have risen.


In question time Mr Frydenberg also revealed that the government was also attempting to keep the labour market tight in order to push up wages, even though the Reserve Bank has predicted that wages will remain flat until 2024.