Prime Minister Scott Morrison made a calculated acknowledgement of the Government’s mistakes in a major speech today that indicates he takes seriously voter anger about COVID in the upcoming federal election.
Addressing an, at times, hostile media at the National Press Club, the speech was an attempt to take back the political initiative after a summer of discontent.
In effect, Mr Morrison chose to confront head-on the lingering anger of Australians with him over another summer ruined by COVID. He also largely conceded his government had fallen behind in the election race and that he recognised that the buck stops with him.
While defending his Government’s record, he showed a degree of humility, giving ground to criticism, admitting there had been mis-steps made under pressure, and that the Government had faced several situations outside of its control but that notwithstanding the set-backs, the country had, so far, fared better than most.
Reiterating his jobs-focused election pitch, Mr Morrison highlighted the Government’s economic record in the face of extraordinary circumstances, predicting unemployment could fall as low as 3%, not seen in decades. He also announced a new $2.2 billion package to drive the commercialisation of academic research to fund promising new innovation vital to Australia’s economic growth, along with one-off payments aimed at enabling the retention of workers in the aged care sector, still under enormous pressure.
Simmering international tensions and national security were also a feature of his pitch which unashamedly sought to position the election as an important choice at a critical time between an experienced government and an ‘each-way bet’ alternative.
Meanwhile in the Hunter Valley, Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese continued his strategic repositioning of Labor as a ‘small target’ by backing a key gas project in the politically sensitive Hunter region. The announcement again reduces the policy gaps between Labor and the Coalition on past battlegrounds such as climate policy. This is in stark contrast to Bill Shorten’s ill-fated coal policy during the 2019 election campaign, when Mr Morrison adroitly exploited fears about workers’ futures.
Mr Morrison knows that he faces an experienced and ruthlessly pragmatic opponent in Mr Albanese, who in his latest tactical gambit today sought to shut down the climate issue, backing coal and gas as he announced $700 million in backing for Snowy Hydro’s Hunter Gas Project (on the basis of an ultimate conversion to green hydrogen). Mr Albanese also continues to play cat and mouse on a range of key policy and spending issues, much to the frustration of the Coalition which is finding him hard to pin down on detail.
Mr Morrison now seems to believe COVID is not going to clear away with summer, and the Government needs to turn around its political narrative on the health issue, which is likely to remain the number one political issue in the expected May poll. His speech is unlikely to turn things around quickly for the Government, but he will hope that the plea for understanding, and his argument that people also need to focus on the bigger themes, low unemployment, a bright economic future and a more resilient Australia will cut through.
Federal Parliament now returns next week for the first sitting period of 2022, one of the few before the Federal Budget. The Budget on 29 March will provide a crucial opportunity for the PM to reset political debate in his favour ahead of the federal poll.
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