Labor is preparing for a federal election as early as September, with the Opposition promising more political “combat” after an unusually conciliatory tone throughout the pandemic.
Following a 2020 in which much of the usual argy-bargy of federal politics was shelved in favour of getting the nation through an economic and health catastrophe, Australia is likely to see a return to more ‘business as usual’ biff in Canberra this year.
Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese has already pledged to focus directly on Scott Morrison, using his first speech of the year to brand Prime Minister a “fake”, “useless” and someone who “stands for nothing”.
Despite Mr Morrison’s ascendant poll numbers, holding a commanding 60-28 lead over Mr Albanese in the latest Newspoll ‘Better PM’ survey on November 28, the Opposition believes a strategy of attacking his personal record will net results.
“When it comes to Scott Morrison, I think Australians have started to work him out,” Mr Albanese claimed in a speech to Labor members in Victoria on Saturday.
“They see him as fake. As someone who is always political and always looking for shift blame to others.”
The Opposition has continually derided the PM as “Scotty from Marketing”, a line first created by satirical website The Betoota Advocate.
Mr Albanese and his team has expanded that rhetoric by constantly criticising the government as “all photo op, no follow-up”.
It’s not good enough to be there for the photo op, but never the follow up. pic.twitter.com/eC7pnNhUTK
— Anthony Albanese (@AlboMP) January 1, 2021
Labor sources claim this line of attack is “cutting through” in focus groups and internal polling.
Mr Albanese stressed through 2020 that he wanted to be “constructive” amid the pandemic, saying Labor had supported government responses “even where they included elements that we opposed”.
“It was my judgment that Australians had no interest in partisan politics,” he said in his speech.
He was criticised by some inside his party for not taking the fight more decisively to the Coalition government.
.@AlboMP has lashed out at @ScottMorrisonMP, labelling the prime minister as 'fake' while rallying Labor faithful. The opposition leader already preparing for an early election, also dumping one of the party's most controversial policies. #auspol #7NEWS https://t.co/n7wh3nOrN9
— 7NEWS Australia (@7NewsAustralia) January 2, 2021
Despite noted failures in aged care and quarantine, and criticisms of winding back JobKeeper and JobSeeker payments too early, the federal government’s performance on COVID has been among the best in the world on economic and health outcomes – and the Coalition has enjoyed a consistent polling lead.
Labor has not led on a two-party basis since the beginning stages of the pandemic in March.
Mr Morrison’s government, like many worldwide, has reaped the benefits of incumbency during times of crisis.
But Labor’s more conciliatory approach may be soon consigned to the past, with Opposition MPs believing the sheen may come off the government as the pandemic is brought further under control in Australia.
“It was important to be constructive. In hindsight it was the only decision we could make. Opposition leaders who did the opposite haven’t done well,” one Labor MP told The New Daily, noting election and polling results in Victoria and Queensland.
“But people’s minds are shifting from the immediacy of the health emergency to what comes next. There’s a live prospect of an election from September. That’s why we’re changing gears.
“In 2021 there will be a licence for more combat.”
Labor MP Andrew Giles, speaking to the ABC on Saturday, said it was time “to think about life beyond this crisis” and claimed Labor was looking to highlight the “very different visions of Australia’s future” between the major parties.
Mr Albanese said Labor’s national campaign committee was already ramping up, despite Mr Morrison constantly saying he was a “full-termer” and he planned to see out the length of his time in office, with an election in early 2022 instead.
Conversely, a vote in September or later would coincide with the planned final stages of Australia’s COVID vaccine rollout, with the federal government hoping to have all doses administered by October.
That timing, in line with a successful rollout, would be a potential election boon for the Coalition.
But other Labor MPs believe the government’s vote may dip before then.
They point to state governments polling higher than the federal government.
Dr Andrew Leigh, Member for Fenner, predicted the polling benefits for incumbent governments were “unlikely to endure” far into 2021.
But also looming large over this is Mr Albanese’s future as leader.
Following public criticisms from maverick MP Joel Fitzgibbon, talk has swirled for weeks and months that right-faction heavyweights like Jim Chalmers and Richard Marles, or former deputy Tanya Plibersek, may be waiting in the wings to take over as leader.
No clear challenger has yet emerged openly, and Mr Albanese’s allies laugh off suggestions he is in any danger.
But the leader will be hoping his sluggish poll numbers tick upwards, as federal politics hurtles into what could potentially be an election year.