When they faced the media to deliver their opening campaign pitches on Sunday, the core messages of Scott Morrison and Anthony Albanese were clear.
One emphasised the risk of change, the other sold change as an opportunity.
They brought different styles to their appearances.
Morrison just wanted to say his piece and get away. Questions can be slippery territory. He cut the press pack’s interrogation short, after warning he’d take “a few quick questions”. It looked abrupt, and Albanese was determined to demonstrate a contrast.
So when he appeared, the Labor leader let the questioning run. But by the end he sounded verbose, which is a perennial fault his minders seem unable to fix.
The Prime Minister didn’t use the word “trust” in his appeal to voters. Given the debate about his character, that mightn’t play so well in the focus groups these days.
But that was the sentiment, expressed through the word “choice”.
“A choice between an economic recovery that is leading the world, and a Labor opposition that would weaken it, and risk it.”
“A choice between a strong and tested government team that has demonstrated our ability to make difficult and tough choices in tough times and a Labor opposition who has been so focused on politics over these past few years that they still can’t tell you what they do, who they are or what they believe in.”
There was more, but the fundamental choice was “between a government that you know and a Labor opposition that you don’t”.
Morrison rehearsed Australia’s achievements in handling both COVID and the economy.
But he is also aware he has to give a nod to the criticisms of his government, so we got (once again) the acknowledgement it “is not perfect […] you may see some flaws”. And, given he’s personally unpopular, Morrison is talking up the “team”.
Albanese attacked the government for lacking “an agenda for today, let alone a vision for tomorrow”.
He warned of the fear campaigns to come, but reached out to people’s “sense of optimism and desire for a better future”. This was the time for Australians “to seize the opportunities that are before us”.
In both his opening remarks and responding to questions, Albanese sold himself as a responsible, experienced leader, countering the way the government paints him.
He wouldn’t be a spendthrift – remember he learned the value of a dollar when young.
As for the government’s “absurd” attacks alleging his inexperience, there was a CV of his time in office. A left winger? “I am who I am” – a “working-class lad”, comfortable in a board room and a pub.
Most of what the leaders said we’ve heard before and we’ll hear it endlessly again. But there were surprises from each under questioning about their front benches.
Like the PM’s answer when asked whether Alan Tudge would be in his cabinet if the government is returned.
“Alan Tudge is still in my cabinet,” Morrison said.
Which is very different from what Tudge said after last month’s release of the report into a former staffer’s allegations against him (which said there was “insufficient evidence” to find he bullied or harassed the woman).
“I have requested not to be returned to the front bench before the election,” he said. Morrison also said then that Tudge had told him “that […] he is not seeking to return to the front bench”.
Neither said “front bench duties”. Their statements were misleading – although there was a hint of something fishy in Morrison’s, which said Stuart Robert would continue as “acting” minister for education.
It recently came out at Senate estimates that Tudge still has the title of education minister. The government says he isn’t being paid as a minister.
There’s little doubt Tudge – after apparently never leaving the current cabinet– would be in a new Morrison cabinet.
And on the subject of ministers, Morrison told his news conference he will reveal who would be his future health minister (Greg Hunt is retiring) “in the next week or so”. Presumably in conjunction with a health announcement.
Also notable was what Albanese said, when probed, about his front bench.
There has been speculation deputy Labor leader Richard Marles would want to return to the defence area, replacing Brendan O’Connor, if Labor wins.
Also canvassed has been the possibility of Kristina Keneally, shadow home affairs minister, perhaps getting an economic job in government.
But Albanese said: “It’s my expectation that the front bench will serve in the same positions that they’re in now”, although he also referred to this as “the starting point”. (Caucus, which means the factions, formally chooses the front bench, the leader allocates portfolios.)
Albanese has left himself wriggle room – and perhaps just wants to shut down the stories – but it was significant that he locked himself in to the extent he did.
Update: Newspoll narrows
The latest Newspoll published in The Australian shows a tightening, but Labor still retains a solid lead as the campaign starts.
The ALP is ahead on the two-party vote 53 to 47 per cent, compared to 54-46 a week ago. Labor’s primary vote has dropped a point to 37 per cent while the Coalition remains at 36 per cent.
Scott Morrison has opened a five-point lead on Anthony Albanese as better PM – 44-39 per cent – compared to a one point lead a week ago. Albanese fell 3 points, while Morrison rose a point.