Labor’s Anthony Albanese stepped up to the task when he delivered his Budget reply this week, having been set a very high bar by opponents and a majority of the Canberra bubble commentariat.
The challenge was clear: it would be the most important speech of his time as Opposition leader – a job he’s been in for less than 18 months.
It could be a make or break occasion.
Albanese might not have hit every ball with the middle of his bat but he did find the missing centre of the Frydenberg Budget for 2020/21.
The skewing of policies away from women – a criticism made universally by economists and analysts – and the preference to those under 35 gave Labor plenty of canvas on which to paint an alternative Budget scene.
While the Coalition has been dealing with an increasingly restive backbench not keen on historically large debt and deficit, ministers have also been ideologically bound to draw lines separating themselves from the policies and practices of Labor, past and present.
This might be the driving political pressure at work in the tactical considerations framing this Budget, but it does expose what is a bigger strategic failure to seize a once-in-a-generation reform opportunity.
After all, every galah in the neighbourhood pet shop has a reform agenda with a generous take-your-pick wishlist.
The Albanese wish list was unsurprising because of the government’s lack of one.
Social housing has been touted by every economist putting up spending and policy proposals, as has expanding childcare subsidies beyond the government’s temporary fix from earlier this year.
Labor’s ideas for innovation came with a plan to rewire the electricity network as a means to lower costs and a big-ticket “sovereignty-based” manufacturing plan for the large-scale building of rail rolling stock.
The Budget alternative did contain one glaring piece of overreach.
His $6.2 billion Child Care Subsidy Scheme – which provides generous assistance for all families earning less than $530,000 – is too universal.
This childcare plan is a policy echo of Tony Abbott’s paid parental leave scheme which applied to all wage earners without an upper limit – something the former Liberal leader jettisoned because of its inequity.
Albanese would have been better to make a virtue out of prudence and stuck with Labor’s historically sound benchmark principle of means testing such assistance rigorously.
Labor believes the Budget offers opportunities for the Opposition to chip away at the carefully crafted popularity Morrison has built during his stewardship of the pandemic and consequential economic recession.
A question posed by one senior Labor strategist explains the thinking this way: “Why would a political leader who cherishes his own political antenna fail to realise deliberately leaving out that section of the community most engaged with what’s going on will most certainly rebound on you?”
This refers to people 35 and older who are those listening more to what’s going on and talking about it with their friends and families.
These people were the obvious losers in the Budget.
It’s unlikely the Budget will shift voters away from the government in the near term. Polls to be published early next week will undoubtedly show broad public support and a general sense the Budget is good for the country, with a probable majority saying they will be better off.
The economic damage suffered this year makes these kinds of responses to a big-spending Budget with plenty of “action” as good as inevitable.
What is uncertain is just how much of what Scott Morrison and Josh Frydenberg have rolled out will work.
In a recession where demand has nosedived in myriad areas, businesses are possibly going to be as cautious as consumers until there’s a more definite outlook on a vaccine while protecting Australia from a pandemic still setting grim records on a daily basis.
Watching Morrison sit sullenly while listening to Albanese suggested either the Prime Minister is insecure about the future or he has a very thin skin when confronted with sharp criticism.
Maybe it’s both.
His demeanour looked as uncomfortable and miserable as he appeared when sitting on the beach in Hawaii last December waiting for a flight back to Australia and its unfolding summer of bushfires.
It was a very sour note in a week when Morrison should have looked to be at the top of his game. The polls mightn’t show it, but maybe this wasn’t such a grand occasion for the government’s resident optimist.