Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese outpointed Scott Morrison in a pre-election debate that closed after the Prime Minister sought to deflect criticism of his response to Beijing’s new Pacific security pact by accusing Labor of “taking China’s side”.
Mr Albanese landed no killer blows but worked his advantages on COVID-19, a federal anti-corruption commission and regional security in the Pacific as he withstood an attack on immigration.
A claim by Mr Morrison late in proceedings that Labor had sided with China on national security was condemned as an “outrageous slur”. The remarks suggest the Prime Minister is hemmed in by recent criticism after China and national security were, until very recently, campaign issues of choice.
In the end, the Sky News “People’s Forum” in Brisbane was always a tribute to the wisdom of the undecided voter.
And on that measure, Mr Albanese emerged the winner of an audience straw poll, 40 to 35.
The Prime Minister’s pitch on his economic record resembled previous warnings against changing leaders during a post-pandemic recovery. His closing remarks sharpened the idea slightly by asking Australians to think about whether a future government could afford to pay for essential services.
“Our strong economic plan has been delivering,” Mr Morrison said.
“We’re heading in the right direction.”
Mr Morrison acknowledged the national debt had blown out under his watch but said the government had overseen a $100 billion turnaround in addition to falling unemployment.
Mr Albanese tried to frame the government’s economic approach as dithering.
‘You have to shape the future’
“The problem with this government is that it’s just treading water, not pursuing any significant economic, social or environmental reforms,” Mr Albanese said.
“You have to shape the future, otherwise the future will shape you.”
His glib but effective framing of the government’s economic record and offer of his own positive appeal was an attempt to limit the appeal of Coalition messages on a subject it has used to persuade more voters than any other.
The Labor leader conceded pandemic spending was necessary but said he objected to wasteful measures, such as $1 billion spent on government advertising.
He then lamented voters’ “disillusionment” with national politics before reminding them he had recently promised to legislate a national anti-corruption commission by Christmas.
“I don’t want to be the PM always looking for the wedge, always looking for the division,” he said.
Mr Morrison spoke to the virtues of his own plan for an integrity commission, which he was criticised for not establishing as promised in the recent Parliament.
The Prime Minister said his plan – widely thought to have been jettisoned – was for a federal commission that was not overbearing.
“It’s not about who your boyfriend is or things like that,” he said, in an apparent reference to the NSW ICAC’s investigation into former NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian.
‘Why would you take China’s side?’
After a day in which the government’s Pacific policy came in for questioning following news that the Solomon Islands had struck a security deal with China, Mr Morrison tried to turn the issue onto Labor with a piece of political judo.
“China is seeking to interfere in the Pacific,” he said.
“Why would you take China’s side?
“The Labor Party, rather than acknowledging what is happening, [instead somehow says] it’s Australia’s fault.”
Mr Albanese called the remarks an “outrageous slur”.
The Labor leader again suggested the government had been caught napping on Beijing’s military influence and said it had misjudged badly when it sent a “junior burger”, Pacific spokesman Zed Seselja, to Honiara for crisis talks.
In contrast, the US sent Asia policy tsar and former assistant secretary of state Kurt Campbell.
The Prime Minister said Mr Albanese had wrongly described a past Labor stance, dating back to his time on turn backs, or the immigration policy of returning boat arrivals to Australia.
“So you were going to do turn backs?,” Mr Morrison asked, of Labor immigration policy under Kevin Rudd’s government in 2013.
Mr Albanese had to concede that he had not supported the policy but said he would continue it in government if elected.
The exchange was awkward but it did not open the door Mr Morrison was pointing to, a claim Labor is soft on border protection and would invite a resumption of asylum seekers arriving on boats.
Debate questions were put forward by the audience and far less predictable than those chosen by journalists.
And it was Mr Albanese who proved lighter on his feet in a less predictable format.
It has only been a week since some journalists questioned if his election campaign was terminal.