Anthony Albanese has promised a Labor government would build dedicated affordable housing for critical workers, criminalise wage theft, and legislate to ensure employers have a duty to address sexual harassment at work.
His budget reply speech on Thursday night caps off a budget week that has set the markers for an election battleground between wage growth and tax cuts.
Announcing new policies on housing, creating apprenticeships in clean energy jobs, and a new ‘startup year’ fund for budding entrepreneurs, Mr Albanese accused the Morrison government of “neglect” and having “nothing built to last”.
“It would be a disaster if we emerge from this crisis having learned nothing – and changed not at all,” Mr Albanese said in Parliament.
Asking Australians a simple question, “Do you feel better off than you did eight years ago?” – which may end up as Labor’s election slogan of choice – Mr Albanese sought to mark out distinctions between the opposition and the government.
It came 48 hours after Treasurer Josh Frydenberg delivered a budget that some commentators described as “Labor-lite”.
“The past eight years have been very good to this Prime Minister and his mates. But has it been good for you?” Mr Albanese asked.
The centrepiece of the Opposition Leader’s speech was a $10 billion pledge to create a new Housing Australia Future Fund, which would build 20,000 social housing properties.
Mr Albanese said 4000 of those homes would be for families fleeing domestic violence and older women at risk of homelessness, while another 10,000 would be for critical workers like police, nurses and cleaners.
The policy aims to address concerns about rising housing costs potentially pushing critical workers – often low-paid – out of the suburbs they work in.
Labor says the initiative would support 21,500 jobs and apprenticeships in construction.
The Future Fund is proposed to be managed by the Future Fund Board of Guardians, which already manages similar initiatives on medical research, drought and the Future Fund.
Labor says investment returns would also fund $200 million in maintaining housing in remote Indigenous communities, $100 million for crisis housing for domestic violence, and $30 million for veterans’ housing and homelessness.
“I grew up in a council house in Camperdown, the only son of a single mum on the disability pension,” Mr Albanese said to begin his speech, a theme he touched on several times.
He also promised a Labor government would create 10,000 apprenticeships in ‘new energy’ jobs, saying solar companies were struggling to hire electricians and that Australia wasn’t doing enough to prepare young people for jobs in green industries.
A $100 million pledge to fund the new apprenticeships also includes direct payments to young people to encourage them into those positions, with $2000 grants per year to “boost retention” for training into jobs in renewable manufacturing, agriculture and construction.
Mr Albanese also said Labor would criminalise wage theft, and implement the recommendations of the Sex Discrimination Commissioner’s Respect@Work report to give employers a ‘positive duty’ to stop sexual harassment.
The government has committed, in principle, to both those things; the Coalition planned to criminalise wage theft in their industrial relations omnibus bill, before scrapping the entire legislation, while the federal budget committed millions to implementing the Respect@Work report.
Mr Albanese claimed Prime Minister Scott Morrison had “behaved like an eight-year-old child and threw a tantrum” in junking the IR omnibus bill, and said Labor would take action on wage theft.
“Tuesday’s budget didn’t speak for this country’s future – it only told the sorry tale of eight years of Liberal neglect,” he claimed, calling it a “patch-up job for the next election”.
It was a speech with a clear eye on the next poll, due by May 2022.
In just the third line of the address, Mr Albanese said he was “seeking the honour of serving as your Prime Minister”, following a week where talk of an election in November again heated up.
Mr Albanese also cited plans to “reinvent our economy” and “lift wages” as his top two priorities.
It follows several days of Labor launching Parliament attacks on the government on wages, after projections in the budget laid out expectations that wage growth would fall behind inflation in coming years – effectively, a cut to real wages.
Recent days in Parliament have potentially set the scene for the coming election.
The government has promised big spending and is testing new attacks on Labor over higher taxes, while the Opposition pledged a measure of fiscal discipline or budget repair with criticisms of stagnant wage growth under the Coalition.
Mr Albanese’s budget reply now locks in more of the Opposition’s key policy promises.
Last year’s speech saw Mr Albanese commit to near-universal child care, plus tentpole policies on manufacturing, energy and housing, which the Opposition has hammered home for seven months.
Borrowing sporting metaphors, Mr Albanese has told colleagues his budget reply speech would represent “the final quarter” and claimed Labor would be “kicking with the wind” before the next election.