Prime Minister Scott Morrison has been grilled about the price of lettuce, as cost of living issues again dominate the federal election campaign.
Campaigning in Tasmania on Friday, Mr Morrison was asked how long Australians were “going to be confronted with lettuce at $5”, and what the Coalition would do to put a lid on surging grocery prices.
It came as soaring power prices also emerged as an election issue on Friday, on top of inflation at a two-decade high and a looming interest rate rise.
The Australian Energy Market Operator revealed wholesale energy prices have risen 141 per cent since the March 2021 quarter. Some analysts predict the leap could add as much as 40 per cent to household electricity bills.
Mr Morrison again blamed external influences for the rising prices, including the war in Ukraine and the ongoing pandemic.
“Those are things beyond Australia’s control. And so that’s why it’s so important, in the budget, we understood the impact that these things were having on Australian families. And that’s why we took the decision, understanding those pressures, that we had to halve the petrol tax to support families deal with those higher prices,” he said.
“They’re the things we can do. You can’t necessarily change the price of a lettuce, but what you can do is you can halve petrol tax, and that’s exactly what we did.
“You can make a $250 payment directly to pensioners and others on fixed-income support to help them with those costs, which we did.”
He also gave a lengthy response to questions about electricity prices, saying they had fallen more than 9 per cent since he became Prime Minister.
“We’ve put a number of mechanisms in place. One of the most important of those was the Price Safety Net which Minister [Angus] Taylor put in place, which protected consumers on the default deals that they got from big electricity companies from being hit with higher, overpriced electricity,” he said.
“Secondly, we put in place the big stick legislation, which Labor and the Parliament mocked, but we pressed ahead with it. And we made sure that there were strong protections in place to hold the big energy companies to account when they were seeking to overcharge and price electricity at levels which we didn’t believe was fair.”
Earlier, senior Labor figures attacked Mr Morrison on living costs, with shadow treasurer Jim Chalmers saying the Coalition was ignoring the mounting pressures.
“[The government] want to talk about international comparisons, Australians couldn’t give a stuff what inflation is in the United States,” Dr Chalmers said in Sydney.
“Australians know that what really matters here is that it’s harder and harder for them to keep up, and almost impossible to get ahead on Scott Morrison’s watch.”
Dr Chalmers also defended Labor’s plans to reduce energy prices.
“One party has got a plan to add cheaper and cleaner energy to the system. And to transmit it more effectively, more efficiently and more cheaply,” he said.
“The other side is having a barney about whether or not they believe in net zero. And so our plans to get cleaner and cheaper energy into the system will bring power prices down by 2025, $275 a year, and that is more than what our political opponents are promising.”
Elsewhere, Labor leader Anthony Albanese emerged from COVID isolation on Friday as his deputy, Richard Marles, became the latest senior opposition figure to be struck down by the virus.
Mr Marles will miss Labor’s campaign launch in Western Australia this weekend after testing positive on Friday.
“I will be isolating at home and following advice,” he said on Twitter.
“I’ll be back on the trail in no time, fighting for a better future with Anthony Albanese.”
Mr Albanese came out of seven days of COVID-induced isolation on Friday.
The Opposition Leader started the day in Sydney before flying to Perth ahead of Sunday’s campaign launch.
While Mr Albanese will take it easier on the campaign trail in coming days as he continues his recovery, he said he was looking forward to a return to in-person campaigning.
“It’s no use not looking after your health, there’s still three and a bit weeks to go in this campaign,” he told ABC TV on Friday.
“I certainly feel much better today than I did yesterday … for me the peak was day three and four of iso, but now I’m feeling good.”
Dr Chalmers said it was reassuring Mr Albanese was out of isolation.
“We’re very pleased that our captain will be back on the field with us,” he said.
“Consistent with doctor’s orders, he is coming back, making sure he can do enough on the first day back.”
However, Labor was criticised after Mr Albanese initially failed to appear at a press conference on Friday, despite making multiple morning TV appearances. He later spoke to the media before boarding his flight, saying his week off the campaign trail had highlighted the strength of Labor’s broader team.
“I have a magnificent team I lead. We are ready for government,” he said.
“What we have seen is shadow ministers right across the country portraying Labor’s position. We have a plan for a better future. We are now halfway through this campaign and … all of these policies and plans stand in stark contrast to a government that has not learned the lessons of its mistakes over the last 10 years.”