As Albo slowly returns, Morrison thunders about boats and the economy

Today marked the reappearance of Anthony Albanese on the election campaign trail. But it was a measured return to the hustings, rather than a furious explosion. After a series of morning TV interviews, where he cited doctors’ advice about “being sensible” with his own recovery, the opposition leader boarded a plane to Perth ahead of Labor’s campaign launch this Sunday.

As ever, the geography of both campaigns was telling. For the second time in three days, Albanese’s Labor surrogates were in the Sydney seat of Reid (Lib +3.2%) which takes in the aspirational, racially and socio-economically diverse suburban borderlands between the city’s inner west and real west.

It shows how hard the opposition are targeting a seat which was a Labor stronghold until 2013, and which will be a key barometer of the party’s strength in the suburbs. 

Morrison was in Tasmania, visiting a whiskey distillery in the morning, and unveiling a hydrogen hub in the afternoon. It’s his third visit to the state this month, and second time in the ultra-marginal seat of Bass since the start of the campaign. 

Albanese took just a handful of pre-departure questions at the airport, and didn’t appear alongside opposition treasury spokesman Jim Chalmers and Senator Kristina Keneally this morning, to the frustration of some journalists.

Chalmers and Keneally were questioned about why Albanese wasn’t appearing at the presser. Then they were questioned why Labor hadn’t yet agreed to two election debates the government wants next week.

It was a snapshot of the nothingburger of a campaign we’re in — pushing Albanese to rush back from an illness that wearies and slows even the healthy, and meta-debates about the timing of election debates that few Australians are likely to watch.

“When he has to step up and do it, all of a sudden, he’s not available,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison crowed at his own presser this afternoon. 

The prime minister was at his most blunt and blustery, blaring the foghorn about how the election was a choice (he says this phrase a lot) between stability under the Coalition and the unknowable chaos a vote for Labor and the independents would bring. 

Close watchers of the 46th Parliament might disagree with this assessment. In the final weeks, the Coalition saw five moderates cross the floor in the lower house. Over in the Senate, the hard-right offered its own sort of rebellion over vaccine mandates. The Coalition is so divided on climate it’s essentially running separate campaigns in the cities and coal country.

But Morrison repeatedly hammered the message of a choice between strength and chaos. 

He claimed the “uncertainty” of Labor’s stance on boat turnbacks and Operation Sovereign Borders could restart people smuggling.

And wherever the government is struggling — well, this is simply down to factors beyond its control. Take the skyrocketing price of lettuce (a hunk of iceberg will set you back $5.50 at Woolies) — that’s because of the war in Europe, Morrison said, before flagging the government’s temporary cut to the fuel excise and one-off $250 payment to pensioners.

The prime minister also faced questions about Australia’s relationship with the Solomon Islands, which signed a security agreement with China under the government’s nose, a major hit to the Coalition’s self-appointed strength on national security issues.

In Honiara, Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare had mouthed off at Australian criticisms of the pact, and accused Canberra of keeping him in the dark about the AUKUS agreement. Morrison’s response was to point to a “remarkable similarity” between Sogavare’s statements and those of the Chinese government. 

For all the government’s talk about its foreign policy credentials, it’s another bilateral relationship soured under Morrison’s prime ministership. That reality, of course, won’t alter the narrative around borders, security, strength and stability which the government adamantly believes it can still successfully sell to voters.

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