Albanese is on front foot as both sides settle into the ‘permanent campaign’, writes political columnist MICHELLE GRATTAN.
In politics, fortunes often turn quickly. Anthony Albanese ended the last parliamentary year in a hole. He’s started this one on a high.
On Tuesday, the first sitting day of 2024, Treasurer Jim Chalmers introduced the legislation for Labor’s tax cuts, which trash the old Stage 3.
On the other side, Peter Dutton bowed to the inevitable. After the formality of going to the opposition party room, he announced at a news conference that the Coalition wouldn’t oppose the legislation or seek to take away the cuts if it won office.
Later in question time, the government was in the ascendancy. One easy target was Deputy Liberal leader Sussan Ley ,who had initially suggested a Coalition government would roll back the tax cuts.
This week’s Newspoll, showing 62 per cent support for the government’s decision to rework Stage 3, said it all. It reinforced the message of Labor’s own polling.
It remains to be seen whether breaking his word will take skin off Albanese in the longer term but for now, he’s won his gamble. People like the new tax policy. The PM has a restored sense of confidence. There’s a feeling that Labor’s position in the March 2 Dunkley by-election has become more solid.
Albanese is now in permanent campaign mode, right up to the 2025 election, and he appears comfortable there.
The prime minister’s communications team has been beefed up, with two new senior people starting this week: Katharine Murphy, formerly political editor of The Guardian, and Fiona Sugden, who previously worked for then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and for a time for Albanese in opposition.
Late last year Liz Fitch, the head of the PM’s media team, left. Brett Mason, who was number two, has stepped up into her place as communications director.
Among Fitch’s duties had been to prepare Albanese for his big media appearances and engagements of the day. This will be one of the roles of Sugden, who has most recently been Fortescue’s director of corporate communications, based in London.
Ramping up the spin team
One driver for ramping up the spin team is a perceived need to improve relations with the Canberra press gallery, members of whom had been complaining about the Albanese office.
Albanese now has a record number of seven media advisers (not including support staff). But he is known for having his own firm views on media strategy.
The immediate challenge for Dutton is less about the spin, more about the substance.
While now living with the replacement of the Stage 3 tax cuts, the Coalition is also trying to send the message that it has not deserted those of its voters who have lost out (compared with where they would have been) in the changes.
Dutton (wisely) has not pledged a Coalition government to restoring their position. Rather, he’s taken the pragmatic course of kicking the issue down the track, talking about “principle” rather than promising firm policy.
He said at his news conference: “Do we walk away from the principles of Stage 3? Absolutely not. We believe there’s a requirement for reform in the system. So we’re not going to stand in the way of tax cuts being delivered, and we’ll have more to say in relation to our own policy in due course.”
Opposition commits to taking tax policy to election
Dutton said to implement what remained of Stage 3 in addition to what the government had done would mean finding an extra $9 billion a year “which is no easy task”.
Anyway, “you can’t redesign a tax package within a fortnight from opposition,” he said, adding that, apart from anything else, the Parliamentary Budget Office “doesn’t turn around costings that quickly”.
What we know out of this is the opposition has committed itself to taking some tax policy to the election, so preparation of it can’t be delayed indefinitely, even if the announcement of it is held back.
That policy will be a challenge for the Coalition. It will need to be partly targeted to those it complains are disadvantaged by the changes to Stage 3. On the other hand, with Dutton pitching especially to “middle” Australia in outer suburbia, the opposition policy can’t just look to those in the higher reaches of the income scale. All that could mean having to find substantial savings.
Who can be trusted?
In a world of spin and confusion, there’s never been a more important time to support independent journalism in Canberra.
If you trust our work online and want to enforce the power of independent voices, I invite you to make a small contribution.
Every dollar of support is invested back into our journalism to help keep citynews.com.au strong and free.
Ian Meikle, editor