Anthony Albanese
Labor Leader Anthony Albanese (Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

For most politicians, Mother’s Day is merely an annual chance to convince us that, despite appearances, they were birthed by another human and not mechanically assembled in a factional backroom. But for Anthony Albanese, the day holds more significance.

As the federal opposition leader shared on Twitter on Sunday, Mother’s Day 2002 was the day his mum “went to hospital and never came back”. Single mother Maryanne Albanese raised her son in public housing on a disability pension, unable to work due to crippling arthritis.

The Labor leader took a rare opportunity to share his moving personal history and articulate the values it imparted. “I know the difference that governments can make on people’s lives because I lived it,” he wrote. “Mum lived it.”

Alas, the advisers who vet Albo’s social media posts could not let an articulation of working-class pride slide without appending some cynical triangulation. “She taught me how to save,” he wrote. “And how to spend wisely — because every dollar had to count.”

The line echoed a speech Albanese delivered on Thursday, in which he invoked Kevin Rudd’s famous “economic conservative” slogan, reiterating a promise to keep government spending tight if he is elected PM. “Money was always tight at our place,” he said. “That’s why, when it comes to thinking about government spending, I am cautious.”

The speech was dropped to The Australian, in an apparent effort to signal Labor’s fiscal discipline. It comes after Albanese asked shadow cabinet members in February to attempt to offset all new spending proposals with cuts.

This fiscal frugality sees Albo sounding even more hawkish than Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, who has pre-empted backbench and commentariat grumblings about the deficit by declaring it is no time for an austerity budget so soon after the coronavirus recession.

It also sets Australian Labor apart from progressive parties internationally. Joe Biden, for instance, has invoked his own history of hardship as a widowed parent — famously shunning transport perks and instead taking the train to the Obama White House — to justify a mammoth fiscal effort to repair America’s welfare system and infrastructure.

Where Biden employs his biography in pursuit of alleviating poverty, Albanese allowed his to rationalise penny-pinching. As Rick Morton has written, the way frugal habits induced by poverty “bend … the architecture of the mind” is hardly a virtue, especially when applied to public policy.

Albanese’s other main talking point in the lead-up to Tuesday’s budget has been the need to overcome wage stagnation. Yet the simultaneous emphasis on restrained government spending and wage growth is somewhat contradictory, given the former undermines the latter.

As Crikey has long noted, the public sector is an increasingly important driver of jobs and wages growth. But a “balanced budgets” framework could hamper its more heavily unionised workforce’s ability to negotiate pay rises, which would undercut consumer spending and stifle economic recovery.

Comparison with Biden’s approach is again telling, having recently appointed Vice-President Kamala Harris to lead a taskforce to revitalise unions and wage growth. The opening strategy of their four-point plan is to “lead by example” by being a “model employer” and procurer.

Their expansionary fiscal strategy reflects a growing consensus among economists, including Australian economists. The Parliamentary Budget Office recently released a report confirming Australia’s debt is “comfortably sustainable”.

Polling also suggests the Australian public agree deficit reduction is a low priority.

Why, then, is the ALP still projecting a “miserly bean-counter” image? As Richard Cooke wrote in The Monthly, many of Albanese’s baffling forays merely reflect grudges from lost Rudd-era fights (think Abbott’s “debt and deficit disaster” slogan), and “an appeal to the burghers of the financial world (especially the financial press) that reads ‘please take us seriously’”.

Whereas Biden’s advisers are learning from the mistakes of Obama, whose thankless pretence of fiscal responsibility hampered economic recovery, Team Albo is stuck in an uninspiring groundhog day.

The first lesson of political communication is to never use your opponent’s rhetorical frames. For Labor to achieve its admirable social priorities, it must jettison deficit hawkishness.

On Saturday, the ALP marked its 120th birthday. What better time to reclaim its history of expanding the welfare state and proudly proclaim these achievements? If Albanese wants to ensure “no one is left behind”, as his mother was by cutbacks to public services she relied on, he needs to unapologetically commit to funding them.