(Image: Gorkie/Private Media)

A tired budget week ended with a tired budget reply. Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese’s speech, delivered before a yawning chamber on Thursday night, was peppered with enough zingers to keep the true believers in the public gallery excited, and just barely enough policy to lay the groundwork for a small-target election strategy that may be Labor’s only choice.

Albanese began, as he often does, with a nod to his origin story — growing up in a council house in Sydney’s Camperdown (a suburb now too gentrified for such a story to work) with a single mother. The story is important because it marks Albo as authentic, gives him a connection to the traditional blue-collar base of a party increasingly dominated by middle class, privately-educated technocrats.

What followed was a series of soundbites that could’ve been pinched from any Labor speech or interview over the last eight years — “delivering for working families”, “investing in Australia’s future”, “no one left behind”.

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The most defined bit of new policy was a $10 billion plan to create 20,000 social housing properties, some reserved for domestic violence survivors and frontline workers. It’s an area the Coalition has long neglected and against a backdrop of a crazed housing market many wouldn’t dream of entering, addresses a narrow chink in the government’s budget armour.

Elsewhere, Albanese’s offerings were vague, attacks mounted on the government with little explanation of how Labor’s alternative would be addressed. “Wages”, for instance, got 13 mentions in Albanese’s reply.

It’s an attack Labor has repeatedly made since Tuesday, hitting the government’s failure to lift wages in the budget. Except, beyond supporting the Fair Work Commission “moving quickly”, there was no real mechanism for how that raise would happen.

Elsewhere, the vagueness was a symptom of the tightrope Labor must walk, wedged by a Coalition suddenly willing to spend, and struggling to cut through at a time when the pandemic has imbued voters with a pro-incumbency bias towards the devil they know.

A couple of off-hand mentions about “the biggest debt and deficit of all time”, was a signal Labor still wants to avoid being tainted as the party of profligacy, and is prepared to try and outflank the Coalition on the right. Good luck.

On climate, too, Albanese tried to thread the needle. Like Frydenberg, he paid lip service to reaching net zero. He went a little further than the treasurer, pointing to an already-announced electric vehicle policy. There was also the skeleton of an energy apprenticeships plan to “train young people for the jobs of the future” (i.e. get more kids installing solar panels).

But that section of the speech clearly reflected Labor’s internal struggles. A vague commitment, but little of the details that might scare off voters in coal country. A sign that the wounds of that 2019 swing, and the deep rifts between Joel Fitzgibbon and the world, are still plaguing the party on climate.

Other announcements, like a promise to stamp out workplace sexual harassment and the promise to set up a National Integrity Commission were, again, fine in principle but undercooked in the delivery.

Perhaps that’s the point. Labor strategists this week told us perhaps the party’s best hope was to ride out budget week, always likely to be a triumphant one for the government, and get ready to fight the Coalition on their failures around the vaccine rollout when the time comes.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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