(Image: Gorkie/Private Media)

If you’d asked political analysts what they thought would dominate the discourse when the election was announced, “a head of iceberg lettuce” likely wasn’t on the list.

But the leafy green has had a huge impact on how Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Labor leader Anthony Albanese tailored their campaign messages, with the cost of living dominating almost every press conference, leaders debate and meet and greet.

It was something the Coalition likely didn’t plan on either: while they flagged higher costs earlier in the year, Morrison would’ve been hoping his budget bribes would distract voters from higher bills, while the invasion of Ukraine would absolve him of any blame.

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But it’s been the opposite. A simple head of the worst kind of lettuce turned it all upside-down — prompting Labor to pretend economic management was always one of its talking points and putting Morrison on the back foot, insisting there’s no “magic solution” to lowering food costs.

Here’s how it all unfolded. 

Talking points mapped out

The timing of the election was well planned, announced off the back of the generous federal budget. It put the Coalition on the front, with plenty of cash handouts at the ready to appease voters and distract them from anything unfortunate around them — say, surging COVID-19 rates or floods.

Morrison, being Morrison, wanted to get ahead of any negative press around rising food costs. In early March, he warned business leaders of higher costs — but was quick to absolve politics of any blame.

“Food and grain prices are rising, which will pose challenges to lower-income economies, including many in our own region,” he said. “We are not immune from the negative impacts of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on global growth as well.”

To address these increased costs, he included a tidy $250 payment to some Australians in the budget — again stressing that this was Russia’s fault, ignoring that prices had been on the up for months.

Campaigns kicked off as planned, with both parties going along with their expected messaging. They each had their focuses. Morrison on reliability — the Coalition, he stressed, was a “government that you know and that has been delivering and a Labor opposition that you don’t”. Albanese, on the other hand, focused on the opportunity to give Australia a “better future” with a focus on integrity and respect. 

For the Liberals, it was all about the economy, unemployment and jobs, lower taxes, infrastructure and national security. For Labor, the messages were aged care and childcare, unemployment and jobs, climate action, skills, infrastructure, healthcare and cost of living — but with a focus on childcare policies over groceries.

A head of lettuce goes viral

On March 30, a photo of a head of iceberg lettuce selling for $5.50 at Coles went viral on Reddit. But neither major party picked up on it, trundling out the same old lines they’d been planning for months.

It wasn’t until April 29 that Albanese apparently picked up on the Reddit thread and ran with it in an interview on the Today show. “I’ve done some online shopping this week, an iceberg lettuce $5.50. For an iceberg lettuce. It used to be a couple of bucks.” 

It dominated the second leaders debate too, with 60 Minutes reporter Sarah Abo asking both leaders on May 8: “What can you do to actually reduce the cost of lettuce and, even on a day like Mother’s Day, the cost of flowers?”

Albanese’s comment wasn’t the only thing that put cost of living front and centre of the debate: a few days later, the Reserve Bank of Australia raised the cash rate by 25 basis points. Data on inflation, employment and real wages was released and both leaders were soon peppered with questions on what they planned to do about it.

But Albanese’s lettuce remark had got the ball — or head — rolling.

A can of worms for gotcha questions 

The coverage boded well for Albanese, positioning him as an “everyday guy” who bought groceries just like everyone else. It was also a jab at Morrison, who in February wasn’t able to name the price of a loaf of bread, a litre of petrol and a rapid antigen test. 

“I wasn’t going to pretend to you that I go out each day and I buy a loaf of bread and I buy a litre of milk,” Morrison said in reply. He was later “supported” by Employment Minister Stuart Robert who said if Morrison’s wife Jenny was with him she’d be able to “rattle off all the prices of all the things they buy”. Hallelujah. 

It also paved the way for journalists to ask even more “gotcha” questions. If the leaders were so well versed in their campaign messages and the struggles of everyday Australians, why couldn’t Albanese reel off the six points of his policy on the National Disability Insurance Scheme? Why did Morrison struggle with questions on basic pricing? Why couldn’t Albanese provide data on the unemployment and cash rates? 

But both leaders’ continued to jump down each other’s throats, with Morrison repeatedly using Albanese’s gotcha gaffes as campaign fodder — while conveniently ignoring his own. 

Lettuce is king 

But back to the lettuce: after the second leaders debate, lettuce had taken off, with Labor releasing lettuce-themed memes to drill the point home. We also saw a spike in Australians googling the cost of living

As data provided by Isentia for Crikey’s Campaign Insights revealed today, both leaders had to widen their messaging, forced to fight on one another’s turf.

While Labor had always gone strong on the issue of cost of living, they’ve been forced to reposition themselves as the strong economic managers instead of the Coalition. It’s put the Liberals on the back foot — forced to release a depressing rendition of “there’s a hole in my bucket” targeted at Labor.

It’s also overshadowed policy announcements. Morrisons’ flagship policy — allowing Australians to use their superannuation to purchase a first home (along with his budget cash handouts) — has given him just a few days of coverage before falling to the wayside.

Albanese on the other hand has been able to tailor his policies — childcare, affordable housing and wage hikes — to directly respond to punters’ concerns.

And as to whether a head of iceberg lettuce could cause a change in government… I guess we’ll find that out this weekend.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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