Paul Bongiorno: The odds are narrowing for Anthony Albanese and the government

Peter Dutton is applying increasing pressure on PM Anthony Albanese.

Peter Dutton is applying increasing pressure on PM Anthony Albanese. Photo: AAP

The reverberations of the spectacularly failed Voice referendum are continuing to hit the Albanese government, leaving it in a politically weaker position to convince Australians they are the better option to handle the cost-of-living crisis squeezing them.

Ministers are anxiously awaiting the Reserve Bank board’s decision on Tuesday under new governor Michele Bullock on whether it will raise interest rates by a further 25 basis points to 4.35 per cent, the highest level in 12 years.

Putting pressure on the RBA is inflation, running at 5.4 per cent, still persistently outside its target range of 2 to 3 per cent despite Treasurer Jim Chalmers citing analysis from his department that inflation has peaked and the forecast it will reach the target by 2024-25 has not changed.

Chalmers bristled in a weekend interview when it was suggested he was “jawboning” the RBA governor to leave rates where they have been over the past four months.

He said, however, he was merely doing his job as Treasurer by commenting on inflation the day the Australian Bureau of Statistics released the latest numbers and he was reminding everyone the ABS also noted his measures on rent, child care and electricity had shaved half a per cent off inflation.

Chalmers is fully aware he can’t spend his way out of this crisis and is not done yet confronting inflationary pressures.

He is signalling billions of dollars’ worth of unfunded infrastructure programs face postponement or the axe, thanks to a tight labour market, supply constraints and increasing fuel costs that would only make the situation worse.

The bigger challenge facing Chalmers, and indeed the Prime Minister, is to convince voters their struggle to make ends meet is the government’s top priority; a string of recent opinion polls suggest they will have a lot of trouble doing it.

None is more persuasive than the latest Newspoll – it’s the one politicians take most notice of and it is in line with other post-referendum surveys which suggest Albanese has spent all of his political capital and the government lost considerable ground in the final months of the referendum campaign.

Veteran political journalist Laurie Oakes was characteristically blunt in an assessment he made on Radio 2GB.

Oakes said when a prime minister handles something as big as the Voice as badly as Albanese did, “people are naturally going to assume you’re not handling other things well either”.

Don’t panic yet

Albanese has eighteen months to recover before the next scheduled election, and former Labor hard-head in the Hawke years, Graham Richardson, says the government shouldn’t panic because mid-term administrations often fall behind, only to recover when it matters.

It will be a real test of Albanese’s political smarts to prove Oakes wrong – that the referendum debacle made him look like an “incompetent dill”.

But Labor shouldn’t be shocked that its opponents have been emboldened to campaign even harder against it when it has demonstrated such a vulnerability.

In the recent past such a slide in the polls would trigger leadership speculation but there are no such murmurings despite having some impressive performers on the front bench who could step up.

There is certainly no one in the ranks positioning themselves like we saw in the most recent Labor and Liberal governments.

One senior cabinet minister says, “it’s not time to do anything so drastic” but adds “the trend is not our friend”.

Seared in the brains of many in Labor’s caucus are the lessons of the past, where factional and leadership rivalry gifted government to an unpopular Tony Abbott in 2013, though one party veteran says the referendum debacle seems to have had the same outcome of ceding momentum to the Opposition.

Distraction pays dividends for Dutton

Peter Dutton would certainly be encouraged that his ruthless opportunism in rejecting the Voice and creating the impression that the Prime Minister and his government were distracted from what was worrying millions of Australians has paid such dividends.

It has seen Albanese’s plunge into the red zone of performance approval, with only three net negative points separating him from Dutton, whom many in Labor foolishly console themselves with the thought that the Liberal leader is unelectable.

The Coalition is running hard on cost-of-living pain and claiming Labor is failing to deliver on relief promises, but it hasn’t come up with any new solutions of its own – so much so a RedBridge poll at the weekend found only 30 per cent of voters think the Coalition is ready to govern compared to 50 per cent who think it isn’t.

The government is facing just as determined challenges from its left flank, with the Greens seizing on widespread revulsion in the community at the relentless bombardment of Gaza and the mounting civilian toll as Israel seeks to destroy the Hamas terrorists.

Labor MPs are being swamped with protests over the government’s support for Israel, but the jury is out on whether this will translate into more votes in seats already vulnerable to the Greens in Sydney and Melbourne.

Greens deputy leader in the Senate Mehreen Faruqui led a protest walkout of the chamber by the party’s 11 senators after accusing the Coalition of being “morally bankrupt” on Palestine, and Labor of being “heartless, gutless cowards”.

No one ever promised government would be easy, but Anthony Albanese in China meeting President Xi Jinping will be hoping voters begin marking him up for stabilising relations with our biggest customer.

The Prime Minister says it ensures our prosperity and, for good measure, threw in it would also help fight inflation.

Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with more than 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics

Stay informed, daily
A FREE subscription to The New Daily arrives every morning and evening.
The New Daily is a trusted source of national news and information and is provided free for all Australians. Read our editorial charter
Copyright © 2024 The New Daily.
All rights reserved.