The federal election campaign has been in full swing for less than one day, and Anthony Albanese has already conceded points on the economy - forced to apologise for fumbling around for answers to questions about the unemployment and cash rates.
Facing reporters in Launceston on Monday, the opposition leader was asked whether he knew what the cash rate was (otherwise known as the official interest rate, which pretty much determines the “cost of money” for the banks and informs their mortgage and personal interest rates). He deflected, pointing instead to the prices of bread, milk and petrol.
After a string of follow-up questions, Albanese was then asked if he knew what Australia’s unemployment rate is. “The national unemployment rate at the moment is ... I think it’s five point ... four ... sorry I’m not sure what it is,” he said.
The unemployment rate is currently 4 percent, while the cash rate has been sitting at a record low of 0.1 percent since November 2020. With a twisted brow, Albanese tried to plot an exit route and waded through reporters, only to summon them back shortly after to offer an apology.
“Earlier today, I made a mistake. I’m human,” he said. “But when I make a mistake, I will fess up to it and I will set about correcting that mistake. I won’t blame someone else, I will take responsibility. That’s what leaders do.”
After Albanese’s misstep, analysts of all ilks were quick to suggest that his failure to answer what are, in effect, two “very simple questions” is a symptom of a sloppily prepared campaign that could end up delivering more of the same.
One of them was The Guardian’s Katherine Murphy, who said Albanese’s miss on both stats points squarely to a lack of sharpness, or even basic preparation.
“Misses like this can then assume broader campaign symbolism – Albanese’s messaging is too sludgy, or his mind isn’t fully in the contest, or he can’t multi-task like a Prime Minister has to do at all hours of the day and the night – symbolism that then gets weaponised by your opponent,” Murphy said.
“If the pain persists, it creates a negative feedback loop. This campaign is already brutal. It will get a lot worse.”
Shortly after, Morrison was swift to double down on his party’s assurance to voters that his party has a tried and tested track record of managing the Australian economy – and recalling statistics.
It was, of course, the first subject he was questioned on when he appeared before reporters an hour after Albanese.
“0.1 percent is the cash rate, it’s been there for some time. The unemployment rate I’m happy to say is 4 percent, falling to a 50-year low,” Morrison said.
“It came down from 5.7 percent when we were first elected. More importantly, as we went into the pandemic, we were facing unemployment rates up around 15 percent. Now it’s 4 percent,” he said.
He then, predictably, went on to talk about the strength of the economy and the role his government has played in padding its rebound.
The cost of living – and the economic levers that play into it – has become a centrepiece issue for both leaders ahead of the 2022 federal election.
In the lead up to the campaign’s official kick-off, both Albanese and Prime Minister Scott Morrison have tried to pitch their economic bona fides in the face of an increasingly disenfranchised Australian majority who are struggling to house themselves and put food in their mouths, as inflation soars and wages remain stagnant.
Albanese’s argument has so far consisted of little more than the decorum afforded to him by his University of Sydney economics degree, while Morrison’s has been an approach consisting of betting that average Australians will settle for, or even be grateful for, another three years of much of the same.
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