Paul Bongiorno: Albanese regroups for final showdown, unfazed by government’s war talk

by Paul Bongiorno

Anthony Albanese is spending his days in COVID-19 isolation putting an enormous amount of preparation into what Labor sees as the critical final stage in the campaign to take the Lodge from Scott Morrison and the Liberals.

On Sunday the Labor leader will take the unprecedented step of launching Labor’s formal campaign in Perth.

The launch will seek to maximise attention on Labor’s agenda a week out from the start of pre-poll voting.

There will be a major policy announcement almost certainly looking to address major health delivery concerns.

The Western Australian capital has assumed enormous significance with consistent polling indicating the Opposition has its best shot in decades of taking two or three seats from the Liberals.

The Albanese camp says the enforced absence from the campaign trail has given its leader a rare chance to step back for a week and reflect on tactics and strategy.

One key adviser says campaigns can become a daily blur for a leader, “whereas now Anthony has had the chance to have a good look at the government’s campaign”.

Earlier fears that Albanese becoming the latest victim of the bug that has laid low millions of Australians would stall Labor’s momentum have dissipated.

One seasoned campaigner doesn’t believe the rhythm of the campaign has been affected at all because Easter and Anzac Day were major distractions for voters anyhow.

The political battle was always going to be on in earnest after the national commemoration services, reunions, and odd game of two-up.

Military metaphors are never far from the partisan contestability of our democracy, but this time they have a particular salience with an embattled Coalition doing its best to drum up a khaki election.

So far without much impact.

Peter Dutton defence missiles
Defence Minister Peter Dutton. Photo: AAP

This hasn’t stopped the Prime Minister and Defence Minister Peter Dutton going into Sinophobia overdrive.

On Sunday the PM boldly declared he was drawing a red line at any plans China might have to set up a military base in the Solomon Islands.

He claimed to be piggy-backing on a declaration from the White House after a senior-level US delegation met Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare in Honiara and warned Washington would have “significant concerns and respond accordingly”.

Except the highly charged “red line” was not used by the Americans and the Australian Opposition has asked for confidential briefings to find out if Morrison was freelancing.

At face value, it looks and sounds like a piece of self-important chest beating.

It looks like a sign the government is desperate for anything to scare the bejesus out of voters not to desert it because any time in the next 10 or 20 years China might or might not invade us or, at the very least, we could be engaged in “kinetic” hostilities with the Asian giant.

Veteran foreign affairs commentator Greg Sheridan in The Australian said Morrison’s red line “carries the enormous risk of being mocked into derision because of the hollowness of the implied threat”.

If the Americans haven’t in fact drawn a red line or, more to the point, even if they have but like President Barack Obama over chemical weapons in Syria they then do nothing about it, where does that leave Australia?

To borrow Sheridan’s answer, nowhere except to “shout strategic warnings from the rooftops” with no military power of its own to back it up.

In a weekend interview, Peter Dutton had to walk back an impression some of the Sunday papers had created that he was talking of China using chemical weapons and wanting to make us a “tributary state” never allowed to criticise it.

Labor deputy leader Richard Marles was mocked by Mr Dutton for his “diplomatic courtesy”. Photo: AAP

He mocked Labor’s Richard Marles for showing the Chinese embassy a speech he was to give in Beijing two years ago, implying Marles was supinely asking permission.

Marles countered it was a diplomatic courtesy, not one word was changed and he, unlike any Liberal politician, directly criticised China over its human rights record and its treatment of Hong Kong in the speech.

But Dutton was more loudly beating the drums of war again on Monday.

He compared China to Nazi Germany in the 1930s and said “the only way you can preserve peace is to prepare for war and be strong as a country, not to cower, not to be on bended knee and be weak”.

There is no mention of the fact that China is far and away our biggest trading partner with two-way trade worth nearly $600 billion. Without it we would all be much poorer.

Morrison and Dutton accuse Labor of “appeasement” of China, which shows a wilfully ignorant understanding of the national interest and the need for diplomatic statecraft.

If the reaction of 100 undecided voters at last week’s leaders’ debate is any guide – they groaned when Morrison accused Labor of always taking China’s side – then this line of campaigning is counterproductive.

And to think it was being plied on the day Emmanuel Macron was returned as President of France.

The collapsed deal he said Morrison lied to him about has left Australia with a 20-year submarine capability gap.

No wonder Albanese and Labor feel they are on the right side of this argument.

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