Albanese plays it safe just when big ideas are needed

The shortage of big policies from Anthony Albanese on Thursday night could mean he is keeping his powder dry for the election campaign due within a year. But it could also mean he does not have enough gunpowder.

The Labor leader’s response to the federal budget was far too cautious in the middle of a pandemic that requires big ideas from both sides of politics.

Confronted with a Coalition spendathon on Tuesday, Anthony Albanese has signalled he is unwilling to spend too much more.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Australians are waiting for a vaccination program that is meant to shield them from COVID-19 so the country can emerge from its hermit status, open to the rest of the world and recover the prosperity lost in last year’s recession.

Albanese offers them a housing affordability fund, a modest proposal to create more apprentices and a reheated innovation plan from six years ago.

He chooses to play it safe. Confronted with a Coalition spendathon on Tuesday, he signals he is unwilling to spend too much more. Perhaps he is right: former Labor leader Bill Shorten took big risks with his budget reply speeches and never made it to The Lodge. The problem for Albanese is that power is not served on a platter. Risk is part of the job.

It is true that Albanese made some significant commitments that will sharpen the contest at the election. He said a Labor government would pass laws to make wage theft a criminal offence and to place a duty on employers to eliminate sex discrimination.

But is that enough? None of the new policies offer a big vision, let alone a hint of detail, about how to adapt Australia to a world economy in upheaval from a coronavirus that will be with us for years.

Albanese accuses Prime Minister Scott Morrison of failure on vaccines, quarantine and protecting Australians. What is Labor’s proposal to expand the capacity of the quarantine regime? Would it be that hard to draft a policy and escalate the contest with the Coalition? Or is it too risky when many voters are happy with closed borders.

Morrison and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg offer inadequate answers, too. Their budget makes no pledge about when Australians will be vaccinated or when the borders will open. While industries like tourism and transport are crying out for a roadmap to open the economy, the government gives them budget “assumptions” and more uncertainty.

All the more reason for Labor to venture some bigger ideas to convince Australians it can fill the void.

Albanese has criticisms, but few alternatives. He offers powerful rhetoric about the vaccine delays but no compelling alternative to show he could do a better job.

He is sticking to the formula of the past two years with his standard line: “We’re not the government.” It is true. But it is totally inadequate.

And saying it too often, for too long, will only ensure it remains the case.

Morrison is no smarter than Albanese, but he looks bolder this week. He launched a $74.6 billion incursion onto Labor territory with more money for aged care, disability services, mental health, unemployment benefits and apprentices.

The Labor reply on skills was to offer $100 million more than a Coalition package worth $2.7 billion. This may be fiscally cautious but does not give voters a reason to pay attention.

What Morrison did this week should ring alarm bells within Labor and send a message over the caucus room loudspeaker.

That message? You do not have as much time as you think. If you really believe you can be a better government, tell people how. And tell them now.

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