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Grattan on Friday: Albanese enjoys London limelight while Chalmers sweats in budget spotlight


The timing of history. How Anglophile and monarchist Tony Abbott would have loved to be the Prime Minister to attend the coronation. Not to mention John Howard, a key figure in fighting off an Australian republic in 1999.

Instead, it is Anthony Albanese in London who explains on British television how he, a leader committed to making our country a republic, is happy to be loyal to the new head of state.

Albanian has done a good job of dispelling any perceived contradiction, once again showing that he can be a man for all occasions, some of which are challenging.

In his hour-long interview with conservative Sky broadcaster Piers Morgan (surprising appearance in its own right) Albanian navigated some tricky questions, retold his familiar childhood story (with details of finding his father), which Morgan seemed to find fascinating, and juggled his republicanism with upholding current allegiances from Australia to King Charles.

While vague about the timing (we know he wants a republic referendum in a second term), Albanese said that whenever there was a public demand for another vote, “I’m sure a vote will be held,” but that it was not imminent.

In particular, Albanians reaffirmed his preference for “an appointed head of state”, referring to “a process by which democratically elected institutions, in the House of Representatives and the Senate, have a say”.

Read more: Nine things to know about a potential Australian republic

Divisions among Republicans over the model (making the president nominate by the legislature versus popular election) helped the 1999 vote plummet. In the future, the pressure would be on a model chosen by the people. The challenge for Labour, if and when it comes to a referendum, would be to meet this demand but avoid a model of potentially competing centers of power.

While Albanese (landing back in Australia on budget night) basks in the international spotlight, Treasurer Jim Chalmers felt the heat of the spotlight at home this week.

Treasurer Jim Chalmers.
Luke Coch/AAP

In current politics, the days before a budget are just as orchestrated by the government as the budget day itself. What you read and hear about the measures are not “leaks” but so-called “drips” to the media, intended to pre-empt a flood of good news (or sometimes to get rid of bad news).

More rarely are there real leaks – a journalist gets a real scoop, something the government had no intention of releasing that day. So was the Seven Network’s story of an expected rise in job seekers for people aged 55 and over (Over-60s who have been out of work for nine months already receive a higher rate).

Chalmers would not confirm the veracity of the leak, but he defended the case for such a measure, which was taken as a check. One of his arguments is that it would mainly help women, especially many older unemployed women. Assisting them also fits well with Labour’s gendered lens.

Inevitably, however, there was an immediate backlash from those who spoke up for the youth. The debate became a microcosm of the government’s wider problem with this budget, as Chalmers has tried to balance the need for restraint (amplified by the Reserve Bank’s rate hike this week) and strong calls for the government to frequently repeated elections. commitment to “leaving no people behind”. Albanese told Morgan, “The philosophy I used in the election was in two parts: no one held back and no one left behind.”

Read more: Government to spend $11.3 billion in four years to fund 15% wage increase for aged care workers

We have seen both the influence of the crossbench and the mostly compliant caucus in this intense tussle.

It was ACT Independent Senator David Pocock who (as part of a deal to pass legislation) brought in the Economic Inclusion Advisory Committee that everyone recommended a big increase in JobSeeker. A large number of Labor backbenchers publicly joined the call, adding further pressure to the government.

The budget will include not only some welfare initiatives, including for single mothers, but also other measures to address the cost of living crisis. The response to this is expected to come from different directions.

The attack from the left will say that the government has not done enough. “Leave no one behind” is a very subjective proposition. When it comes to attacks, this budget is made for the Greens. The small party has arguably proved more effective as a voice of the “opposition” than the official opposition (this is separate from any judgment on the substance of what the Greens are saying). And Labor knows this is dangerous in the longer term as the Greens eat away at a few seats in the lower house.

It could be more difficult for the coalition to find length and line when responding to the budget. Demanding that more be done on welfare is not the job of the coalition. It will undoubtedly say that not enough attention is paid to the cost of living. But any suggestion that the budget should have spent more than it actually spends undermines the coalition argument about restraint.

Read more: Word from The Hill: Another rate increase, higher cigarette taxes and likely JobSeeker boost for over 55s

If, as speculated, the budget predicts a surplus for 2022-23, that will further complicate the opposition’s response. The coalition is hampered whether it attacks from the right or (less likely) from the left.

Depending on the precise design, the budget can be a slippery beast for the opposition. Meanwhile, Peter Dutton faces his own personal test next week.

In theory, a budget answer from an opposition leader so early in the term should not be of great importance. But Dutton is under the pump, with bad polls and divided ranks, so opportunity will matter.

When he rises in the House of Representatives on Thursday night, Dutton will need both negative and positive messages.

The difficulty of his task will also depend on how the budget has been received. Aside from that, Dutton needs to reveal something substantial in policy terms, filling at least one corner of the coalition’s current policy vacuum.

Not that this is easy. The Coalition cannot afford to make the story in a bad way. It has already done this on the Voice.

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