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Bernard Keane

However vacuous the question, Albanese’s unemployment rate fail does matter

Election campaign stumbles and “gaffes” are beloved of journalists. For a start, engineering one is far easier than actually being across policy substance and understanding the contrast between a party’s policy position and the public interest. And rather than the complexities of actual policy, they enable journalists to present the much simpler and clearer narrative that a politician is “out of touch”.

That’s what Scott Morrison copped back in January when he was unable to say what basic groceries cost — a facile question that even regular shoppers might not be able to answer, let alone the prime minister. That’s what Anthony Albanese got yesterday when quizzed about the current interest level and the unemployment level.

Albanese’s team had no excuse. They’d seen what happened to Morrison, and Albanese should have known everything from the price of a litre of petrol to the average variable mortgage rate from the major banks and everything in between.

Most gaffes don’t have much impact, and certainly not as much as journalists think. Voters sense the gotcha nature of such questions, to the extent that they’re paying any attention. But journalists seem to think there’s some magical cadre of undecided voters stroking their chins and checking the transcripts of every campaign media conference in order to assess who has gaffed the most before deciding whom to support.

But the nature of Albanese’s stumble is genuinely weird. Who does not know that the Reserve Bank of Australia has interest rates set at 0.1%? Apart from anything else, it’s an almost comically absurd level to anyone old enough to remember the late 1980s, as Albanese is. And who doesn’t know that unemployment is verging on record lows?

Both figures are central to two Labor campaign themes around wages growth and cost-of-living pressures, since low unemployment is yet to translate into higher wages and the likely imminent rise in interest rates from near-zero is going to inflict damage on the household budgets of mortgage holders.

For someone engaged in serious debate wages, household incomes and cost-of-living pressures, not knowing such basics is inexplicable.

The Coalition has been trying to pin the label of economic inexperience on Albanese, claiming he’s never delivered a budget before. It’s an asinine argument — how many budgets had Bob Hawke delivered before 1983? For that matter, how many had Tony Abbott delivered in 2013? And yet there was Albanese seeming to give the line substance.

One of the lessons of 2019 for Labor should have been that any complacency will be fatal. There’ll be no cruising to victory. The three biggest media companies in Australia — News Corp, Nine, Seven — are all owned or controlled by Liberal-aligned figures. ABC News is too cowed and craven to be balanced. Labor spokespeople every day walk out into a hostile media environment. And Scott Morrison will say anything he needs to make Labor the subject of the campaign, not himself. He was brilliant at it in 2019 and he’ll do the same all the way to May 21.

Albanese at least owned up to the mistake and didn’t try to avoid blame. That’s better than we’re used to from Morrison, who will never admit to even egregious mistakes or stumbles. But he shouldn’t expect that will win any plaudits for that either. Better that the Labor team does its homework properly in the first place.

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