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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Paul Karp

If Albanese wants to keep voters onside he needs to deliver on his cost-of-living promises – and soon

The prime minister poses with Dunkley candidate Jodie Belyea. An upcoming byelection will test voters confidence Labor is addressing the rising cost of living.
The prime minister poses with Dunkley candidate Jodie Belyea. An upcoming byelection will test voters’ confidence Labor is addressing the rising cost of living. Photograph: Diego Fedele/AAP

The political year seems to start earlier and earlier.

In 2023, the opposition leader Peter Dutton fired the starter’s gun on 7 January with demands for detail about and criticism of the Albanese government’s handling of the Indigenous voice to parliament.

This year, politics started with Labor’s statement of intent to fight Australia’s grocery duopoly and promises to do more to address the rising cost of living.

The prime minister, Anthony Albanese, announced on 3 January that he had asked treasury and finance to come up with “further propositions” for cost-of-living relief. On Monday he upped the ante by suggesting Australians may not have to wait until the budget.

Asked twice why the government would wait until May to offer relief for hip-pocket pain, Albanese told ABC Melbourne “we’re not necessarily doing that” and “that’s not necessarily the case at all”.

“We’ll continue to look for targeted cost-of-living relief, how we can make a difference for people without adding to inflation.”

The government is clearly buoyed by the fact that inflation has fallen from 4.9% to 4.3%. While the inflation fight isn’t over, this gives the government latitude to do more for households without being accused of adding to inflation.

The treasurer, Jim Chalmers, told Guardian Australia in December the government could provide further relief – and the messaging now is that it wants to help people as soon as it can.

And why not? Early in the new year Labor will face a key test, a byelection in south-east Melbourne triggered by the death of MP Peta Murphy, who held the seat of Dunkley, centred on the outer suburb of Frankston.

No word yet from the lower house speaker, Milton Dick, on the precise timing but it’s expected by late February or early March.

Cabinet met on Monday, and Albanese told Radio National the expenditure review committee would consider the cost of living issue “over the next couple of weeks” – a timeline consistent with letting Dunkley voters know what’s on offer, not just preparation for a May budget.

Dunkley is a mortgage-belt seat where 41.6% of residents have a home loan compared with the Australian average of 35%. Exactly the sort of place where 13 interest rate rises could bite a government coming out of its long honeymoon.

While the government can point to a long list of existing cost-of-living measures (energy price relief, early childhood education subsidies, cheaper medicines) voters have long since factored those into the household budgets, and many are still struggling.

Dutton and the Coalition will be relentless and they give the government no credit for measures that seem firmly in the rear-vision mirror.

Why let the misleading impression the government hasn’t done anything on cost-of-living become set in voters minds if the ultimate destination is more help in the budget?

Polls consistently show that post-budget bounces for a government are rare or small. And the 2024 budget will not be a springboard to a federal election, because Albanese has made clear he intends to go full term.

“No, that’s certainly not my intention,” he said again on Monday when asked if the election would be in 2024.

Labor MP Brian Mitchell pushed Chalmers to speak to backbenchers about the rising cost of living back in November.

Mitchell told Guardian Australia on Monday he is “certainly very pleased” that the government has a “100% focus” on cost of living, which is “always a big issue”.

Albanese and Chalmers are in “no doubt” about the impact of rising costs on low and middle income earners, and any more measures would be “terrific”.

While the priority should always be getting the policy right, Mitchell agrees the government should announce cost-of-living measures “as soon as practicably possible”.

Many Australians are still enjoying their holidays, counting down days for their kids to return to school, or flying under the radar with a slower tempo at work.

We know Albanese puts a premium on governing well rather than filling all available airtime with politics.

But the plan of attack for 2024 seems to be that whenever Australians tear themselves away from the beach, the cricket or the tennis the first political message that they hear is that Labor is on their side and here to help.

For households and the government – the sooner the better.

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