Labradors, beer cans, pigeon poo and interest rates – and it’s only the first week of the campaign

Labor finance spokeswoman Katy Gallagher was not even supposed to be on the first full day of the campaign with leader Anthony Albanese.

The senator from Canberra was brought in at the last minute, replacing Labor health spokesman Mark Butler, who was stuck in Adelaide recovering from a case of COVID-19.

Gallagher stood in a Launceston playground, watching Albanese’s day one press conference from a safe distance when it quickly turned into election quicksand as he was unable to name Tasmanian unemployment rates and and the official exchange rate set by the Reserve Bank.

Anthony Albanese leaves a press conference in Tasmania where he did not name the unemployment rate and official cash rates.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Sky News reporter Jonathan Lea, noting Gallagher’s presence, asked her if she knew the last two digits, which she did.

As she left the podium, in a quick aside between the first and the leader, Gallagher told Albanese that the unemployment rate was 4%, just in case he missed his answer.

He closed a moment that will no doubt be added to the “what not to do” chapter in the politicians’ media training manual. Albanese’s inability to know two or three important numbers, in addition to making him look silly, directly fueled the wider campaign.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison – questioned minutes later – was armed, ready to answer almost any numerical question that might be asked of him.

He largely limited his attacks on the day of the gaffe, opting to let Albanese’s comments contrast with how he sprinkled specific economic measures throughout his responses to questions.

The next day, however, Morrison didn’t throw a punch.

“Of course he didn’t know the number, but he didn’t miss it by [indicating with thumb and forefinger] so much – he missed it by [spreading his arms like a boastful fisherman] so much”.

Not that the PM avoided an own goal. Misleading the size of Australia’s economy, he said it was a “$2.1 trillion economy – that’s right, 12 zeros, $2.1 trillion saving”.

There are 11 zeros in 2.1 trillion, which the Prime Minister’s press team must have known because the official transcript of his comments included the addition of “(in a trillion)” after the 12 zeros claim.

On Wednesday, Greens leader Adam Bandt had had enough of the numbers game. Asked at the National Press Club if he knew about the WPI (the Wage Price Index), he told his interviewer to ‘Google it, mate’ before channeling US political drama The west wing in a call for better public discourse.

The campaign to form the government of the country’s 47th parliament began on Sunday with Morrison and Albanese making their direct appeals to voters.

Morrison, who sensationally retained power in 2019 thanks to a relentless attack on Bill Shorten and his sweeping political agenda, said this election was a choice between a flawed government and an opposition that could not be trusted to manage pandemic recovery.

Scott Morrison, basketball in hand after a stray ball knocked his glasses off while campaigning in Victoria.

Scott Morrison, basketball in hand after a stray ball knocked his glasses off while campaigning in Victoria.Credit:James Brickwood

“It’s a choice between a government you know and a Labor opposition you don’t know,” he said.

Albanese focused on key party policies such as childcare and energy prices while drawing attention to the Coalition’s agenda.

“The government just has a priority of trying to get through the next six weeks. The offers run out as soon as people cast their ballots and then it will be back to business as usual,” he said.

Six days of campaigning after those words, the two major parties focused on two policy areas as well as the failures of their opponents. Coalition policy focused on the economy, while Labor focused on health issues.

Morrison used manufacturing companies as the backdrop for his economic theme, with tours of operations that make drones, digger buckets and straps. The man mocked “Scotty of Marketing” even had his name put on an empty beer can.

He remained rigid on the message about the Coalition’s economic track record while mounting a fear campaign over what Labor might reveal after the election without first making it clear.

“Jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs and jobs… That’s what my priorities are,” he said on Thursday – dodging questions about his failure to create a national integrity commission.

Morrison imposes a frantic pace: three media events a day (four were scheduled for Thursday but the last was canceled following a car accident between his security agents) and a press conference of 20 to 30 minutes.

But he seems relaxed on the campaign trail. He uses the same filibuster wall he used to good effect in the last campaign, which keeps the answers on his favorite topic while barely leaving space for other questions to pull him up on what he just said.

Morrison has not yet ventured into the “real” world; security concerns and the ever-present risk of ambushes on social media have kept his interactions with voters tightly controlled — even as a rogue basketball player knocked off his glasses at an event to pledge half a million dollars of upgrades to a year-old stadium in Corangamite.

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Perhaps the most difficult public interaction came from one of the young basketball players who the Prime Minister discovered was a Melbourne Storm fan (it’s amazing how he manages to attract fans of the NRL, even in Victoria).

“Our teams are playing each other this weekend,” Morrison said.

“We are going to win,” replied the young boy.

Coalition strategists believe they are the winners after Albanese’s stumble on day one drew media attention for much of the week over economic issues. Campaigning is much easier than governing.

Morrison showed this element to his political figure in Orchard Hills, in the Lindsay seat, west of Sydney, where he met Labradors trained as service dogs for autistic children and veterans with PTSD.

Trainer Andrea Blackford explained that the most important thing the dogs learn is to be calm and unfazed by the chaos around them to support their owners.

“I need to have one,” laughed Morrison.

Albanese could have used some Labrador love after his mistake early in the campaign.

The Prime Minister... is chasing selfies with service dogs in Western Sydney.

The Prime Minister… is chasing selfies with service dogs in Western Sydney.Credit:James Brickwood

But Labor insiders pushed back against rumors they were stung in a change of strategy, stressing that the week started and ended with a focus on health issues.

They agree that day one had been a waste, with Albanese particularly critical of himself for smearing.

But they also suggest Morrison’s decision to call a six-week campaign would actually help, particularly with the Easter holidays this weekend.

“The main game is after Easter,” one noted.

It is also clear that Labor is holding back some major political announcements until people return from their Easter holidays and tune into the campaign. In contrast, the Coalition used its March 29 budget for key policies such as its one-time cost-of-living payments.

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Towards the end of the week, Albanese was asked about his toughest job. He revealed he had a short-term job cleaning up Sydney Harbor’s old docks while he was at university.

“These are really high roofs. They hadn’t been used for a long time. And we basically, I think about it now, no occupational health and safety, we were dousing pigeon poo, probably decades old,” he said. “It got to us and it was a terrible day.”

Almost as bad as his starting day for this election campaign.

Jacqueline Maley cuts through the noise of the federal election campaign with news, opinion and expert analysis. Sign up for our Australia Votes 2022 newsletter here.

Leslie M. Gill