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It only took a few torturous seconds yesterday for a couple of small numbers to become a very large problem for Labor leader Anthony Albanese - and to remind the rest of us how quickly Australian politics can turn the hunter into the hunted.
The trap was laid during the Opposition Leader's press conference in the extremely marginal Tasmanian seat of Bass yesterday morning when Albanese was asked to name Australia's unemployment rate of 4 per cent, as well as the Reserve Bank's official cash rate of 0.1 per cent.
He floundered, fudged and eventually failed. "The national unemployment rate is ... I think it's 5.4 ... sorry. I'm not sure what it is," he admitted. Within moments his inability to recite two critical economic numbers had become the biggest story in the country. "Albanese stumbles in trainwreck press conference" blared the headlines. You could almost hear the thankful cries of Liberal strategists as they commissioned a new set of television ads pointing out that the man who wants to run the country doesn't know the numbers that drive it.
Much tut-tutting will undoubtedly ensue following Albanese's slip-up. Critics will lament the superficiality of modern campaigns and the popularity of "gotcha!" questions designed to embarrass and humiliate those running for office.
Shallow the questions might be - knowing the price of bread and milk is hardly a true indicator of whether a candidate is out of touch with the public. But we also live in a world that thrives on the trivial and the glib. Masochists need only scan the transcripts of any political press conference. The "gotcha!" question is merely the bastard offspring of the decades-long love affair politicians have had with cliched and carefully-scripted soundbites.
Questions and answers like the ones Albanese struggled with yesterday - and let's be honest, anyone running for the highest office in this country should damn well know the unemployment and cash rate numbers - can have a lasting impact. Just ask the Liberals about the so-called unlosable election of 1993 and its turning point when John Hewson appeared on A Current Affair and could not explain whether a birthday cake would cost more or less under his proposed tax reforms.
The Coalition would also have been buoyed yesterday by the latest Newspoll showing a tightening in the gap between itself and Labor. While Labor has a 53-47 two-party preferred lead, its primary vote fell by 4 points over two weeks to a worrying 37 per cent. Albanese's rating as preferred prime minister also fell by 3 points to 39 per cent, while Scott Morrison's approval ranking rose to 44 per cent.
Albanese moved quickly yesterday to soften the impact of his stumble. "Earlier today I made a mistake," he said. "I'm human. But when I make a mistake I'll fess up to it ... I'll accept responsibility. That's what leaders do."
It was a less-than-subtle dig at Morrison, a sitting prime minister Labor is determined to portray as a do-nothing leader quick to take credit and even quicker to avoid blame. But last night Morrison was surely entitled to fall asleep with a smug smile on his face. He deliberately called a lengthy six-week election campaign to try and expose a flaw in his opponent.
In the end it only took a day.
Sigh. And we still have 40 of them to go...
HAVE YOUR SAY: Should Anthony Albanese have known the unemployment rate? Are "Gotcha!" questions legitimate queries in an election campaign? And what are the key issues and policies the nation should be debating? Send us your views: firstname.lastname@example.org
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IN CASE YOU MISSED IT: The Australian Electoral Commission will launch a unique telephone voting system on the day of the election on May 21 for those isolating with COVID-19 and who miss pre-polling and postal vote options. The Greens began their campaign to hold the balance of power with a media conference in Queensland, with leader Adam Bandt saying: "We've got a climate crisis. We've got a housing affordability crisis and the cost of living is soaring. And the Liberal government aided by the Labor Opposition is out to make things worse."
THEY SAID IT: "If you have sense enough to realise why flies gather around a restaurant, you should be able to appreciate why men run for office." - Edgar Watson Howe.
YOU SAID IT: "For once I am incredibly grateful that we will be out of mobile range in the country for most of the next few weeks. It seems to be the only way to avoid the awfulness of election lying." - Carole.
"Politicians spend too much time making snide remarks about how flawed the other side is instead of offering helpful solutions. Whatever happened to constructive criticism?" - Samantha.
"We need more people in parliament who truly represent their electorate, not just a rubber stamp for those who think that short-term benefits are more important than long-term outcomes." - Rosemary.
"The two most important issues are the redistribution of wealth through the taxation system and the burning of fossil fuels." - Carol.
"Spend money where it needs to be spent, not just to gain a political advantage." - Joe.
"The most important issues? Aged care, education and health. I can remember when you went into hospital. All expenses were paid and you came out with money in your pocket. Oh, for the good Menzies period." - Gary.
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