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Anthony Albanese

Grattan on Friday: Morrison has sown the seeds for a scare campaign, and Albanese doesn’t know whether they’ll grow

If you were to believe the Morrison government, you’d think Anthony Albanese as prime minister would sell out Australia’s interests to China, give criminals a break, and perhaps sneak in a death tax.

You’d question whether this man, who held senior positions in the Labor years, including briefly being deputy PM, could run a competent government. Because, you see, he didn’t have an economic or national security portfolio.

Scott Morrison is determined to do what Malcolm Turnbull refused to do in the 2016 election – run a ferocious, no-holds-barred negative campaign to try to trash his opponent.

The trouble with being a small target, which has been Albanese’s strategy all this term but especially recently, is that your opponent will still seek to turn you into a big target, indeed a scary risk to the nation.

The government’s campaign over the past fortnight’s parliamentary sitting has been full of gross exaggeration and, on the issue of policy on China, it has been outrageous and irresponsible. It’s a mark of Morrison’s desperation, and it carries risks of backfiring.

The question remains, however, whether the assault will be effective. Or will the government just harm itself by going over the top?

We’ve seen many scare campaigns through the years that have had little regard for the truth. Labor’s “Mediscare” claims in 2016 about an alleged Coalition threat to Medicare was potent, despite lacking substance. But the Morrison government’s effort is among the most brazen.

Without a compelling positive agenda of its own, the government believes – or hopes – that Albanese, who is still not well defined in the public’s mind, is potentially a soft target in the two key policy areas where the Coalition usually has an advantage – national security and economics.

It has gambled that in our fast-moving media cycle it can get away with extraordinary claims, helped by sections of the media.

But in its national security attack on Labor, the government this week ran into some heavy counter fire it would not have expected, from impeccable sources. The current and a former chief of ASIO weighed in against the Coalition’s crude attempt to wedge Labor over China.

The saga started when Defence Minister Peter Dutton declared last week that “the Chinese Communist Party, the Chinese government” had picked Albanese as “their candidate” in the coming election.

Dutton led with his chin, saying he was reflecting on what had been reported and commented on by the ASIO director-general, Mike Burgess.

Burgess, in his “Annual Threat Assessment” speech the previous evening, had said ASIO recently disrupted “a foreign interference plot in the lead-up to an election in Australia”. He didn’t name the country or the jurisdiction. Burgess related how a wealthy “puppeteer” had hired an employee to identify potential target candidates.

This week Morrison dipped back into the China well.

On Wednesday, he told parliament the Chinese government “have picked their horse” (Albanese) and labelled Labor’s deputy leader, Richard Marles, a “Manchurian candidate” for remarks Marles made some years ago. (“Manchurian candidate” is a reference from a political thriller to someone brainwashed and manipulated by an enemy power.)

The stakes were raised for the government when, in a rare TV appearance on Wednesday night, Burgess made it clear he was less than impressed with ASIO, which was “apolitical”, being drawn into political infighting.

Then on Thursday the government received a massive whack from Dennis Richardson, who is not only a former ASIO head but also a former secretary of the defence and foreign affairs departments and was Australia’s ambassador in Washington.

Richardson denounced the government’s “attempt to create an artificial division where one in practice does not exist”, saying that only served “the interests of one country. And that’s China.”

Read more: Elections are rarely decided by security and defence issues, but China could make 2022 different

He described the tactic as “grubby beyond belief”.

Morrison was not put off, later that day saying Albanese “is the Chinese government’s pick at this election”.

The government’s sledges against Albanese on the economic and law-and-order fronts were less spectacular but equally stretched.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg last week delved into the archives, back to when Albanese, as a Labor Party official from the left in the early 1990s, moved a motion at a conference calling for consideration of an inheritance tax. From this, Frydenberg asserted, “he stands for death duties”.

In promoting legislation to make it easier to deport visa holders convicted of serious crimes, Morrison accused Albanese of being “clearly on the side of criminals”.

In defensive tactics, Albanese has been extremely surefooted.

Thus, after Burgess’s revelation about foreign interference, the opposition leader immediately contacted him and was able to report that ASIO has no problem with any of Labor’s federal candidates.

As Morrison attacked Labor’s credentials on national security, Albanese tabled a letter from the PM last year thanking him for supporting the government on the AUKUS agreement.

Albanese met the “scare” around his one-time backing for an inheritance tax three decades ago with ridicule, waving around an economics essay he’d written four decades ago.

Efforts by the government to wedge Labor on the visa legislation and legislation on guns fell in a heap. The opposition waved the bills through the House of Representatives with little prospect of them being considered in the Senate before the election.

The government’s effort last week to wedge Labor on the religious discrimination legislation ended with it being wedged by its own rebel backbenchers.

Albanese has covered off every angle that’s come up.

For instance, on Thursday he told parliament in a personal explanation that he had consulted Burgess before attending the opening of the Chau Chak Wing Museum at Sydney University in 2020. He added that he had obtained Burgess’s permission to say this to parliament.

Earlier this week a Labor senator named, under parliamentary privilege, businessman and political donor Chau as the “puppeteer” referred to in the Burgess speech, something Burgess declined to be drawn on.

In his statement to parliament, Albanese said he did “regularly consult with our national security agencies, because I take their role seriously as leader of the opposition”.

However neat Albanese’s moves, however reprehensible the government’s, Labor doesn’t fool itself. Morrison and his ministers have sown the seeds for a national security scare, and it’s too early to know whether they will germinate.

What we do know is that the Chinese government must be enjoying this spectacle immensely.

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