Both Anthony Albanese and Scott Morrison landed themselves onto the sticky paper on Tuesday, as they trudged through this campaign’s penultimate week.
The issues couldn’t have been more different. But each was an area of their respective vulnerabilities – economic numbers in Albanese’s case and social views in Morrison’s.
The opposition leader unwisely tied himself to a specific figure for what would be an appropriate rise in the minimum wage. The Prime Minister dug himself further in behind his controversial Warringah candidate, Katherine Deves, and in the process fell into factual error.
Labor is campaigning hard on the need for wages to rise. Higher wages have until recently had general support across the political spectrum. But the latest 5.1% inflation figure has complicated the debate, and business is warning of the potential for substantial wage rises to entrench high inflation.
In Sunday’s leaders’ debate, Albanese conceded a Labor government could not “guarantee” real wage increases. Rather, “our objective is to have real wage increases and we have practical plans to do that”.
This was a prudent statement. The power of governments to influence wages is limited.
Under questioning on Tuesday about the minimum wage – at present just $20.33 an hour – Albanese said it should at least keep up with the cost of living. “We think no-one should go backwards,” he said.
When he was asked whether this meant he would support a rise of 5.1%, he said , “absolutely”. He answered without hesitating, and probably without thinking through the implications.
For one thing, this inflation figure may not be the relevant number.
Shane Wright, economics writer at the Sydney Morning Herald, quickly pointed out in a tweet that the Fair Work Commission had to look at inflation for 2022-23, which the Reserve Bank was forecasting at 4.3%, rather than the 5.1% number, which was the year to March.
Labor says it would replace the Morrison government’s submission to the current minimum wage case with one that argued for a rise. But it also says that submission might not nominate a figure.
Albanese points out the commission last time awarded a rise above inflation. On the other hand, critics argue the inflation spike creates special circumstances this time.
Albanese’s embrace of the 5.1% number again indicated he doesn’t always think through the detail.
But whether in this instance it will do him any harm is another matter.
The important message for many people will be that Labor will actively support a pay rise for the lowest earners, at a time when cost of living pressures are bearing down heavily on workers.
Albanese said on the ABC on Tuesday night that “the idea that people who are doing it really tough at the moment should have a further cut in their cost of living is, in my view, simply untenable”. Many voters mightn’t be too concerned about the fine print of the numbers.
On the other side of politics Deves, Morrison’s “captain’s pick”, has refuelled the furore around her by saying on Monday that when she had referred to trans children being surgically “mutilated”, this was “actually the correct medico-legal term”.
Deves has been widely condemned for this and other offensive (and now removed) tweets. But she insisted in an interview with Sky, “When you look at medical negligence cases that is the terminology that they use”.
Questioned at his Tuesday news conference Morrison said “the issues Katherine commented on yesterday, they’re incredibly sensitive.
"What we’re talking about here is gender reversal surgery for young adolescents. And we can’t pretend this is not a very significant, serious issue.
"And the issues that have to be considered first and foremost [are] the welfare of the adolescent child and their parents. We can’t pretend that this type of surgery is some minor procedure.
"Now I’m sure many other Australians are concerned. This is a concerning issue. It’s a troubling issue. And for us to pretend it’s a minor procedure – it’s not. It is extremely significant. And it changes that young adolescent child’s life forever.”
It was quickly pointed out to Morrison that the government’s own website said reassignment surgery couldn’t be undertaken by minors.
Regrouping, the PM said, “You will also understand that this process can begin in adolescence”. The surgical procedure could not take place then but discussions could commence, he said.
Morrison said he wouldn’t use Deves’ language of surgical mutilation. Asked whether he had spoken to her about her language, he said “I’m sure we’ll have the opportunity to talk”, but on terminology “I’m not a surgeon […] I’m not the Chief Medical Officer.”
One of Morrison’s motives in choosing Deves was that he judged her views against trans people competing in women’s and girls’ sport would resonate in outer suburban areas and seats with high numbers of voters from ethnic communities.
It’s notable that initially he highlighted her push on female sport but now has willingly moved on to the gender reassignment issue.
He hasn’t had much concern, it seems, for whatever fallout his defence of Deves might have where there are “teal” candidates running against Liberal incumbents.
He declared he had no regrets about choosing Deves. A lot of Liberals do, however.