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Anthony Albanese

View from The Hill: SA result is morale boost for Albanese, but he’s struggling with Kitching allegations

Move over Mark McGowan and make some space for South Australia’s Peter Malinauskas on Scott Morrison’s recently-installed couch of Labor “besties”.

After Malinauskas’ sweeping victory on Saturday, Morrison told his Sunday news conference he’d already spoken to the premier-elect.

We had a very constructive discussion about the many projects that are already underway in South Australia […] And I look forward to working with him on those many projects.

The Morrison government might have bagged Labor states at various times over the last two years – Western Australia, Queensland, and Victoria all received criticism – but that’s history.

As far as the PM is concerned, just now he’s at a high point of co-operative federalism.

The SA election has only limited federal implications – we all know people distinguish their federal and state votes.

Nevertheless, the result – the first time since COVID a state or territory government has lost an election – has some federal relevance. So close to the national election, it does affect the vibe.

Think of it this way: if Steven Marshall had had an unexpected victory, what would have been the reaction? People would have said it showed again how wrong polls can be. The result would have inserted a discount into assessments of Anthony Albanese’s chances.

Read more: Labor easily wins South Australian election, but upper house could be a poor result

SA Labor’s win will be a psychological boost for the federal opposition, and a further dampener on the government’s mood.

The Marshall government’s loss will reduce the enthusiasm and probably the resources of the local Liberals’ federal campaign in that state. And that’s at the least – the worst thing for the federal Liberals would be if their SA brethren, who are faction-riven, fell into a nasty blame game.

Fortunately for Morrison, SA has minimal seats at risk of changing. Mainly the contest will centre on Boothby where Liberal Nicole Flint is retiring.

Nationally, attention this week will quickly move on from South Australia, as the Morrison government ramps up its public preparation for Tuesday week’s budget and pre-releases various measures.

Read more: Liberals' brutal loss in South Australia reflects the fragmented politics of the centre-right

On Friday, Josh Frydenberg set out the budget’s priorities, which boiled down to giving some relief to people feeling cost of living pressures, and starting to address budget repair and Australia’s high debt.

The cost of living has rapidly escalated as a major issue for the May election.

Whatever the government does, there will be some smoke and mirrors. For example, the budget is set to contain an early payment for low and middle income earners. But the trade off is said to be that it won’t roll over the tax offset that would have given them a rebate in 2023.

Frydenberg has said the cost of living measures will be “targeted” and “proportionate”. There’s been pressure for the government to act on petrol excise, but increasingly strong arguments against doing so.

Read more: It's hard to find a case for a cut in petrol tax – there are other things the budget can do

Deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce said last week that cutting the excise wouldn’t ease the cost of living and would take money away from roads.

The Deloitte Access Economics budget monitor, released Monday, says in framing the March 29 budget the government is in a better position than it earlier expected. This is due to a combination of the economy recovering faster than anticipated and rising commodity prices.

But that first factor fades over time […] And the second factor is also only a temporary tailwind,“ the monitor says. "In other words, the Lucky Country becomes less lucky over time.

Just at the moment, the opposition finds itself more than a little distracted from the pre-budget debate, as friends of the late senator Kimberley Kitching continue to prosecute their claims that she was bullied by Labor’s Senate leadership team – claims denied by the three senior Senate women, Penny Wong, Kristina Keneally, and Katy Gallagher.

The three senators, and many of their accusers will be at Kitching’s funeral at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne on Monday. As well as being a deeply sad occasion for a grieving family, it will be a fraught one for Labor.

Albanese has not been handling the issue of the allegations well, and Wong was unconvincing when she appeared on Nine on Sunday. She was keeping a commitment arranged earlier, but the interview inevitably was dominated by the bitter Kitching controversy.

Read more: View from The Hill: Labor's treatment of Kimberley Kitching – 'tough politics' or 'bullying'?

Wong said: "There is a common decency that I think we would all hope […] is demonstrated when someone has died. And I would invite some of those making claims and sharing views to consider and reflect on whether or not they have demonstrated that now.”

The trouble with that superficially plausible plea is that it is Kitching’s friends who are making the claims (whether these are justified or not) because they believe she was treated badly.

The government has to be careful with such a sensitive matter, but it is pushing hard. “This is a very, very serious issue,” Morrison said on Sunday. “They’re serious issues that Anthony Albanese has to deal with. This is on his watch.”

The Liberals are trying to turn it into a character test for Albanese.

On a day when you would have expected he might have relished a public appearance, the opposition leader didn’t make one on Sunday.

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