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Source: The Conversation (Au and NZ) – By Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

“Well, the boss has got the bug, so you’ve got me.” Labor campaign spokesman Jason Clare fronted the media the morning after Anthony Albanese tested positive for COVID, and the contrast didn’t go unnoticed.

Clare answered questions confidently and without waffling, let alone stumbling. So much so that at the end of the news conference one journalist said, “You come in today and have been comfortable, nuanced and on message. Are you not the Labor leader that many will be looking for?”

If Albanese was watching at home he might have winced at that question.

There was laughter in the room. Clare stayed on course. “It is time to give Albo a go,” he said.

Labor had always anticipated Albanese could come down with COVID during the campaign. Unlike Scott Morrison he had not had a bout of the virus. Contingency plans were put into place, and they swung into action on Friday, after Thursday night’s positive test.

Clare was an obvious choice to front the first “plan B” news conference. As one of the two campaign spokespeople (the other is Katy Gallagher), he is well across the policy and the lines. And indeed a few years ago he used to be in lists of possible future Labor leaders, although he’s dropped out of those more recently.

What Albanese’s COVID means is that we will be seeing a lot more of Labor’s frontbench over the coming few days.

The opposition is fortunate in that it has a strong shadow ministry. Apart from Clare, Jim Chalmers, Penny Wong, Gallagher, Tony Burke and Tanya Plibersek are very good performers before the cameras. Labor is not having a “surrogate” leader take Albanese’s place, which could have created more problems than it solved.

How much Albanese can do from home in the next few days will depend on how hard he is hit by COVID. Morrison said on Friday, a touch competitively, that he was sure Albanese would be able to work on, as he himself had done. “I’m sure he will keep on with the campaign as I kept on with the governing.”

On Friday Albanese did some “virtual” media, while admitting, “I’ve had better days”.

In one sense there might be advantage in having the team more to the fore. Indeed, the frontbenchers have probably been underused in the run up to the election.

On the other hand, given the need in this campaign for Albanese to get himself better known in the electorate, a week out means lost time for that mission. And if his Covid symptoms become serious, requiring him to be absent for longer, that becomes a greater problem.

Albanese was set to fly to Perth when he was diagnosed. But, as things turned out, there would have been no appearances with premier Mark McGowan, who has also now tested positive.

The Labor leader is still confident of being able to do his planned campaign launch in Perth on Sunday May 1. The choice of Perth is notable, out of the groove for federal campaign launches. It indicates the weight Labor is putting in trying to wrest seats in the west.

Meanwhile, as the war of words between Labor and the government continues to rage over the the Solomons security treaty with China, the government on Friday homed in on what Labor deputy leader Richard Marles wrote in his book Tides That Bind: Australia in the Pacific, which came out last year.

Marles argued that for Australia to base its Pacific actions “on an attempt to strategically deny China would be a historic mistake”.

“Not only would this be detrimental to our regional relationships, it would be a failed course of action.

“Australia has no right to expect a set of exclusive relationships with the Pacific nations. They are perfectly free to engage on whatever terms they choose with China or, for that matter, any other country. Disputing this would be resented, as the recent past has shown.”

Marles knows something of the Pacific, serving as Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs in the Gillard government. He became Labor’s defence spokesman after the 2016 election but early last year moved to a “mega” portfolio of national reconstruction.

It’s widely speculated that if Labor won the election, Marles would switch back into defence. While Albanese has indicated he would expect his current frontbenchers to stay in their present roles he hasn’t ruled out some change.

For Morrison, the Marles quotes presented a doubly welcome opportunity. Labor has been on full attack against the government for not being able to head off the China-Solomons security deal. Wong, shadow foreign minister, called it the worst failure of Australian foreign policy in the Pacific since World War Two.

Also, any chance to attack Labor in relation to China feeds into the government’s push to make this, among other things, a khaki election. Part of this is claiming a distinction between government and opposition over policy towards China – which is in fact substantially bipartisan. Thus Morrison accused Marles of thinking “it’s a good idea for Pacific Island nations to sign up to security agreements with the Chinese government”.

How much impact the “khaki” element will have on how people’s vote is up for debate. Most voters are probably more concerned with issues closer to home. On the other hand, national security does reinforce the government’s mantra that a vote for Labor is a vote for uncertainty.

Regardless of how the row over the Solomons plays into the election, what is clear is that whichever side wins, it will face a major challenge in navigating policy in the Pacific against a assertive, determined and apparently persuasive China.

The Conversation

Michelle Grattan does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

ref. View from The Hill: ‘The bug’ gives Albanese opportunity to sell the team but less time to sell himself – https://theconversation.com/view-from-the-hill-the-bug-gives-albanese-opportunity-to-sell-the-team-but-less-time-to-sell-himself-181792

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