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

The timing of history. How Anglophile and monarchist Tony Abbott would love to have been the prime minister attending the coronation. To say nothing of John Howard, a key figure in fending off an Australian republic in 1999.

Instead it is Anthony Albanese in London, explaining on British television how he, a leader dedicated to trying to make our country a republic, is happy to be affirming allegiance to its new head of state.

Albanese has not been doing a bad job of smoothing any perceived contradiction, once again showing he can be a man for all occasions, some of them challenging.

In his hour-long interview with conservative Sky broadcaster Piers Morgan (a surprising appearance in itself) Albanese navigated some awkward questions, retold his familiar childhood story (with detail about finding his father), which Morgan appeared to find fascinating, and juggled his republicanism with upholding Australia’s present loyalty to King Charles.

While vague about timing (we know he wants a republic referendum in a second term) Albanese said that when there was a public demand for another vote, “I’m sure a vote will be held”, but it wasn’t imminent.

Albanese notably reaffirmed his preference for “an appointed head of state”, referring to “some process whereby democratically elected institutions, in the House of Representatives and the Senate, have a say in that”.

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Division among republicans over the model (having the president appointed by the parliament versus being popularly elected) helped sink the 1999 vote. In future, the pressure would be for a popularly elected model. The challenge for Labor, if and when it gets to a referendum, would be to deal with this demand, but avoid a model of potentially competing power centres.

While Albanese (who lands back in Australia on budget eve) basks in the international limelight, at home Treasurer Jim Chalmers this week has been feeling the heat of the spotlight.

In current politics, the days before a budget are as orchestrated by the government as budget day itself. What you read and hear about the measures are not “leaks” but so-called “drops” to the media, designed for a flow of good news ahead of time (or sometimes getting bad news out of the way).

More rarely there are genuine leaks – a journalist gets a real scoop, something the government didn’t intend to be out that day. Such was the Seven Network’s story of an anticipated rise in JobSeeker for people 55 and over (those 60-plus who’ve been out of work for nine months already get a higher rate).

Chalmers would not confirm the accuracy of the leak, but he put up a spirited defence of the case for such a measure, which was taken as a tick. One of his arguments is that it would particularly help women, with many older unemployed women especially vulnerable. Assisting them also fits well with Labor’s gendered lens.

Inevitably, however, there was an immediate backlash from those speaking up for the young. The debate became a microcosm of the government’s wider problem with this budget, as Chalmers has sought to balance the need for restraint (reinforced by the Reserve Bank’s interest rate rise this week) with the strong calls for the government to meet its oft-repeated election commitment to “not leave people behind”. Albanese told Morgan: “The philosophy I took to the election was two parts, no one held back and no one left behind.”

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We’ve seen in this intense tug of war both the influence of the crossbench and of the usually compliant caucus.

It was ACT independent senator David Pocock who secured (as part of a deal to pass legislation) the economic inclusion advisory committee that recommended a big increase in JobSeeker for everyone. A large number of Labor backbenchers publicly joined the call, adding to the squeeze on the government.

The budget will contain not just some welfare initiatives, including for single mothers, but other measures to address the cost-of-living crisis. The reaction to it can be expected to come from various directions.

The assault from the left will say that the government hasn’t done enough. Leaving “nobody behind” is a very subjective proposition. When it comes to attack, this budget is made for the Greens. The minor party has emerged as arguably more effective as an “opposition” voice than the official opposition (this is separate from a judgment on the content of what the Greens say). And Labor knows this is dangerous in the longer term, given the Greens are eating away at a few seats in the lower house.

For the Coalition, finding a length and line in responding to the budget could be trickier. Demanding more be done on welfare is not the Coalition’s bag. It will no doubt say not enough attention is being paid to the cost of living. But any suggestion that the budget should have spent more than whatever it does spend will undermine the Coalition argument about restraint.

Read more:
Word from The Hill: Another rate rise, higher tax on cigarettes, and likely JobSeeker boost for over-55s

If, as speculated, the budget predicts a 2022-23 surplus, that further complicates the opposition’s reaction. The Coalition is stymied, whether it attacks from the right or (less likely) the left.

Depending on its precise crafting, the budget could be a slippery beast for the opposition to handle. Meanwhile Peter Dutton faces his own personal test next week.

In theory, an opposition leader’s budget reply this early in the term shouldn’t be of great moment. But Dutton is under the pump, with bad polling numbers and divided ranks, and so the occasion will matter.

When he rises in the House of Representatives on Thursday night, Dutton will require both negative and positive messages.

The difficulty of his task will depend partly on how the budget has been received. Beyond that, Dutton needs to unveil something substantial in policy terms, filling at least a corner of the Coalition’s current policy vacuum.

Not that this is easy. The Coalition can’t afford to make itself the story in a bad way. It’s already done this on the Voice.

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. Grattan on Friday: Albanese enjoys London limelight while Chalmers sweats in budget spotlight –