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The surprise ‘Event’ that’s shaken up the election campaign

A composite image showing Scott Morrison and Anthony Albanese.

When Harold MacMillan was asked what was most likely to throw governments off course, the former British prime minister is reported to have responded: “Events, dear boy. Events.”

And in the Nerf war that has been the 2022 election campaign so far — in which 90 per cent of the noise has been candidates caterwauling about something dastardly their opponent is secretly planning to do — the arrival of an Event, an Actual Thing That Has Actually Happened, had a shocking effect today.

China has signed a security pact with Solomon Islands. The terms are undisclosed but if it’s anything like the draft that leaked recently, it’ll create a hell of a potential Chinese military toe-hold right in our backyard.

Such a decision was probably inevitable and most likely timed during an election campaign for strategic cover but Shadow Foreign Minister Penny Wong described the development as the greatest foreign policy failure in the Pacific region since World War II.

Dealing with local bullies is difficult, as any primary school kid knows. And if the bully is hugely cashed-up and renting out local tree houses for silly money so they can potentially get a clear shot at you, it’s unsettling for sure.

Seniority struggle 

The government last week dispatched Minister for the Pacific Zed Seselja to go and have a chat to Solomon Island’s PM about all this.

Wong — who is frequently withering, but who this morning seemed to have been switched to Max Dehydrator for this particular subject — asked why the government had deputed a “junior woodchuck” to deal with a situation of such urgency.

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‘Worst foreign policy blunder in the Pacific since the end of WWII’: Penny Wong

The Prime Minister’s response to this question — while upsettingly non-contradictory of Wong’s central assessment of Senator Seselja’s seniority (Zed’s dead, Baby) — seemed to be that to send someone more important would have looked like bullying. Which does make one tangentially wonder why he didn’t, for instance, send someone a bit more junior to rissole Christine Holgate, but there you go.

Either way, the deal is done. And the government which after nine years is looking for re-election substantially on the grounds of national security (you can’t cross the road in this campaign without Peter Dutton throwing a new patrol boat at you) must also endure the horrid truth: While guarding the ramparts against an ambitious China, we somehow accidentally managed not only to rent the Port of Darwin to Beijing, but also allow the superpower to secure a Pacific weekender.

One last thing: A generous foreign aid program is one of the prophylactics often employed by wealthy countries to defray the chances of being rogered by a local aggressor.

And there are other reasons to be generous too, as noted by one Scott Morrison in his first speech to Parliament in 2007, in which he quoted Bono and called upon the new government of Kevin Rudd not only to honour its lofty ambitions on foreign aid but to go even further.

Scott Morrison looks at machinery through a glass panel with reporters behind him.
The government is looking for re-election substantially on the grounds of national security.(ABC News: Andy Kennedy)

“The need is not diminishing, nor can our support. It’s the Australian thing to do,” he said. (Years later, upon becoming treasurer, Morrison remembered that the other Australian thing to do is not to give too much to foreigners, and in his first budget in 2016 filleted foreign aid, which now is around a billion less in unadjusted terms than it was when the Coalition won power.)

Foreign aid is scheduled to decrease further according to the Coalition’s budget projections, but Labor has not as yet backed away from its 2019 election pledge to increase it.

Three years ago, Bill Shorten promised a $1.6 billion increase as a costed campaign promise. This time? Unclear.

Industrial relations face the pub test

After a wee spell on the bench, we’re pleased to welcome industrial relations back onto the policy debate field. Well, if you can count the Coalition shouting “Union Thugs! Let’s Get Em!” and Labor shouting “They’re Coming For Ya Pay Packet!”

What’s actually happened is that the government has confirmed it’ll have another crack at legislating its industrial relations reforms, which it sort of went a bit limp on last year due to an extreme lack of Senate interest.

What is the status of this legislation? To use a pub analogy, it’s like ordering a schnitzel with chips and vegetables and the vegetables don’t turn up but you haven’t as yet complained at the bar. Officially, you ordered the veg. The records will confirm that you’re a veg-orderer. But what’s your next move?

Anthony Albanese, wearing an orange high-vis vest, takes a selfie with a large group of workers.
Industrial relations has officially re-entered the policy debate field.(ABC News: Adam Kennedy)

The vegetables, in this instance, are some proposed adjustments to the Better Off Overall Test (known as the BOOT, in case you’ve been puzzled while listening to the radio today).

The PM says “no major changes” will be made to the BOOT. But Industrial Relations Minister Michaelia Cash (also silent on the BOOT) is keen to increase penalties for thuggish unions.

Also surfacing today: climate change scares! Welcome back.

Which team do you bat for?

The question of what sports girls and boys should play, and whether kids who don’t fit neatly in either column should be excluded, seems to be continuing as a campaign issue.

Today Anthony Albanese was asked to state his position and Morrison declared that “Australians are getting pretty fed-up with having to walk on eggshells every day because they may or may not say something one day that’s going to upset someone”.

A blonde woman looks at the camera in a coastal setting
Katherine Deves, Morrison’s pick for the NSW seat of Warringah, apologised after she described transgender children as “surgically multilated and serilised” in deleted tweets from November last year. (Supplied)

For a policy haymaker, this has a strong whiff of John Howard in 2000, who — during the Labor national conference — suddenly announced that his government would outlaw IVF services for lesbian couples, leaving Labor’s then-leader Kim Beazley with a bruising live debate on how to respond. Here’s the ABC’s PM report of that day, with a fond wave to the late Mark Colvin.

It was warfare for a while, and this issue stuck around. Even Penny Wong, when she had children with her partner Sophie Allouache, was obliged to leave her own home state for medical assistance.

It seems a long time ago that anyone thought denying same-sex couples the joy and commitment of parenthood was a political winner. Now it’s children themselves who are in the frame. Nice.

Man on man action! Tonight, on pay-per-view!

There is poor visibility on the subject of just how many campaign debates there will be.

But the first is tonight at 7pm AEST, when Morrison and Albanese will jointly face an audience of public questioners.

It’s being hosted by Sky News and the Courier Mail. Are either of those companies offering free access? No, they aren’t. But we have people there and we will bring you the news as it happens. You can follow along here.

Albanese has also confirmed that his party’s campaign launch will be in Perth on May 4. This is unusual because a. it’s in Perth (never happens, even when the Labor leader’s from Perth) and b. launching a campaign several weeks out from the poll date is against the trend of recent decades. The longer a party holds out before the campaign launch, the longer it can continue to claim public funding for travel.

Good day

The seat of Gilmore suddenly gets not one but two road funding promises.

Kind of like waiting for a bus in Adelaide: nothing for six years, and then suddenly two at once. (Sorry Adelaide. I love you and you are my soul. But I attained my majority in a troubled public transport moment.)

Bad day

If your job is running a charity in which adorable dogs are deployed to help visually impaired humans, can you ever actually have a bad day? Survey says: YES

What to watch out for tomorrow

As the fallout from Wednesday’s debate will no doubt fall, the deadline is fast approaching for anyone who harbours hopes of running for a spot in the House of Representatives or Senate to nominate themselves with the Australian Electoral Commission. Midday tomorrow, to be precise.

It’s also, importantly, the last opportunity parties have to dump any candidates they no longer want to take to the finish line. Keep your eyes peeled for any last-minute adjustments. 

Catch up on today’s stories

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The election campaign has gone distinctly negative, as Andrew Probyn reports.