Australia’s would-be prime ministers used the third debate on Wednesday night to lay out a choice between the “risk” of change and the benefits of a potential “better future”.
It was a similar picture on the more local level, where Morrison’s best result was a 44-44 draw in the Western Australian seat of Hasluck.
In policy terms, the largest gap between the two parties crystallised on cost of living and wages, sparked by Albanese’s support for a minimum wage rise in line with inflation and Morrison’s claims his opponent’s comments were irresponsible.
Throughout a comparatively civil final showdown, Morrison repeatedly sought to paint his opponent as unprepared for the job, just as he has throughout the campaign.
“This election is a choice. It’s a choice about who can manage and deliver that strong economy because that’s what your future depends on,” Morrison said on Seven.
“And now is not a time to risk that on an unproven opposition and Labor leader who doesn’t have a plan for our economy and hasn’t got the experience with the challenges that we face.
“A vote for the Liberal and Nationals on May 21 is the strong, responsible and safe choice for a strong economy for a stronger future.”
Albanese, meanwhile, highlighted the government’s perceived mistakes responding to the bushfire, flood and pandemic crises.
He said Morrison was asking for “three more years of more of the same”.
“They don’t really have a plan or a policy for the future because they struggle with the present and that’s why this election we’ve got constructive plans and processes in place that we’re putting forward to the Australian people,” he said.
“If we don’t elect a new government, we’ll miss out on the opportunity to increase women’s economic participation through cheaper childcare.
“We’ll miss out on the opportunity to end the climate wars. We’ll miss out on the opportunity to deal with cost of living and stop everything going up except for people’s wages.”
After a day in which the minimum wage surged to the fore, Albanese clarified his stance on the issue, insisting he was shocked both parties couldn’t come to a consensus.
He said he would support a Fair Work Commission decision to lift the minimum wage 5.1 per cent, in line with cost of living and the equivalent of $1 an hour extra on the current rate of $20.33. But he didn’t outright push for it.
“That’s two cups of coffee a day,” he said.
“And the idea that two cups of coffee a day is something that would damage the economy is, I believe, just not the case.
“We need to look after people who are vulnerable. We need to do more than say ‘thanks very much for everything you did in the pandemic but now we’re going to cut your pay’.”
Morrison said he would welcome pay rises for all workers but again refused to commit to a figure, claiming wage rises could push up the cost of living further.
“We can’t have a situation where someone may get a wage rise, but then gets it all taken back in higher interest rates and higher cost of living,” he said.
“That’s why we think the most sensible way is to look at all of the evidence not to just run off at the mouth and just come up with things on the run.”
Albanese argued “non-inflationary wage increases” were possible so long as they didn’t go above “inflation plus productivity”.
Both leaders acknowledged how tough it had become for many people to make ends meet as the price of groceries, petrol and housing increased
Morrison said his government’s newly announced one-off $250 payments for pensioners and others on fixed incomes would help Australians and blamed the rising cost of living on external factors.
“We didn’t want Australians to get hit down by the rising costs of living caused by the war in Europe and issues in China, and the floods pushing up fruit and vegetable prices,” he said.
Albanese pointed to longer-term strategies such as reducing childcare costs, creating incentives for women to participate in the workforce, reducing electricity bills through Labor’s energy policy and reducing the cost of medications.
“How crazy is it in 2022 that some women if they want to work a fourth or fifth day it costs their family money,” he said.
“Everyone knows out there that when your youngest child goes into kindergarten, all of a sudden families are better off. That makes no sense.”
The leaders were also asked to rule out a carbon tax or a mining tax to pay down debt. They quickly agreed.
The Labor leader denied Morrison’s claims his party’s efforts to combat climate change, using the disused “safeguard mechanism” introduced by the Coalition government led by Tony Abbott, were a “sneaky carbon tax”. He argued the Coalition was failing to prepare the electricity grid for an influx of renewable energy.
“Climate change is real and it’s here now. We’ve seen it with the bushfires and we’ve seen with the floods,” he said.
“We need to make sure that we actually harness the energy that business has for this change, to make sure that we take advantage of the opportunities which are there. Australia can be a renewable energy superpower for the world.”
Morrison reinforced his commitment to fighting climate change with technology, saying his government is investing $22 billion towards such measures.
“You invest in the businesses to make the change,” he said.
“You don’t tax the law with a carbon credit scheme, which taxes their operations.”
While the debate was less shouty than previous clashes between the two, it was not without its barbs.
Morrison was asked to justify calling “Albanese the most dangerous Labor leader since Gough Whitlam and that might be unkind to Gough Whitlam”.
“This is a Labor leader who comes from the far left of the party and has been very loose,” he said.
“He is a loose unit when it comes to the economy. He makes things up as he goes along.”
He said Albanese didn’t have the necessary experience to lead the country financially.
Albanese said he would lead the “most experienced incoming Labor government in our history”.
“I’ve served as deputy prime minister, served as a senior infrastructure minister, communications, regional development across a range of portfolios for six years and been government leader in the House of Representatives while I presided over the entire parliamentary program during that period, I make this point as well,” he said.
“I have acted as prime minister on a couple of short occasions.”
Asked to define one strength in his opponent that “you admire but also worries you”, Morrison delivered what moderator Mark Riley termed a “compliment sandwich”.
“He’s shown a great deal of determination over that period of time to rise from very humble beginnings,” he said, referring to Albanese never forgetting his time in housing commission accommodation.
“And I admire that in Australians and I admire that in Anthony, and that’s great.”
But he argued Albanese hadn’t been able to demonstrate that he’s across the detail to do the job.
Albanese resisted the urge to have “a crack” at his opponent in return.
He said “Scott’s absolutely committed to his nation” and highlighted increases to mental health funding, particularly youth organisation Headspace.