The sight of Anthony Albanese celebrating a Hindu festival in Ahmedabad or mingling with executives in Mumbai will no doubt remind voters that the prime minister has run a busy schedule of international visits since he took office last May.
But the more crowded agenda in the prime minister’s office is the plan that is taking him to every part of Australia where he needs voters on side at the next election.
A couple of months out from his first anniversary in office, Albanese has already been to about 67 electorates across every state and territory. Week by week, he has kept up a steady pace of visits to local communities when he is not in parliament or at international meetings such as the Quad summit in Tokyo last May, this week’s visit to India or next week’s visit to the United States.
He is outpacing Peter Dutton. The opposition leader has visited far fewer seats since the Coalition lost the election – a little over half the number on the prime minister’s list. Dutton has missed some of the most important seats for the Liberals at the next election – such as city electorates lost to the “teal” independents – and has left some marginal seats untouched.
So it looks like one of the two leaders is building up his political capital while the other searches, slowly, for the best places to build his support.
Albanese has been to Braddon in regional Tasmania, Flynn (in and around Gladstone) in Queensland, Leichhardt in Cape York and Longman in the regional districts just north of Brisbane. The Coalition held them all despite Labor’s attempts to flip them last May, but they are clearly prime targets for Albanese at the next election. A search of Dutton’s media appearances suggests he is yet to campaign in these seats as opposition leader.
Albanese has been to Chisholm and Higgins in Melbourne, Bennelong and Reid in Sydney, Boothby in Adelaide and Pearce in Perth – all of them big Labor victories last May. The Liberals need these seats back; Albanese is doing everything to keep them, while Dutton does not appear to have visited them as opposition leader.
In fact, in the 10 months since the election, Dutton does not seem to have made a point of visiting any of the electorates the Liberals lost to Labor, except for one visit last month. He was in Tangney in Western Australia on February 21.
There is no surprise that other parts of the political jungle only gain rare sightings of the Liberal leader. The communities that turned on the Liberals and backed the teals are difficult territory for Dutton. He has visited North Sydney, home to Kylea Tink, and Wentworth, home to Allegra Spender, but he is yet to make a visit as opposition leader to Warringah, held by Zali Steggall at two elections, and Mackellar, now held by Sophie Scamps.
The same pattern seems to be on display in Melbourne, where Dutton is yet to visit the two seats the Liberals lost to independents: Goldstein, held by Zoe Daniel, and Kooyong, held by Monique Ryan.
It would be unfair, however, to suggest Dutton has been idle. He chose to go to Alice Springs for three days late last year to talk to people about the end of the alcohol bans months earlier and the impact on community safety. He then talked about the problem for months before Albanese made a rapid visit in late January to come up with a solution.
Dutton has held three shadow cabinet meetings in regional areas – in Macedon in the Victorian electorate of McEwen, in Launceston in the Tasmanian seat of Bass and in Rockhampton in the Queensland electorate of Capricornia. This is a big sign of his game plan for this term: McEwen is a Labor seat on the outer edge of Melbourne and represents the suburban fringe where the Coalition leadership believes it must win to return to power.
The other destinations for Dutton over the past 10 months have included the Riverland district of South Australia after the floods, as well as Shepparton and Mooroopna in Victoria. He was in Gove and Arnhem Land last week, in the Labor electorate of Lingiari.
Does this matter? Dutton does not have the advantage of incumbency. There is no government aircraft to fly him across the country. There are practical reasons why he cannot travel to as many communities as the prime minister.
Yet his apparent reluctance to visit parts of the country is a sign of the Coalition’s vulnerabilities after last year’s defeat. A leader who cannot visit a teal seat has little hope of regaining a teal seat. Dutton, who has never been popular in Victoria and infamously claimed people were too scared to eat out in Melbourne, has not done enough, so far, to prove he can win back the urban seats that turned against former prime minister Scott Morrison last year.
The Aston byelection sets up a test for Dutton’s campaign skills in city seats. History says the Liberals should win with their candidate, Roshena Campbell. The party only has to hold the seat and byelections rarely swing towards the ruling party. Albanese believes Labor can win with its candidate, Mary Doyle.
For now, everything Dutton does is about holding the base. He visits Liberal and Nationals seats, minimises risk by staying out of the “teal” seats and may bide his time before heading into more Labor seats. On policy, too, he appeals to the conservative end of the spectrum rather than the middle: he chips away at the Indigenous Voice to parliament, votes against interventions on energy price controls and defends people with more than $3 million in superannuation.
Albanese, by contrast, is on the hunt for new conquests. He is working, without much attention on the pattern of his activity, to win over communities that stuck with the Coalition at the last election.
There is an international parallel to the domestic politics. With his meeting with US President Joe Biden on the AUKUS submarine pact next week, Albanese will put a Labor stamp on defence policy. He is gaining more control of the territory the Coalition thought it owned.
It is too early to judge Labor’s success. The Coalition has a chance to win voters in suburban electorates when interest rates rise and household budgets tighten. Perhaps Dutton is right to bide his time. The latest Resolve Political Monitors showed Albanese had lost some of his personal support – but he still leads as preferred prime minister by 55 to 23 per cent.
That survey exasperated a few observers who did not like the suggestion that the honeymoon was over for Albanese. But it was no surprise to anyone in the prime minister’s office – they thought it had ended already.
In any case, a honeymoon can be followed by a long and happy union. With every visit, overseas or at home, Albanese is running a careful strategy to make that union last as long as possible.
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