While ministers took questions from Labor about women missing out on budget help, Albanese goaded Morrison about the hens. He sounded incredulous they would be named after the eminent women who lived in The Lodge. Those who overheard say he claimed it was another sign of disrespect to women.
That was too much for Morrison, who felt it was all too personal. After all, the decision on the names was taken by his wife and daughters. To use a phrase from earlier this year, he snapped back.
It can seem trivial, and it may look cheap, but the Labor snark is not personal by accident. It is deliberate. It may even work. The principle is simple: to wound the government, wound Morrison.
The Prime Minister won the election largely on his own, with only a few ministers in sight, and he now runs the government largely on his own, with only a few ministers to be heard. Outside Josh Frydenberg on the economy and Greg Hunt on health, Morrison dominates every portfolio in a way we have not seen over the past decade. Some cabinet ministers are so scared of Morrison’s office they seek approval before they utter a word.
This is the legacy of a decade of turmoil, not just the result of a pandemic that elevates every decision to the top. Ministers come and go with every spill. The less stability they have, the less authority they hold.
This will become more pronounced with the departure of Mathias Cormann, who leaves on October 30 to seek the leadership of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. He is perfect for the job but a huge loss to the government. The best contender to replace him was always Simon Birmingham, who becomes Finance Minister and leader in the Senate.
Albanese will make it all about Morrison for another reason, too. Try as he might, the Labor leader cannot find anything to block in this budget. While Bill Shorten used his first budget reply to oppose more than $20 billion in cuts, Albanese uses his to back at least $50 billion in spending.
Complaining about Morrison is one way for Albanese to put up a fight while voting for most of the budget. The fact is that Labor has no reason to oppose the income tax cuts, the business incentives or the small business help. It proposed the same or similar ideas itself.
There is no reason to complain about a wage subsidy for younger workers, who need help now to avoid years of unemployment. There is a fair argument that this generation deserves priority when it will inherit the $1.7 trillion federal debt. Even so, the government fumbled its message.
First, the government set 35 as the formal age limit for special treatment and ignited a debate about whether this was fair on older workers. It forgot to remind voters of other assistance, already in place, for people over that age. There’s a $10,000 wage subsidy for people over 50, for instance.
Second, the government turned a deaf ear to months of debate about a “pink recession” that hurts women – and especially older women. It then devoted just three paragraphs in Budget Paper One to women’s economic security.
Is Morrison listening to the women around the cabinet table? There are six of them, but you would not know it from the way he handled this issue this week.
If women and older workers feel neglected by this budget, Morrison and his team have only themselves to blame.
It is a reminder, too, of the way the government scaled back the temporary boost to childcare at the start of the pandemic. The men on the expenditure review committee of federal cabinet made the decision in early June. Only later that month did Morrison add Anne Ruston to the group.
If women and older workers feel neglected by this budget, Morrison and his team have only themselves to blame. This problem is not a surprise. It is not a submarine that has suddenly surfaced alongside Morrison’s aircraft carrier, to the horror of the crew. It has been in plain sight all along.
It made sense for Albanese to follow the traditional tactic of an opposition in budget week: identify those who missed out, and make it all about them. It is yet to be seen how much of this attack lasts beyond the week.
The fact remains that most of the big measures in the budget are not controversial. They are passing the Parliament with bipartisan support. That’s a good measure of the confidence they are needed and will work. Few budgets gain such swift approval.
But that will not ease the friction at the dispatch box. There is a gulf between Morrison and Albanese, whatever the agreement on $51 billion in tax cuts and new spending.
Albanese knows how to niggle. Brought up on a love for rugby league, and obsessive about the Rabbitohs, he has seen the way a sledge can turn a game. And Morrison, the Sharks supporter, knows exactly what is happening. Some of those around him have told him not to bite, but that is too much to ask. Silence isn’t easy when Albanese just won’t stop.
David Crowe is chief political correspondent for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.
David Crowe is chief political correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.