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Fight between Plibersek and Kelly revealing for two reasons

After a meeting this week with Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Kelly put out a press release saying he “agreed to support the government’s vaccine rollout” – a statement so grandiose and laughably magnanimous that it said a lot about the Prime Minister’s real ability to rein in Kelly.

Illustration: Reg Lynch

Illustration: Reg LynchCredit:

Kelly did not mention anything in the statement about agreeing to stop pushing misinformation about COVID-19 treatments.

A day after Morrison supposedly read Kelly the riot act, celebrity chef turned conspiracy theorist Pete Evans uploaded his podcast, featuring an interview with Kelly. Then Kelly posted an interview with a University of Newcastle scientist who has backed some of Kelly’s claims (the university has said it does not consider the academic a COVID-19 expert).

Celebrity chef Pete Evans interviewed Craig Kelly for his podcast.

Celebrity chef Pete Evans interviewed Craig Kelly for his podcast.Credit:James Brickwood

What is clear when you listen to the Evans podcast is how convinced Kelly is that he has an absolute line to the truth, that the media is deliberately not reporting the “facts” and that “big government” should not be allowed to get in the way of doctors who want to prescribe their patients unproven medications.

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Kelly does not acknowledge he is part of the “big government” he rails against. He thinks he knows better than the vast majority of experts and scientists, as does Evans – an anti-vaxxer who thinks fluoride and sunscreen are toxic, and was fined $25,000 by the Therapeutic Goods Administration for promoting a bogus $15,000 “Biocharger” to treat coronavirus.

Morrison’s triumphant personal standing in the polls is owed to his strong leadership during the pandemic and, as my colleague Peter Hartcher argued in his column last week, that leadership has been from the centre. Morrison the coal-fondler is sidling towards a de facto position of net zero emissions by 2050. Morrison the welfare-buster will probably announce an increase of the JobSeeker rate from its pitiful $40 a day. Morrison the right-winger told the National Press Club this week he would not engage in reform “for the sake of vanity”.

All this centrism – integral to the Coalition winning the next election – means Morrison needs to keep Kelly and his pals inside their box. Public, televised fights with well-respected opposition frontbenchers are not part of that plan.

The range of emotions during the Kelly-Plibersek face-off on Wednesday.

The range of emotions during the Kelly-Plibersek face-off on Wednesday.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Which brings us to Plibersek. Typically brilliant press gallery photography captured the full range of Plibersek’s emotional reactions to her encounter with Kelly. He finger-jabbed and got red in the face. She raised her eyebrows and kept calm, before segueing to bemused frustration. Kelly looked like a classic mansplainer, Plibersek looked classy. He looked emotional, she looked sensible.

In an era when female leaders are rightly appreciated for their calm and empathy, Plibersek fit the mould perfectly. She proved the ultimate foil to the right-wing whackery of the Liberals’ extreme rump, in a way that Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese has not been able to.

illustration:

illustration:Credit:Matt Davidson

Labor is competitive for the next election but Albanese’s personal approval ratings are low, just as Shorten’s were before the last election. Last time, Labor could comfort itself with its ascendancy in the two-party preferred vote, but it has no such refuge now.

The thing the government most fears is a Labor leadership change to someone who can command more attention than Albanese. The government is also vulnerable to criticisms (valid, in my view) that it is too blokey. The Coalition’s own thought leaders acknowledge they have a problem with the female vote.

It’s unfair to judge Albanese on his performance during a pandemic when it has been impossible for an Opposition Leader to achieve any of the coveted “cut-through”. He will be given more time and rope as Australia moves from crisis to recovery. Labor badly needs to pick up votes in outer suburbia and the regions. You might say Plibersek, a left-winger from Sydney’s inner city, is not an obvious choice to do that. But Albanese is also a left-winger from Sydney’s inner city.

Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese has struggled to get attention.

Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese has struggled to get attention.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

The conventional wisdom before the 2019 election was that voters would punish the Coalition for its ugly internal fighting and its latest leadership change. They didn’t.

A grim view of politics (and modern life) is that all success is based on how much attention you can garner for yourself in an age of fractured attention spans and rushed lives. Both Kelly and Plibersek showed this week the kind of attention they could create, and the fates of both their parties will be influenced by how they use it.

Twitter: @JacquelineMaley

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