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‘A fine line between too weak and too strong’: Labor grapples with a policy to open up

But The Age and the Herald’s Resolve Political Monitor tells a very different story, with Labor trailing 32-40 on the primary vote and lagging or line ball on a number of other key indicators. The most recent Resolve findings were widely shared and discussed within the caucus and stoked significant concern.

The criticism is twofold: that Albanese has decided to outsource Labor’s fate to Morrison and rely on the Prime Minister making mistakes (of which he has made plenty) and; secondly, that Shorten is correct when he argues Labor should be selling a more positive and ambitious agenda, with stronger public support for the domestically made AstraZeneca vaccine and a more clearly defined position around issues such as vaccination targets.

In the words of one caucus member: “Our fate is in Morrison’s hands – he f—ks up or he doesn’t. People are off Morrison at the moment but they aren’t on to Albo. People want their kids back at school, they want to travel again. Only Tanya [Plibersek] can win it for sure as she’s being positive”.

Albanese’s reluctance to embrace AstraZeneca, in contrast to Shorten, has been noted. So too has his initial reluctance to push back against the Labor states of Queensland and Western Australia.

Victoria’s Labor Premier Daniel Andrews further complicated the picture this week as he moved from aiming for a return to zero-COVID to accepting his state must live with the virus, and vaccinate as quickly as possible.

A second member of the caucus suggested the opposition leader seemed to want to coast on the popularity of Queensland and WA premiers Annastacia Palaszczuk and Mark McGowan and “hope it rubs off on him”.

The contrary view, put by a member of the shadow cabinet, is that while the “two jobs” line of attack may have a use-by date, it’s a long way off being reached. “When the focus is on Morrison it’s good for us, so why would we make ourselves the focus?” the source says.

Albanese is also broadening out his strategy. He has called for a $300 payment to encourage people to get the jab, for booster shot plans to be laid out and for 12-15-year-olds to be included in the rollout targets – as well as a plan for under-12 vaccination.

The Opposition Leader is determined to stick to a strategic and consistent message. He believes that the vaccine rollout is one of the greatest policy failures by a federal government in decades – and he will keep reminding people about it.

Labor’s dilemma over whether and to what extent to back the plan to reopen Australia at 70 and 80 per cent vaccination coverage of the 16-plus population has run up against Palaszczuk and McGowan, who are both zealously defending their respective states’ zero-COVID status.

In a tweet, Palaszczuk claimed the Doherty Institute predicted 80 people would die each day after six months if the country opened at 70 per cent vaccination. In fact, the modelling predicted about 1457 deaths in the first six months; and that could be dramatically reduced to just 13 deaths in six months with optimal public health measures (such as an effective trace, test and isolate regime).

Complicated picture: Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk, WA Premier Mark McGowan and Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews.

Complicated picture: Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk, WA Premier Mark McGowan and Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews.

Federal Labor’s deputy leader, Richard Marles, was blunt on Friday morning. “I would be distancing myself from the comments of Annastacia,” he said, before adding that he understood states without COVID-19 wanted to stay that way, and that premiers would stand up for their states.

The back-and-forth between Palaszczuk and Marles forced Albanese to attempt to clean up the split on Friday, which he did by heaping praise on the Premier for her handling of the virus and avoiding his deputy’s comments.

NSW Labor leader Chris Minns says the mood of locked-down voters was indisputable - they want this to be over.

NSW Labor leader Chris Minns says the mood of locked-down voters was indisputable – they want this to be over.Credit:Rhett Wyman

That state-federal division within Labor came a week after Shorten’s comments that Australia must prepare to live with COVID-19, which was seen as a pivotal intervention by some in the party in getting the opposition to support the Doherty modelling and national plan to reopen the country.

Scott Morrison forcefully changed tack and made it a political issue two weeks ago when he said Australians “can’t stay in the cave” (and memorably compared it to The Croods).

Sensing a growing restlessness in a country hit by long lockdowns, Morrison positioned himself as the champion of reopening, and sought to portray Labor as the advocate for staying shut.

Labor’s entirely fair criticism of the slow and troubled vaccine rollout has at times undermined the availability of the safe and effective AstraZeneca vaccine – or simply ignored its existence.

One federal Labor staffer remarked last week that it would be brave for even Albanese to slap down Palaszczuk and indeed, Albanese agrees with Palaszczuk on certain points, even if it’s difficult to discern federal Labor’s actual position on key details. “We need to include 12- to 15-year-olds in the targets or, if not, specify what targets are for them,” Albanese said on Friday.

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The national plan as it stands does not require 12- to 15-year-olds to be vaccinated before states open up. Adding them would mean another 1.2 million people have to be double-dosed before the targets are reached.

While federal Labor has equivocated, NSW Labor has backed the reopening plan as clearly as it can. Chris Minns, who replaced Jodi McKay just weeks before Sydney’s Delta outbreak began, said the mood of locked-down voters in NSW was indisputable – they want this to be over.

He acknowledges there is “debate” among his federal counterparts about the party’s position on reopening. “I think Albo hit the nail on the head and said, ‘we’re backing the Doherty advice’. My understanding is that they did it in a meeting and that’s the direction of federal Labor. I think he’s made the right call, the realistic call, given the situation that we find ourselves in NSW, Australia’s largest state.”

For Albanese and federal Labor, there are months ahead of attempting to balance support for state Labor governments, while also not being seen to oppose the gradual opening up of the COVID-affected states of NSW and Victoria.

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