Labor takes small-target strategy as it retains lead ahead of election

Opposition party unlikely to set Australia on radically different path as it eyes polls victory

Australia's Labor Party is on track to defeat the ruling Liberal-National Coalition in next week's election and celebrate the first change of government in almost a decade, but the fresh leadership is unlikely to mark a radical change of direction for the country.

Labor leader Anthony Albanese has presented a risk-averse agenda, partly because the party lost the last election in 2019 after proposing ambitious, nation-changing policies.

A Labor government would adopt stronger climate targets and boost spending on health and education, but has signalled that it will stick with several of the coalition's major policies, including increased defence spending, fuel subsidies and income tax cuts.

Mr Albanese, who entered Parliament in 1996, comes from the party's left-wing faction but has presented himself as a risk-averse, pro-market gradualist. Ahead of the May 21 election, he has described himself as a "safe change".

Asked this week about his plans for his first 100 days in office, a period in which incoming Australian leaders often seek to define themselves, Mr Albanese, 59, laid out no pressing proposals or grand national vision.

Instead, he said he would start working on his plans to strengthen carbon emission targets, promote gender equality in the workplace and introduce an anti-corruption commission.

"I want to bring people together," he told ABC News. "I think that we've had a decade of division... What we need to do is to actually work out what our common interests are."

When Mr Albanese became Labor leader after the last election, he oversaw a policy review that resulted in the abandonment of some of the party's far-reaching proposals, such as cutting tax breaks for property investors.

He also supported many of Prime Minister Scott Morrison's main economic and health measures during the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic - an approach that brought him little public attention but helped him to fashion himself as a fair-minded, sensible and restrained alternative leader.

Despite Labor's small-target approach, it has marked out several significant areas of policy difference to the coalition.

It is proposing to create an extra 20,000 domestic university places, reduce taxes on electric cars, boost spending on hospitals and aged care, and to co-purchase 10,000 homes each year with lower-income earners who do not own properties.

It has promised to raise defence spending and endorse the coalition's pledge that the annual defence budget will be at least 2 per cent of gross domestic product.

Climate policy remains one of the most significant differences between the main parties.

Labor has scaled back its proposals from 2019, but is still committing to reducing carbon emissions by 43 per cent by 2030, compared with 2005 levels. The coalition is pursuing cuts of 26 per cent to 28 per cent.

And with inflation rising, Mr Albanese has pledged to support wage rises and address cost-of-living pressures. "People are doing it tough and that is why there needs to be action," he told reporters.

The party has a relatively experienced front bench, including several prominent figures who were ministers when Labor leaders Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard were in power from 2007 to 2013.

Labor's shadow foreign minister Penny Wong would be the first Asian Australian to hold the post. She has said her heritage would be perceived on the global stage as a move towards "an independent multicultural Australia confident of our place in the world".

Labor's treasurer would be Dr Jim Chalmers, who has a PhD in political science and international relations and was a senior adviser to former treasurer Wayne Swan. He told the Australian Financial Review this week that one of the nation's biggest challenges is to work with the business community to oversee a shift to clean energy.

"When they write the history of the 2020s, whoever is in government, the big story will be how do we manage this energy transition in a way that didn't abandon, but leveraged, our traditional strengths," he said.

Mr Albanese's small-target policy strategy and his show of compassion for struggling households appear to be working.

The most recent Newspoll opinion survey showed Labor leading the coalition by 54 per cent to 46 per cent. Labor has led in the survey since June last year.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 14, 2022, with the headline Labor takes small-target strategy as it retains lead ahead of election. Subscribe