Election debate: Albanese blows up over 'outrageous slur'

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Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Opposition leader Anthony Albanese have gone head-to-head in their first debate in the lead up to the federal election on May 21.

Facing off in a town hall style debate in Brisbane on Wednesday night, both leaders took questions from members of the public about their respective policies.

Ahead of the debate, Sky News host Paul Murray said Labor leader had a "low bar" to clear to get away unscathed from the night.

"Anthony Albanese is in George W. Bush territory – as long as he doesn't fall over, he wins," he said.

Well, neither leader fell over but there was plenty of dancing around questions. At the end of the night, out of 100 undecided voters in the room, 40 per cent gave the night to Mr Albanese and 35 per cent to Mr Morrison, with the rest undecided.

The leaders went head-to-head for the first time on Wednesday night. Source: Sky News
The leaders went head-to-head for the first time on Wednesday night. Source: Sky News

Mr Albanese had the only notable stumbles of the night when he called a voter who asked a question by the wrong name and looked frazzled on his previous stance on refugee boat turn backs and got his facts muddled, but he managed to largely rebuff the prime minister's attacks.

Voters brought up issues of aged care, housing affordability and foreigners buyers, a federal integrity commission, electric vehicles, the National Disability Insurance Scheme, disaster relief and more.

But it was the issue of China, and Mr Morrison's tactic in casting Labor as being on China's side that drew the most spirited rebuttal from Mr Albanese.

When pressed about whether the controversial security deal China has signed with the Solomon Islands was a failure on his watch, as Labor has argued, Mr Morrison accused his opponents of suggesting it was "Australia's fault".

"This has happened because China is seeking to interfere in the Pacific. It is odd that the Labor party, rather than acknowledging what has happened here, would say … that somehow it's Australia’s fault," Mr Morrison said.

"Why would you take China’s side?"

In response, Mr Albanese said: "That’s an outrageous slur from the prime minister ... National security shouldn't be the subject of that kind of slur.

“China has changed its posture, it’s more aggressive ..and we need to acknowledge that and respond to it."

Mr Albanese accused the PM of talking a big game but not actually doing enough to shore up support in the region.

"It's not a Pacific step up it's a Pacific stuff up," he said.

The tactic by Mr Morrison was described by Sky News Political Chief Andrew Clennell as "an over-reach" following the debate.

"There was kind of an audible groan in the room when he said it."

Scott Morrison haunted by baggage

The difficulty for an incumbent prime minister in these debates is they actually have a record in the top job to defend, and the baggage that comes with that.

When asked by a voter what they would do to introduce a federal integrity commission "with teeth", the PM really had nowhere to hide.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison reacts to a voter's question. Source: AAP
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison reacts to a voter's question. Source: AAP

As a failed election promise from 2019, Mr Morrison began talking about state and federal responsibilities and suggested equivalent bodies at the state level were about "investigating who your boyfriend was".

Mr Albanese, on the other hand, made an impassioned promise to restore faith and trust in federal politics.

"I want an anti corruption commission that will hold the political system to account because I believe in our democracy. It’s essential that people have faith in the democratic processes."

When asked about battery technology and getting Australians in electric vehicles, Mr Morrison was also haunted by his previous comments about them ruining the weekend, which Mr Albanese labelled as "nonsense".

Albanese stumbles on boat turn backs

Labor has been at pains to match the Coalition when it comes to border security and Mr Albanese was keen to assure voters that Labor has the same policy on boat turn backs and immigration detention.

But interjecting, Mr Morrison pressed his opponent on why Mr Albanese opposed boat turn backs when he was deputy prime minister in the last Labor government.

The issue and history of boat turn backs caused one of the more notable exchanges of the evening. Source: Sky News
The issue and history of boat turn backs caused one of the more notable exchanges of the evening. Source: Sky News

"Why is it that you’re always looking for a wedge, for a division?" Mr Albanese shot back after appearing to forget his history.

"No, I’m just looking for the truth and accuracy," Mr Morrison responded, appealing to the audience.

Scott Morrison's core pitch

Scott Morrison opened and ended proceedings by spruiking the economic strength of the country, the low unemployment rate which is threatening to go below 4 per cent, and Australia's strong credit rating.

"It’s a choice between stronger economy and a weaker economy," he said in opening remarks, as he painted Labor as "an uncertain future".

"Fundamentally, I really believe this election is all about the economy that you and your family will live in for the next 10 years.

"The essential services that you rely on, it all starts with managing an economy," the PM said in his final remarks.

"Now is not the time to turn back."

Anthony Albanese's core pitch

Mr Albanese tried to drive home the argument that the government is out of ideas and has no real plan for the future after nearly a decade in power.

"They haven’t shown any plan, tonight or during their entire time in government about how you grow wages."

The Labor leader said he wanted to see an "economy that works for people and not the other way around.

The leaders mostly played it safe in their first encounter. Source: AAP
The leaders mostly played it safe in their first encounter. Source: AAP

"I want people to aspire and be as optimistic as we should be as a country."

He said his core principles were "no one left behind and no one held back", pointing to promises in healthcare and aged care, as well as TAFE, education and a transition to renewable energy as adhering to that philosophy.

Mr Albanese also tried to cast his character in contrast to Scott Morrison, saying he would take responsibility.

"If I’m prime minister, I’ll accept responsibility each and every day … not always seek to blame someone else."

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