Five words that will haunt Albo

Anthony Albanese is trying to convince voters to not care about his broken tax promise. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Martin Ollman

It was one of the defining moments of the campaign. Flustered and caught out, Anthony Albanese literally stuck his tongue out as he stumbled his way through a question he didn’t know the answer to.

The optics were so bad that the Prime Minister went into immediate damage control, appearing on Sky News that afternoon to “fess up” and fix his “mistake”.

It was an unambiguous statement. He wanted voters to see that he was a man of integrity who could be trusted. Eight weeks after the election, Mr Albanese went further.

“My word is my bond,” he said, when asked about the stage 3 tax cuts.

The cuts, designed by Scott Morrison and ultimately waved through by Labor in 2019, would have handed people earning more than $200,000 tax relief of more than $9000.

Mr Albanese was unapologetic when he broke that bond on Thursday at the National Press Club.

Anthony Albanese confirmed speculation about the reworked tax cuts this week. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Martin Ollman

But he did try to sing from the same songbook.

He told Australians that he accepted responsibility for the change of position. Mr Albanese praised himself for being “upfront” and for not taking the “easy option” and kicking “the can down the road”.

He did not concede he’d lied, nor that he’d breached an election promise.

“We expect there to be some controversy around (the changes), but I have a responsibility to put people first, not to put the politics of this first,” Mr Albanese said.

In his wake, Mr Albanese has left an almighty wedge for the Coalition. In all, about 13.6 million taxpayers will get a tax cut from July 1.

And if the opposition baulks, Labor can slam them for wanting to slug “Middle Australia” with higher taxes.

In other words, they’ve made the calculation that the winners will accept the cash and forgive them come the election next year.

Just 3.4 per cent of Australians earn more than $180,000.

Mr Albanese said he’d been upfront with voters. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Martin Ollman

According to pollsters RedBridge, the main group of voters moving towards the Coalition in the last 12 months have been Aussies in the suburbs and regions earning between $80,000 to $130,000.

Mr Albanese came to the Press Club armed with a laundry list of the government’s cost-of-living relief, including childcare and medicine subsidies.

But the message hasn’t cut through. He foreshadowed the tax cuts were just a taste of what was to come in the May budget – potentially the government’s last before the next election.

Under the cover of changed “economic circumstance”, Mr Albanese argued things have changed.

Almost every issue listed by the Prime Minister – the pandemic, inflation, conflict in Europe – were a reality of life before 2022.

As former Labor strategist and RedBridge director Kos Samaras put it, this is a government “playing catch up”.

Mr Albanese walked into the caucus meeting alongside ally Penny Wong. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Martin Ollman

“It’s gonna be very hard trying to convince people that they’ve enjoyed 12 months of affordability pain while the Labor government have been focusing on other issues and that they’re now in the business of trying to fix this with 12 months to go before the election,” he said.

“It’s going to take them a while to rebuild from the damage they’ve inflicted on themselves over the last six to 12 months by not concentrating on economic issues.”

Mr Samaras suggested flying MPs into Canberra for the big cost-of-living meeting and subsequent announcement this week was a mistake.

“They should have just said, ‘Look, we’re reviewing it. Yes, we made the commitment at the election, that was before the interest rate rises, before an affordability crisis. We’ve got to do what we’ve got to do’,” the pollster said.

Mr Albanese tasked Treasury and Finance to look at cost-of-living relief in December. In interviews since, he avoided giving an iron-clad guarantee on the tax cuts.

That was fine, until last week when he told Adelaide radio he was “committed” to stage 3.

Sure, by then everyone reading the political tea leaves knew where he was heading, but Mr Albanese wasn’t trying to talk to them.

Consider where Mr Albanese made his first public concession that a change was coming. It wasn’t on Sky News, or ABC, or even the Today show.

It was on the airwaves with Kyle and Jackie O.

He dropped “everyone will be getting a tax cut” in the same interview in which he was asked when he would pop the question to partner Jodie Haydon and whether he had beef with Sunrise host Natalie Barr.

MPs went to The Lodge after the meeting for drinks with the Prime Minister. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Martin Ollman

Caucus unanimously backed the plan in Wednesday’s meeting that ran for little more than an hour. Drinks followed at The Lodge but also didn’t last long before MPs splintered off – some jetting home to their electorates, others to the local pub.

Highly unsurprising, considering the party labelled the original cuts “offensive” back in 2019.

Meanwhile, the Coalition tangled itself up in knots as it scrambled for a response. Deputy Liberal leader Sussan Ley had to walk back her initial claim that a Peter Dutton-government would repeal the cuts.

By Friday, Mr Dutton refused to lock in a position, deferring until Labor produced the legislation.

He will be under pressure to announce a position before the by-election in the Victorian seat of Dunkley on March 2 following Peta Murphy’s death.

There is no doubt the five words Mr Albanese uttered when asked about the stage 3 tax cuts will come back to haunt him during the campaign and beyond.

The Liberals have already released a social media video featuring the clip. Mr Dutton has adopted it as a key attack line.

Labor knows this, but it made the decision to break the election promise anyway.

The hurdle for Mr Albanese’s re-election will be the one he set for himself. He claimed he was of a higher standard.

He now has a higher distance to fall.