Scott Morrison and Anthony Albanese have bickered over electricity prices, national security and a federal integrity commission in a the second leaders’ debate of the election campaign.
Ahead of early voting opening on Monday, the prime minister appealed for Australians to stick with certainty, while the Labor leader said the country could not afford three more years of the Coalition.
Facing questions from a panel of three journalists from the Nine network, the most heated moment of the night was when the two leaders argued about Chinese influence in the region.
Morrison was asked to explain his remark that a Chinese base in Solomon Islands would be viewed as a “red line” by the Australian government, to which he said it would be “unwise” to speculate.
“It means that was something Australia believes would be completely against our national interest, and we also believe it will be against the Solomon Islands’ national interest,” Morrison said.
After Morrison challenged Albanese on why Labor had cut defence spending, Albanese raised the sale of the Port of Darwin to a company linked to the Chinese Communist party.
“When I was a minister, we put US marines into Darwin. When you have been a minister, we’ve had the port of Darwin sold to a company connected with the Chinese Communist party. You ticked it off.”
Morrison accused Albanese of telling “this lie for some time”, saying the federal government had no authority over the sale of territory assets.
The two men then argued, with Morrison accusing Albanese of being unable to stand up to China when the “loudest” pro-Beijing voices came from within the Labor party.
“How often has Richard Marles met with the Chinese ambassador in Australia? He is your deputy leader,” Morrison asked?
“That is an outrageous slur,” Albanese said.
Another fiery moment came when the two disagreed over how Labor’s pledge to transition the electricity grid might affect power prices.
Morrison asked how much more Labor would spend on transmission, saying it would be recovered from the consumers and lead to price rises: “That’s how it works.”
Albanese said there “is not an energy economist in the country that agrees with you”.
After talking about party unity on the issue of net zero by 2050, Albanese accused Morrison of being unable to commit to a higher near-term target because “Barnaby Joyce won’t let you make the target higher”.
Morrison said he did not think a higher target than a 26% to 28% cut on 2005 levels by 2035 was good policy, despite the likelihood of reaching that level.
“I think it is the wrong policy. I don’t want to put up people’s electricity prices.”
The debate kicked off with the two leaders challenged on cost-of-living pressures, asked what they could do about the $5 cost of lettuce.
Morrison pointed to the measures announced in the budget, including the cut to fuel excise and tax cuts.
“We cannot control all the forces that are coming from overseas, but what we can do, by managing money well, that puts downward pressure on inflation.”
Albanese said his party had policies designed to achieve cheaper childcare and cheaper medicines, that were “aimed at growing the economy in a way that doesn’t put additional pressure on inflation”.
“The cost of living measures that [Morrison] spoke about are all temporary, they have all the sincerity of a fake tan, they disappear once people have cast their vote and people are then back on their own again.”
Both ruled out an extension of the cut to fuel excise, which ends in September.
On industrial relations, Albanese was asked to guarantee that wage prices would outstrip inflation if he formed government, prompting the Labor leader to promise wages would be higher than under the Coalition.
“Our objective is to have real wage increases and we have practical plans to do that,” he said.
On the economy, Morrison defended the forecast debt in the budget, saying the pandemic had required the government to spend more, and borrow to do so.
“In the pandemic we had to lean in and save the economy through jobkeeper, the single largest economic intervention which saved lives, livelihoods and businesses and that expenditure ensured the Australian economy could be where it is today,” Morrison said.
When asked how young Australians would pay the debt off, Morrison said they would be in work.
“They will have jobs in an economy coming out of this pandemic stronger than any other advanced economy in the world.”
Albanese was asked about what Labor was doing for young Australians “dealing with rising rents, out of reach house prices [and] student debt”.
“Young people are doing it really tough, no doubt about that,” he said.
The Labor leader said he was promising increased investment in social housing and a plan for 10,000 affordable housing units for essential workers.
On an integrity commission, the two leaders were asked if they had seen corruption in their parties and what they had done about it.
Morrison said he had not seen any corruption in the Liberal party over the past three years, and when asked about New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption findings regarding developer donations said he had no knowledge of the issue.
“You are assuming I have some knowledge or awareness or involvement in those issues, which I clearly do not.”
But Morrison said he still believed there was a need for a federal integrity commission, pointing to the government’s draft bill that has stalled in the parliament.
Albanese acknowledged there had been corruption within NSW Labor, but said “there was a stench” around Canberra that needed to be addressed.
“I think overwhelmingly, people go into politics across the spectrum for all the right reasons. They go in to take their view about how they help their fellow Australians in the best way possible. But the truth is, there is a stench around Canberra at the moment.”
Morrison then challenged Albanese over the party’s lack of draft legislation for such a commission, which Labor has promised to introduce this year.
“Given he is so passionate about this, why haven’t you drafted your own legislation for such a commission? You have had three years. You have two pages.
“You’ve been hiding in the bushes.”
Albanese said Labor would release legislation this year.
“Our democracy is precious … we need to make sure that Australians can have faith in it and that is why we need to do whatever we can to create institutions and structures that enhance that faith in our political system.”
Morrison and Albanese were also asked about the government’s pandemic management, with the prime minister acknowledging he should not have said the vaccine rollout was not a race.
“It was a race, Anthony, and we shouldn’t have described it in those terms,” Morrison said.
In his closing remarks, Morrison said the choice at the election would “impact significantly on the future of all Australians.”
“We are a known quantity, and at a time of great uncertainty, now is not the time to risk things on the unknown.
“Labor have no plan, they are unknown, and a small target is always a big risk.”
Albanese said Australia had the opportunity for a “better government”.
“With a better government, we can be an even better country into the future. And I will say this – there are four words you will never hear from me. words you will never hear from me: ‘That’s not my job.’ I will never say it.
“If I get the job, I will do the job each and every day.”
Channel Nine’s “viewer verdict” initially had Morrison the winner, then Albanese, before the result came in at a 50-50 tie.