There’s a reason Peter Dutton didn’t lead the condemnation of Anthony Albanese’s international travel. Dutton is on holiday.
As the prime minister pointed out about himself, he hasn’t had a day off “in a very long time”.
In the opposition leader’s absence, National party leader David Littleproud and shadow treasurer Angus Taylor launched the swing, with an attack that lacked both logic and conviction on Albanese for travelling overseas, including to Ukraine.
On Sky News, Taylor simultaneously accepted the PM’s Ukraine visit was “necessary” while condemning his radio silence.
“It’s important that constituents know that people are on the job and we hadn’t heard from Mr Albanese for 48 hours,” he said.
On the Today show, Littleproud wanted payback for the treatment Scott Morrison copped for his Hawaiian holiday at the height of the Black Summer bushfires.
“You can’t have your cake and eat it too,” he grizzled. “They were pretty quick to throw a few grenades at Scott Morrison.”
A dictionary-worthy definition of “false equivalence”.
All it really achieved was an opportunity for TV bulletins to recycle pictures of the previous prime minister in his boardies on the holiday his media office denied was happening at the height of a conflagration that most certainly was.
“I think that says more about the people who have laid the criticism than it does about myself,” said Albanese at a news conference flanked by the NSW and commonwealth emergency services ministers and NSW premier Dom Perrottet.
Entering a war zone requires tight operational security, especially for a high value target like a visiting prime minister. As Albanese pointed out, his movements could potentially have led Russian intelligence to their greatest prize, Volodymyr Zelenskiy himself.
“We didn’t have any electronic equipment. No phones, no internet, no communication with outside. That was a matter of keeping us safe but also keeping safe President Zelenskiy and the Ukrainian people that we were meeting with.
“To compare that with a holiday is … I just find it beyond contempt, frankly.”
His first three phone calls once back across the border were with the acting prime minister, Richard Marles; emergency services minister, Murray Watt; and the NSW premier.
“As soon as he could he picked up the phone to call me,” confirmed Perrottet. The premier enthused that coordination and support from the new federal government has been “great … exactly how it should work.”
Albanese will be flying overseas again next week. Events on Scott Morrison’s watch have left him with no option but to attend the Pacific Islands Forum. Australia needs to reset its Pacific relationships in the face of Chinese adventurism. Taking a less contemptuous climate change policy to fragile island nations is a start, but turning up in person also matters, as Albanese acknowledges.
“Australia dropped the ball with engagement with the Pacific,” he says. It’s not a mistake he plans to repeat.
The floods, however, are just the most obvious and heart-breaking of the problems brewing at home.
Rising interest rates, still galloping inflation, restive unions, a new parliament to negotiate and a budget to frame by October are just the start.
The issues raised by the rain are profound. At one stage this week, 85,000 people – the equivalent of Launceston or Mackay – were forced out of their homes or were preparing to flee. This was the fourth such flood in 18 months, the third this year, added to the double-whammy NSW Northern Rivers floods and the flood devastation in greater Brisbane.
At the Hawkesbury’s Helping Hands food distribution centre in Windsor, Jodie Saint, dressed in a grey sloppy-joe, spoke quietly as two of the most powerful men in Australia leaned in to catch her words.
“I walked out with my bag above my head,” she said, raising her arms to demonstrate the height of the water. “We’ve only got the clothes on our back. It doesn’t get any easier.”
The PM and the premier listened solemnly.
“There’s no insurance. The majority of the people here – me included – we’re not insured,” chimed in Jodie’s neighbour, Scott Hinks. “I want to say thank-you for turning up here and visiting us, but [without something changing] you’re going to be turning up again in the next three or four months.”
The centre offers food hampers, a sausage sizzle and a 24-hour kettle for the newly homeless. CEO Linda Strickland says people are “traumatised”. Many who come for food stay for a hug and a cry.
“They walk in and then all of a sudden … they just break down,” she says.
The flood victims are pissed off and tired. Many want the massive Warragamba dam built higher. They want clearer information on services and grants and they want to believe the grant money will come. Last time, says Scott Hinks, it never did.
When Albanese moved on to meet SES volunteers, Jodie Saint felt deflated.
“I mean, he’s here but I feel there’s no real solutions, nothing offered, no empathy,” she said. “I wasn’t very reassured, to be honest.”
Was there any value there for you, I asked her neighbour Kelly Gabriel. “I don’t think so. There were no solutions there.”
The first President Bush presided over the end of the cold war, victory over Saddam Hussein in Kuwait and the declaration of a new world order. He was then kicked out by an Arkansas governor called Clinton, whose political sidekick James Carville told anyone who would listen “it’s the economy, stupid”.
There are very good reasons for Albanese’s overseas visits since becoming prime minister, and they certainly can’t be compared to a holiday.
But he must tread carefully, as George Bush Sr discovered, no amount of being a hero overseas will save you if you can’t fix problems at home.
Hugh Riminton is national affairs editor at 10 News First