Labor’s election campaign has been thrown off balance after leader Anthony Albanese caught COVID-19, something the party’s campaign feared was inevitable but had done its utmost to avoid.
In the end, when COVID did descend upon the Opposition Leader he didn’t even feel ill.
Mr Albanese was headed to Perth and had to first secure a PCR test before flying when he received notice of a positive result.
Campaign strategists insist Mr Albanese has the energy to campaign from isolation and hold press conferences, conduct television interviews and address rallies remotely.
That sounds OK but does not carry the same connotations of leadership as a marginal-seat blitz up and down the eastern seaboard.
It is also impossible to look at Mr Albanese’s illness as anything other than a gift for Prime Minister Scott Morrison who posted his well-wishes on Twitter.
I wish Anthony Albanese all the best for his recovery after testing positive to COVID. Everyone’s experience with COVID is different and as Labor’s campaign continues, I hope he does not experience any serious symptoms.
— Scott Morrison (@ScottMorrisonMP) April 21, 2022
And all just as Mr Albanese had seemed to shrug off lingering questions about his day-one flub of economic indicators that dogged him in the campaign’s opening passage and beyond.
After a debate-winning performance, Mr Albanese cut a newly confident figure on the campaign trail.
He was recently successful with criticisms of the government for not doing enough to counter Beijing’s recent move into the Pacific.
The diagnosis comes on the 11th day of the campaign before the May 21 federal election and represents a major disruption to Labor’s campaign plans.
“We were back after everything and the risk is that this could be a momentum stopper,” an insider at the party’s campaign headquarters said.
So what now?
Frontbenchers to step up
Labor entered its moment of unexpected campaign crisis well prepared.
The party’s top brass from the campaign were at a meeting on Thursday convened by the ALP’s national secretary Paul Erickson.
They were presented with a range of scenarios for continuing the campaign on an altered course.
Officials were set to favour a strategy that would have a rotating roster of frontbenchers including Penny Wong, Richard Marles and Jim Chalmers.
There had been an alternative option to install a campaign “surrogate” to keep the chair warm for Mr Albanese.
Mr Albanese will be spending a week at his Sydney home at an especially difficult time for the Labor campaign, falling precisely in the middle of a period its strategists had identified as leaving them particularly vulnerable if he fell ill.
Campaigns are heavy on rhetoric and imagery but only have respect for basic mathematics when it counts.
Mr Albanese is unable to make public appearances for just under 25 per cent of the time left on the campaign.
Making this intervention particularly hard for Labor to stomach is that Mr Morrison never had to worry about it.
No trouble for Morrison
The Prime Minister contracted the virus in early March.
By falling ill when he did, Mr Morrison secured himself the benefit of a week without squaring off against a rival leader on the campaign and eight weeks’ freedom from an obligation to test for COVID when it mattered most.
Labor had done all it could to lower the chance of the Opposition Leader being exposed to the virus.
Press gallery reporters aboard the Labor campaign bus had to prove they had been triple-vaccinated and agree to wear masks onboard and to receive regular testing.
The Prime Minister’s travelling party had only to comply with state laws on COVID-19.
“While at home I will continue my responsibilities as alternative prime minister and will be fighting for a better future for all Australians,” Mr Albanese said in a statement.
“I am grateful to know that I will have access to the world’s best health care if I need it, because of Medicare.
“I am feeling fine so far – and thank everyone for their well wishes.”