Published in Insights, The New Zealand Initiative’s newsletter, 14 April 2022
Five hundred and twenty-five days. This is how long the Reserve Bank of Australia had kept its interest rate steady when Australian opposition leader Anthony Albanese was asked about it by a journalist on the campaign trail.
Albanese, who wants to become Prime Minister in the election on 21 May, did not know the Official Cash Rate. It stands at 0.1 percent – the lowest level in Australian history.
To make it worse, Albanese did not know Australia’s unemployment rate either.
“The national unemployment rate at the moment is, I think it is 5 point … 4, sorry, I am not sure what it is,” Albanese said, which was close enough since it is precisely 4.0 percent.
For the Australian Labor Party Leader, it was a nightmarish start to his election campaign.
But it was also an interesting variation on an old ‘gotcha journalism’ theme. Ask any politician a question about something they ought to know but do not, just to show how unsuitable they are for the job.
The usual method is to ask about the price of milk, cheese or bread. It has happened to politicians since time immemorial. Failing to answer correctly immediately reveals that they are out of touch with ‘ordinary’ voters.
What is novel about the Albanese ambush was that it was a question about key economic facts. Because, let’s face it, most ordinary voters would not know the OCR or the unemployment rate, either.
Perhaps that is a good sign.
Instead of grilling would-be Prime Ministers on the price of groceries that they are unlikely to buy for themselves anyway, let’s test them on matters they would deal with in office.
For example, in Australia’s case, do not quiz candidates about the price of a dozen free-range eggs (about A$4.10). Ask how many nuclear submarines Australia will buy (eight) and at what price tag (at least $A70 billion).
Do not check what the cheapest Samsung S22 smartphone costs in Australia (A$1299). Ask why it is only A$1,076 in the United States.
Or ask why the average Australian needs to work 25 percent longer to buy that phone compared to the average American. And then ask what could close that gap.
And, to trip candidates up completely, make them explain the difference between multifactor productivity and total factor productivity (there is none).
At the end of that interview, most politicians would need a beer. They probably would not know the price of that, either.