Anthony Albanese has delivered a blistering character assessment of outgoing Liberal MP Stuart Robert as he launched the campaign of the woman who hopes to replace him in parliament.
Letitia Del Fabbro will vie for the safe LNP seat of Fadden on Queensland’s Gold Coast at a by-election on July 15 after Mr Robert’s surprise retirement from federal politics after a 16-year that was at times marred by controversy.
Addressing party faithful gathered at the Labor campaign launch at the Runaway Bay Community Centre on Tuesday evening, the Prime Minister described the Gold Coast local and Griffith University nurse educator as an “outstanding candidate and an even better person”.
As Labor gears up for a tough campaign in an electorate it has only ever held once in 1984, Mr Albanese used his speech to portray Ms Del Fabbro as a better choice for voters in Fadden by comparing her directly with Mr Robert.
“She wants her community to have a genuine choice at this by-election – and she wants her community to be represented by someone with integrity,” Mr Albanese said.
“After all, let’s remember why we are having this by-election.”
Mr Albanese sought to highlight the controversy over the robodebt fiasco that dogged the later years of Mr Robert’s political career, saying the ex-Liberal minister was resigning after having “presided over one of the most shocking and cruel failures in the history of Australian politics”.
Mr Robert announced his retirement from politics about two months after he appeared before a royal commission into robodebt, at which he admitted he had knowingly misrepresented the scheme despite his personal misgivings about the botched welfare debt recovery program.
Speaking at the inquiry, Mr Robert said he took “absolute responsibility” for the flawed program but claimed he had “no choice” but to defend government policy as a cabinet minister.
Mr Robert was more recently accused of helping a consulting firm owned by a friend of his to secure lucrative government contracts. He has strenuously denied the allegations.
First elected to Fadden in 2007, Mr Robert held a number of ministerial portfolios under successive Coalition governments, including employment and skills, veterans’ affairs and the NDIS during his political career before quitting parliament in May this year.
Mr Albanese said Labor was “proud to offer the people of Fadden and the residents of the Gold Coast so much better” than Mr Robert, who he claimed “personified all the worst qualities of Scott Morrison’s government”.
By contrast, Mr Albanese said Ms Del Fabbro exemplified “the very best of the Australian character” and had dedicated her life to helping others as a nurse, a health educator and “a champion” for better aged care.
He described her as “a mum who knows the challenge of balancing a family budget” as he spruiked Labor’s cost of living policies such as cheaper early childhood education and energy rebates for households on welfare.
He said the government would “be lucky to have Letitia on our team” and thanked the Labor supporters in the room for showing up to support Ms Del Fabbro’s campaign despite knowing “the odds we are up against”.
Mr Albanese hit the campaign trail on the Gold Coast earlier on Tuesday, telling reporters Ms Del Fabbro was a worthy candidate who embodied Labor’s “great strengths” of education, skills and healthcare.
The poll comes a few months after Labor became the first government to win a seat off the opposition at a by-election in more than 100 years in an upset victory at the Aston by-election in suburban Melbourne, triggered by former Liberal minister Alan Tudge’s resignation.
But it may be a different story in Fadden, which Mr Robert retained on a margin of 10.6 per cent at last year’s election and where Labor faces such an uphill battle to win the seat.
Mr Albanese and his strategists were reportedly originally hesitant to contest the by-election.
A few hours before Mr Albanese delivered his speech on Tuesday, Peter Dutton told reporters the Coalition had a great candidate in Cameron Caldwell.
“He’s established, he’s bona fide, he’s on the ground over 12 years,” Mr Dutton said of the Gold Coast City councillor who won the recent Liberal preselection contest.
“As a local, he’s a champion for the northern end of the Gold Coast. He knows the area well. He’s delivered projects which have resulted in additional jobs.”
Haling Mr Caldwell for having put money into tackling “law and order on the Gold Coast”, Mr Dutton accused Labor of having created the local “crime situation” and said Mr Albanese should “call out” Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk.
Mr Dutton said the Coalition was confident of retaining Fadden but by-elections were “always difficult”, as he claimed Labor would use “all sorts of dirty tactics and smear campaigns”.
He also sought to make the by-election a litmus test on the referendum to enshrine an Indigenous Voice to parliament and executive government in the Constitution, which is expected in October.
“I think there will be a lot of people in Fadden who want to send the Prime Minister a very clear message that they’re not happy with his Canberra Voice proposal,” Mr Dutton said.
Greens candidate Sally Spain and One Nation’s Sandy Roach are among 11 other candidates who will contest the Fadden by-election.