Scott Morrison refuses press conference as John Howard calls teal independents ‘anti-Liberal groupies’

The Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, refused to take questions from media on Saturday – despite addressing a campaign rally and touring a boating, camping and fishing store for the cameras on the New South Wales Central Coast.

Labor has repeatedly criticised the prime minister for “going missing” on the Solomon Islands security deal with China, with questions raised over when the federal government became aware of the draft security pact.

An Australian intelligence agency was aware of the pact days ahead of it being made public in March and played a role in leaking the text on social media, according to Nine newspapers quoting government and security sources.

The claim brings into question the foreign minister, Marise Payne, informing Senate estimates she only became aware of the draft agreement after it was leaked.

On Saturday, the treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, would not say when Australia first knew of the pact between Solomon Islands and China, saying instead that “we’ve known that this was always a risk”, and adding that “we’ve known that there were discussions under way”.

He also told Weekend Sunrise that the government could do little more to assist Solomon Islands, describing its existing aid as a “full court press”.

John Howard at the Liberal campaign launch for Bennelong candidate Simon Kennedy. Photograph: Paul Braven/AAP

The deputy Labor leader, Richard Marles, accused the government of failing to build and maintain relationships in the Pacific, saying on Saturday that the deal “definitely raises the increased prospect of Chinese military presence in the Pacific and that makes Australia less safe and that is because Scott Morrison wasn’t doing his job”.

The prime minister spruiked a strong economy and low unemployment rate while addressing a campaign rally at Tumbi Umbi in the seat of Dobell – and took a veiled swipe at the Labor leader, Anthony Albanese.

“Despite our challenge being 30 times greater than what Labor faced, our employment outcomes were 50% better,” he said, contrasting the global financial crisis and pandemic recovery.

“People might forget figures here and there. But if you don’t know what’s happening with unemployment in this country – that’s one of the most fundamental things when you’re seeking to drive economic policy.”

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The prime minister earlier attended the boating, camping and fishing store after the Coalition pledged $20m for more camping and fishing facilities. The only official press conference of the Coalition campaign for the day was given by the finance minister, Simon Birmingham.

In Sydney, the former prime minister John Howard used the Liberal party’s campaign launch for its candidate in the seat of Bennelong, Simon Kennedy, to criticise the wave of high-profile independent candidates running in wealthy Liberal seats, such as Allegra Spender in Wentworth, Kylea Tink in North Sydney and Zoe Daniel in Goldstein.

Howard said: “These men and women are all posing as independents. They’re not independents, they’re anti-Liberal groupies.

“Their aim is to hurt the Liberal party, not to represent the middle ground of their electorates.”

He told the event at Ryde-Eastwood Leagues Club that if the independents supported by Simon Holmes à Court’s Climate 200 group were “genuinely independent” they would also run in safe Labor seats.

“They don’t represent disgruntled Liberals. They represent a group in the community that wants to destroy the Liberal government. It’s as simple as that.

“That is why they’re running in seats like Wentworth and North Sydney and Mackellar, and Goldstein in Victoria.”

Guardian Australia analysis shows Liberal MPs in at-risk “teal” seats are being left with little financial support from the Coalition in the lead-up to the election, at the same time as they are being outspent on advertising by their independent challengers.

The Coalition has committed a total of just $92m out of a total of almost $6bn in discretionary spending to the seats of Wentworth, Mackellar, North Sydney, Kooyong, Goldstein, Warringah and Curtin since the beginning of the year.

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Howard told the Bennelong event the Liberal party needed to treat every seat as if it was at risk. The former prime minister lost his seat to Labor’s Maxine McKew in the wipeout election of 2007 before John Alexander won it back in 2010.

Bennelong was held by Alexander on a 6.9% margin at the 2019 election, where the former tennis star suffered a 2.8% swing against him.

The independent MP for Warringah, Zali Steggall, was not impressed with Howard’s words, calling it “appallingly sexist language”.

Howard slams ‘anti-Liberal groupies’. Appalling sexist language by John Howard. It explains a lot of the culture of the Liberal party & it’s problem with women. Women in politics shouldn’t be denigrated with this type of language. #enoughisenough #auspol

— 🌏 Zali Steggall MP (@zalisteggall) April 23, 2022

At his own campaign launch in Brisbane, the shadow treasurer, Jim Chalmers, accused the government of wasting money and rorting the public purse.

“We want Australia … to generate opportunities people can grab and be proud of so they can provide for their loved ones and create great futures,” he said.

“The thanks that people get for the sacrifices they’ve made for each other [in the pandemic] can’t be another three years of a rotten government. It can’t be another three years of wages going down while prices are going up.”

The Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, who tested positive to Covid on Thursday, tweeted a photo of himself purportedly working on his campaign launch speech from isolation.

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