Anthony Albanese is paralysed and failing to grasp the moment

Aug 22, 2023
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese

A good many people who worked hard for a Labor government are now astonished at its lack of ambition. More nagging for those who have dreamed of Labor in action has been the complete refusal to countenance any shift in national security policy, in human rights law, in planning aggression against China, and in a nuclear-powered submarine adventure that massively reduces this nation’s freedom of action in any regional conflict. It’s time for Labor to recharge its batteries.

One day Labor will give a party, and no one will come

It will be a while before the absentees will be back to working golden calves at coalition campfires. There’s continuing enthusiasm for keeping the coalition out. But not much excitement, or enthusiasm about Labor. Not ill will but indifference. By modern standards the government may seem competent enough, and still so early in power that it hasn’t started to take the electorate for granted. The economy is doing reasonably well, although cost of living pressures are increasing to the point where no one is actually grateful. A limited array of election promises has been largely fulfilled. But a good many of the faithful are wondering whether this is all there is. Is the government being too cautious, too careful, too timid? Dare it do anything bold?

Anthony Albanese wants to bask in the praise of a surplus Budget, reduced debt, and better childcare. He can refer to fulfilling the limited array of promises he made before the last election. Perhaps, at the time, they seemed modest and responsible, rather than profligate. But a good many people who worked hard for a Labor government are now astonished at its lack of ambition, its unwillingness to develop an agenda, or to make significant change to the country. Conditions have improved, but boldness hasn’t. Albanese seems more focused on re-election and not disturbing any powerful constituencies than on doing anything with his time in power. He seems, say some critics, to lack a broad vision – an idea of what the collective will of the nation could do to transform the economy and social relationships. Instead, he seems focused on restraining the passions, resisting pressure within his ranks for more substantial achievements and agendas. The risk is not of going too far, but of being paralysed and failing to grasp the moment.

He should look at the success of many of the Labor premiers and Chief ministers, all of whom reinvented themselves during the Covid years. As problem solvers. As decisive intervenors. As straight talkers. As politicians not afraid to spend money where it would make a difference. Women and men who stared down powerful interests, including the Murdoch media, and did not panic. As leaders with an image of where they wanted to go. The most that previous premiers could hope for – and sometimes achieve – was some reputation for being apolitical competent managers. Not anymore.

Among those gathering in Brisbane for the Party’s conference this weekend are people who were motivated to join the party because they wanted serious change. Serious action on climate change. Not token action while actually making things worse. Serious action on the environment. Human rights and a warm welcome for refugees, rather than the calculated bastardries of recent years. A rebuilding of the national health compacts, as between Commonwealth and state governments, and as between government and the state. Substantial change in education, in schools, universities and vocational training institutions. A rebuilt public service allowed to be excellent and expert again. In an economy in which the profit share has never been higher, and real wages are at historic lows, where’s the impulse to change economic relationships for the benefit of Labor’s primary constituency: working women and men? They are not happy with the diffidence and lack of courage of the Albanese government. Why did Labor, at the last moment, retreat on its own promises about anti-corruption legislation, when it had the support to get its promises through?

Beating Dutton from the right on defence policy

Even more nagging for those who have dreamed of Labor in action has been the complete refusal to countenance any shift in national security policy, in human rights law, in planning aggression against China, and in a nuclear-powered submarine adventure that massively reduces this nation’s freedom of action in any regional conflict. The policies of the past regime were not put in place because they exactly matched Australia’s need and the national interest. Rather they were ones adopted by the other side of politics for purely political domestic purposes – to wedge and compromise Labor. The very secrecy and subterfuge – not to mention the direct lying to an ally – France – underlines how the AUKUS arrangements were devised without any serious national debate, canvassing of alternatives or measurements of the costs and benefits. It was also policy heavily promoted by a defence and intelligence establishment seemingly determined to provoke a war for American purposes, and careless of our own separate national interests. The capitulation by Albanese and Penny Wong was itself for domestic political purposes, rather than from a considered view of Australia’s circumstances. But Albanese in government has made arrangements that create even greater limits on Australian independence of action, cost us more than was planned under Morrison, and, probably, seriously increase the risk of armed conflict in our region. Albanese retains the same ideologically right-wing foreign policy advisers as in the Morrison government.

There has not been a serious national debate on the subject, and many of those who have expressed reservations have had their loyalty questioned by the head of ASIO, Mike Burgess, or treated as though they were completely out of touch with reality, such as Paul Keating. It is not clear just when traditional Labor policies, including scepticism about blundering into big-power politics and confrontation, were jettisoned. Australian subservience to a United States which cares not a jot for our interests or opinions is underlined by marked unwillingness to stand up for the interests of Julian Assange, who has been in custody far too long. It is altogether in keeping with the inequality of the relationship that the Albanese government is trying to pretend that our honour will be preserved if Assange is allowed to serve his American sentence here. Such dim echoes of our collaboration with the lawless (and continuing) Guantanamo Bay regime serve as a reminder that only Australia, of substantial members of the western alliance, did not demand its nationals back. Canada, Britain, France and Germany, for example, seemed able to stand up to America without any of the adverse consequences freely predicted if we disagree.

Many of these opposed to the way in which Australia has attached itself to US defence postures without any wiggle space really want their arguments heard. Presumably, they want to win the argument, but even if realistic about the capacity of the government to get its way, they are reluctant to have the matter go by default, without a debate at all. An agreement between factional chiefs is no substitute for a no-holds-barred debate about matters fundamental to Australia’s place in the world. Those, from Albanese down, who want an agreement to avoid a debate, or to limit it to some harmless bypass (perhaps an argument about what colour to paint the submarines, at which those opposed to nuclear subs could join hands with the purple faction) are being very foolish. They think that stage-managed debates maintain the appearance of unity and one big happy family, while acrimonious debate suggests division and turmoil.

Gough Whitlam, in the 1960s, showed Labor the power of debate in the open. It never hurt the party

Particularly when, after the numbers were called, members joined behind the majority. It could be free-spirited, as it was over state aid, and, later, uranium. But where there was genuine (and sincere) difference of opinion, it could not be disguised by theatrics. It was always better for having it out. And, despite the doomsayers, members of the public did seem to understand that honest women and men could differ strongly, loudly and openly, on appropriate policies until the matter was settled. The very debate often brought the arguments, on both sides of important public policy issues, to public attention. It was the Left of the party who wanted debates, even if they were usually frozen out of decision-making. Later the right wing of the party conceived the idea of power sharing – with a skerrick of the spoils allocated to party officials of the Left. That has suited professional left factionalists on party payrolls — Albanese has spent his entire adult career as one — but rarely those in unions and party branches that actually want issues to be addressed and debated. The deals of the faction chiefs do not conceal discontent.

It would be quite wrong to think that the discontents of people actively engaged in the political process precisely mirror the opinions of ordinary voters. Yet they often foreshadow trouble, and not only because arguments are carried on over dinner tables, on talkback and at the pub. Their views and impressions – and their mood – are the daily fodder of much of the political media, and often set the agenda. Not least against the spin-doctors and marketeers trying to get publicity by confecting “events” and staged “Media ops”.

Party conferences, on either side of politics, provide an opportunity to showcase new policies, to introduce ministers and others with charge of putting policies into effect, and to demonstrate that the party is in touch with voter sentiment. They can also be a step on the way to putting policies in context. Showing how they complement one another and have been thought through to be a seamless whole. Also showing a wider context – a vision of how society is changing or should change to new circumstances. Showing that the party is looking to invest in a new future. Showing how the party regards issues of choices with the allocation of money and energy. Showing some horse-trading by which people with different views about priorities can compromise. Promoting understanding of why particular policies matter for everyone’s future.

That’s what party conferences ought to be about. Alas they rarely are these days, whether in Australia or Britain, or at conventions in the United States. Instead, we have hoopla and balloons, prearranged presentations reducing developed ideas to slogans, and attempting to inject focus-group research into meaningless mantras. Attempts to impose a theme said to represent the collective endeavour – nothing more at this conference than getting re-elected next year with as few promises as possible. Or steady, cautious, timid and unadventurous as you go.

The professionals, the advertising advisers, the attendees, and the hundreds of lobbyists present may not see it, but they are by no means the experts on what moves public perception. If one wanted an instance of that, at Albanese and Labor level, one need look only at how the Yes vote campaign is still foundering. It’s a badly run campaign which has failed, so far, to galvanise the wider electorate. Experienced and sincere politicians with an obvious passion for the outcome have seemed unable to mobilise popular enthusiasm, or to counter the negativities from those promoting the No case. The referendum is an important priority for Albanese, but neither he, nor his colleagues, have so far been able to make a difference. Maybe they are not listening.

Neither the Labor movement nor the party seems able to stir the passions any more

A leader must be able to reason and emote. Voters make choices on what their head and heart tells them. Albanese may be able to play everyman, or Mr Sensible, or Mr Mean. But he can no longer make a stirring stump speech, let alone one leaving a lasting image beyond the tired one of his childhood. It may be partly the age and the media saturation, but the Matildas recently have been able to generate real enthusiasm. This weekend’s Labor conference – bound to be a triumph of celebration and choreography – will show patently fake enthusiasm. How sad that a party glorying in winning back power after more than a decade in the wilderness is most focused on a façade of false unity and commitment to the principle that no idea, ideal or policy is more important than hanging on just so that Labor can continue to do very little.

The indifference does not yet signal a dramatic fall in support. Its mainstream opposition has neither absorbed any lessons from its emphatic rejection last year, nor reformed its processes or its policies. Nor dealt with the men and women whose ethical deficiencies, blindness, maladministration and outright lying deprived it of any moral right to govern or capacity to be trusted. The coalition is not yet focused on becoming electable again, looking instead determined to double down on its worst characteristics, its most uninspiring leaders and the worst possible strategies. Such lassitude after defeat – even more than a year on, and most parties, the coalition as much as Labor, do not regain office with the initial leaders chosen after loss, or by the promise of the same as last time, only this time with even less compassion and competence. Liberal and National Party supporters would be mad to think that it could dance back into office simply because voters are deeply disappointed with Labor.

The polls underline this, even as Albanese has now been in government long enough to be blamed for some poor outcomes. It has not led to an outpouring of regret and loss of confidence, let alone wistful yearnings for the ministers of the old regime. Some years ago, a coalition leader, Campbell Newman, won office in Queensland in a landslide that suggested that the tiny rump of Labor remnants – far from their most able – could never win back office again. In fact, it did within a term, with voters hurling Newman out at the next election with even more enthusiasm than they had installed him. Federal Labor is well capable of serious strategic and tactical mistakes, and is, in any event, as much a creature of events as the coalition. But it is not as silly as Newman, and the Leader of the Opposition, Peter Dutton, would be quite silly to think or hope it would be. Right now, voters need a reason to vote for Dutton. They have not yet found it and it probably isn’t where he is playing.

By contrast, voters are still at the point where they need a reason to vote Albanese out. They haven’t found it yet, either. But Albanese is neglecting opportunities to improve his and his party’s position. He cannot depend only on dud coalition leadership. He must inspire. He must lead, particularly on moral (or survival) issues such as climate change. The party’s conference could have been an opportunity, but it looks like he’s going to miss being seen to have his sleeves rolled up, his ears pricked, and his body bent towards the person he is speaking to. He doesn’t have an authority problem. Nor a legitimacy problem. He’s not scary or moody. He simply seems to have convinced himself that doing the least is the safest. It’s not.

If a party conference were a genuine legislative and governance body, or if its decisions mattered a jot, it would be making news. It would also serve a purpose of introducing the party’s thinkers, of discussing new policies without automatically creating scope for suggestions of splits. They allow for accountability, review and frank appreciations of how policies and programs are working on the ground. In such a circumstance, people trying to market the party would have some reason for wanting some chairmanship to show the range and the depth of ideas on offer.

The party has reduced the power and influence of conferences, and their authority over party leaders. Attempts to pre-arrange the outcomes of debates and the limits of what can be said, turn conferences into mere talking shops, and not very interesting ones at that.

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