Anthony Albanese has avoided many potential conflicts with the government. But that cleverness has helped obscure what, if anything, he stands for.
Labor leader Anthony Albanese, seven months or less from a federal election, ought to be able to contemplate his position with a certain amount of calm. He has had a year in which the government has done far more damage to itself than it has been able to inflict on Labor, or on Albanese himself.
The polls suggest not only that Labor is comfortably ahead, but that, because the gap is not changing much, the electorate has more or less made up its mind about the Morrison government. No one in Labor trusts the polls much after recent experiences, but the figures accord with the gut feelings of many observers, some not predisposed to Labor or to Albanese.
Strictly, Albanese looks to be in a far better position than Bill Shorten about the same time from the last election. Shorten seemed comfortably ahead, but did not have the gap that Albanese enjoys. Most people, including most Liberal ministers and Shorten himself, assumed he was home and hosed, and were stunned by the miracle that Scott Morrison, alone and almost unassisted pulled off. Overconfidence or taking things for granted is not a mistake that Albanese seems to be making.
At the last election, the Coalition appeared tired and exhausted by years of division and leadership changes, and debilitated by some of its policy arguments, particularly over action on climate change. Shorten had worked calmly on policy development, and seemed to have mastery of Morrison and the government generally. Labor was uncommonly disciplined — much more around Shorten than now around Albanese.
But if Shorten could argue that the government had done its dash, he had not developed his advantage to the extent that has been possible under Albanese over the last term. A central problem of Morrison and the Morrison government has become evident. He is never in front of a problem. He’s always behind, playing catch-up, applying bandaids, and slinging money around, usually to party cronies, when problems start to overwhelm. In most cases he, and his ministers, and his political staff should have anticipated the problems — having identified potential ones in the course of policy debate. But Morrison doesn’t listen, and is not proactive. He stirs himself only when things have reached debacle stage. He’s a poor leader, but, just as bad, a poor manager and crisis controller. He places too much trust in colleagues of no particular capacity, and in those who have forfeited the confidence of the public. His unwillingness to admit fault, or to give the opposition any “victory” has multiplied his liabilities and reduced his credit and his asset base. His last minute efforts to have a respectable climate change policy for Glasgow is all of a one with inaction on fires, on vaccines and on national reconstruction.
There were long periods in which Morrison seemed simply unable to plan, galvanise and mobilise his own troops and the country around a succession of crises. His supposed marketing skills seemed to have failed him, and he acquired a reputation for being good at making announcements only. On a number of occasions he seemed unable to say the gracious word, to express empathy to victims, or to show understanding of widespread problems, not least sexual assault on women.
He earned and deserved some credit for the way that he and his treasurer organised health resources and the economy in the face of the pandemic, but he squandered much of the credit by getting into silly arguments with the states, in misjudging the mood about the delicate balance between lockdown and fighting the pandemic, and the need to get the economic engines started again. Then he and his health minister made a succession of serious errors over procurement of vaccines, over the organisation of their distribution, and over consistently over-optimistic announcements about getting vaccines out to the population. Moreover he blatantly favoured NSW, his own state, in the allocation of vaccines, falsely claiming that it set the “gold standard” in pandemic management. Both he and his Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, a Victorian, continually attacked the Victorian premier and in a way that seemed to add to the allegation that Victorian had been deprived of the resources and money, and vaccines, to do as well as NSW when, inevitably, a delta variant of COVID-19 escaped from NSW into the Victorian population.
But just as significantly, Morrison has spent a good deal of this term eroding and then finally destroying his moral right to govern.
Long-term tendencies, such as his chronic secretiveness and resistance to conventional forms of accountability, expanded into major problems about integrity, such as the spending of billions on partisan rorts that should have been allocated on merit. The impression of almost continual personal and professional scandals, of mismanagement or their conversion to private goods, and serious waste and ideological idiocy has been pervasive.
Morrison has been unable to separate himself from any, whether because of his own role, or that of his office, his resistance to admitting fault or even to reviewing anything in the past, and, perhaps particularly, his precarious majority.
Likewise a government which (when Morrison was social security minister) devised and implanted a cruel and unlawful scheme to punish the poor, was shown to have handed over more than $40 billion to private enterprise in pandemic assistance without making any arrangements to recover money found not to have been needed for the purposes for which it was allocated. It is quite clear that the failures were on the part of senior ministers and that they consciously decided to do nothing to secure public money or the public interest.
It will be, or should be, the clearest sign that Frydenberg, widely regarded as the future leader of the party, is neither intellectually nor morally up to the job of leadership. Even the enthusiastic applause of news.com.au and, increasingly, Nine newspapers, should not be allowed to drown out a massive failure of public administration, costing many times more than all of the bureaucrat and political failures of the past 50 years.
The idea that has come to encapsulate most of the problems is that of a Commonwealth integrity commission which, Morrison is determined, will be toothless and useless, operating in private, focused only on criminality rather than broader-brush corruption.
As Morrison has doubled down, Labor has increased its commitment to a more open and accountable tribunal. The very actions of the Morrison government have convinced many outsiders that the problem of systemic corruption, cronyism and partiality at the Commonwealth level is now far more serious than had been supposed.
What would be the point of electing a government that will not do anything unpopular?
It would be only fair to comment that neither Albanese nor the Labor frontbench has done much to expose the waste, corruption or mismanagement, or even the industrial-sized rorting of grant schemes, particularly around election time.
Much of the disclosure has come from the Australian National Audit Office — its revelations the more devastating because of the misleading and dishonest explanations proffered by ministers. Others have come from journalism, from victims (such as of sexual assault) whistle blowers, or from organs of state government. A few Labor senators, such as Katy Gallagher and Penny Wong, have done sterling work in arrears in parliamentary committees, but can rarely be said to have been ahead of the game.
Albanese is entitled to his luck. He may even benefit from the fact that his relatively passive approach has created little space in which government ministers can accuse him of being carping, negative, constantly whingeing and criticising — while all of the time in a position to retweet slogans about integrity and accountability.
But the reluctance of Labor chieftains to relax is not a mere matter of avoiding counting chickens before they are hatched, or taking the election and the electorate for granted.
There are still serious questions about the character, temperament and leadership capacity of Albanese. He may have been adroit in avoiding many potential conflicts with the other side, giving government a fairly free rein with pandemic and economic management, and in shedding unpopular platform commitments, especially about tax. But that cleverness has helped obscure what, if anything, Albanese and Labor stand for. They even raise the question of what reason or what point is served by having a government which, though not led by Morrison, will simply not do anything that is unpopular, whether in the short or the long term.