Can Albanese maintain the honeymoon mood?

Jun 21, 2022

Anthony Albanese is not the first prime minister whose taking of office has been greeted with widespread relief and a sense – or at least a hope – those years of acrimony, squabbling and ineffectual government and unpopular policies might be over, at least for a reasonable period. That is in fact the norm – a part of the reason indeed that a different party has captured a majority of the seats.

Bob Hawke was a breath of fresh air after the relentlessly combative and divisive Malcolm Fraser, and won the election in part by promising to unite, rather than divide the population. John Howard constructed an image of Paul Keating’s governing through a group of privileged lobbies and insiders, and promised government for all the people, rather than those with places at the table. When Howard was defeated by Kevin Rudd, it seemed a liberation from a coalition that had run out of touch, of steam and ideas, but not out of ideological and partisan zeal, as witnessed by WorkChoices legislation.

For a time, Rudd was enormously popular with voters, if increasingly less so with his ministers and those who had to work closely with him. Abbott promised he would change nothing other than abolish the carbon tax and bring an end to government seemingly unable to get beyond announcements, and the framing of the debate by a hyper-partisan opposition. Scott Morrison allowed himself, and his character to become the issue, and lost because the electorate was sick of him, and could see through his dissembling and his lack of direction in government.

But Albanese’s honeymoon is different or could be made different in a way he can already see. He did not only lead his party to a House of Representatives victory in its own right – the first demand on any party leader. The election also brought into the parliament two extra groups of people with similar ideas on major policy issues to Labor. The advent of one of these – the teal independents, taking coalition seats that Labor could hardly expect to take — decimated the coalition and virtually deprived it of its moderate wing, and of its capacity to win by occupying centre ground.

The Greens also strengthened their position in both the representatives and the senate. Labor does not need them (or the teals) in the lower house, but it needs them (and ACT left-leaning independent David Pocock) in the senate to be able to force legislation through regardless of what the coalition and Pauline Hanson think. On this account alone, Labor needs to avoid antagonising the Greens too much, and to make the most of the unity of purpose they, the teals and the Greens share.

More than one in this marriage of convenience

I have argued before that it is in Labor’s best interests to promote the sense of common purpose as much as, and for as long as it can. The broad unity – particularly on issues including action on climate change, integrity in government and violence against women — underlines how much the former coalition government seemed out of touch even to many usual coalition supporters. It poses for the new opposition whether they can win by reforming and bringing them into the fold, or, as they seem to prefer, by writing them off and becoming more extreme.

Whether the issues that caused Teal, and Green success are the central issues for a Labor government might seem debatable. Not all Labor people would think their issues are the most important for a Labor government. As this week’s imbroglio over past failed energy policies and the storm clouds on the economic horizon make clear, Labor’s critical task is managing the economy in a way that allows it to carry out its wider policies. Labor’s “partners” may broadly agree about what its stewardship requires, and may help, if needs be, push it through the parliament. But neither will be anxious to be blamed for it. They will be judged, as they should be, for their success in making their own policies public policy. Their success – Labor’s success as well – is unlikely to damage Labor.

Albanese is doing a lot to promote inclusiveness, and a sense of unity, rather than partisan division, in the broader electorate. He has been temperate, even when criticising the legacy of poor government and the poor economy he has inherited. He has also been plain spoken, if unwilling to be bullied by the mainstream media, and has proven a master at the gesture, at humility and at cutting through the dross in a way that Morrison – said by many to be a great marketing man, could never be. So far, Albanese looks sincere;
Morrison may have fervently believed everything he said at the time of saying it but given the way he would change his tune and deny or re-interpret his statements when it suited, had exhausted his credit.

But Albanese and Labor should still be doing much more to work in a team with its partners, particularly, but not exclusively on their pet themes. An opportunity was missed in setting up a task force on the Integrity Commission inside the Attorney-General’s department, rather than in first establishing a committee with anti-coalition members. Ultimately, it will have to be Labor which takes responsibility for the legislation to be put through the parliament, and it might not contain everything that the teals and the Greens want.

But they should at least put forward their ideas before they are undermined and shredded by the settled views of people in Attorney-General’s, now including the AFP, and by the approach of the Attorney-General, Mark Dreyfus. Dreyfus has adopted Labor policy, but his enthusiasm for integrity legislation is of recent vintage (he was an opponent under the Rudd and Gillard governments). He has yet to say anything about cooperation with proponents which suggests a wide interpretation of legislation to promote integrity in government, and to detect and expose malfeasance. There is every probability that the commission will be saddled with a narrow definition of corruption. And that its powers and modus operandi made to resemble those of the ineffectual agency focused on police corruption.

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