Crossbench is Labor’s real opposition

Apr 9, 2024
Australian Parliament House in Canberra

Albanese’s practice of preferring to govern and legislate through deals with the coalition rather than with Greens and Independents is plainly because of a theory or strategy of what is in Labor’s long-term interests. It presumably includes the fear that Labor itself could atomise, as the coalition has done, if the influence and power of strong independent voices, and, in the Greens the risk of an alternative left-of-centre governing party is given encouragement. Better the devil you know in two-party contests.

But it is by no means clear that adhering to this tactic is best for Labor in the short and medium term. Much more importantly, it is plainly not in the best interests of good government for the whole nation. That depends on principled debate, a genuine contest about the best ideas and ideals, and policies and programs for good government. It is not served by letting one side write the policies for national security and immigration.

Usually politics involves compromise, including giving ground to widen support, to maintain goodwill or to store or return favours It also involves different philosophies, or starting points, including about collective and individual behaviour. There will be key issues where parties divide, to sharpen the political contest. But that will be against a background of extensive cooperation in more routine and less controversial policies and programs, and a lot of general agreement about policies.

Modern politics, in Australia as much as in the United States and other jurisdictions is slowly ceasing to be a fight for the best outcomes. Tony Abbott won power in 2013 by a strategy of being Dr No, and of being opposed to virtually every proposal of the other side. He was consciously focused on breaking any idea of broad consensus and was combative even in opposing policies he or past Liberal government had once championed. Peter Dutton is continuing with much the same negativity, if at times pretending to be open-minded to maximise concessions before declaring that they do not go far enough.

Oppositionism is more about denying legitimacy to the electorate’s choice for a government, and in carefully choosing arguments said to represent the opposition’s philosophy and approach. These are only rarely policies or statements about how they, in office, would administer the government. They are about discovering polarising fault lines. The focus is not on the resolution of conflict, or compromise, but the creation of sharp divides, and of implanting feelings of anger, fury and resentment about the character and motives of members of the party in power.

In America, Trumpism has accentuated racial, regional and political divides, almost to the point of civil war. Polite debate between the parties has become more and more difficult, and not only because players are no longer speaking the same language or to the same sets of constituents.

In the US, political statements are addressed to existing followers, and those who compromise are punished.

Republican leaders, or players, who cooperate for good outcomes – whether to keep basic government going, or to secure benefits for their constituents find themselves assailed by extremists on their own side. These are focused on making government unworkable and on punishing anyone, including House Speakers, who deviate from a strict oppositionist line. Republicans who cooperated over policy on refugees at the borders then torpedoed the legislation at the behest of Donald Trump. Not because Trump was opposed to the legislation as such. Rather because he wanted continuing chaos at the Mexican border as a campaign issue at the end of the year. He did not want a proper or a peaceful resolution of the problem but a continuing sore.

There was long a tradition in American politics of relatively bipartisan foreign policies, and much continuity between administrations. Not any longer. Diplomats and spies are ceasing to wonder what America thinks, where American stands, or how they see a particular problem or issue. Instead, their focus is on what senior party leaders, particularly Trump, think, and how much this will be quite different from policies promoted by the other side. Even firm allies, such as Australia, or Britain, worry about continuity of agreements or arrangements. Can Trump be expected to honour deals made by the other side? Or even by himself at some earlier point, because both Trump and some senior Republicans have frequently reversed old policies, and denounced their continuation.

In Australia, there is at least the pretence of a common defence policy, and foreign affairs policies which may vary in emphasis but not much in substance. That’s a process assisted by the fact that Albanese and Labor remain wedded to the policies set by the previous government, including dominant figures such as Dutton. On these matters, as on immigration and refugee policy, Dutton, in short, is praising his own old policies and approaches, and Labor, for fear of being wedged, tries not to deviate a bit with their own ideas. Dutton, meanwhile, still tries to have an edge by insisting that Labor is intrinsically “soft” and not “tough” on such matters and cannot be trusted to carry them out with full fervour. This causes paroxysms in Labor ranks, pushing them even further to extreme and damaging conservative positions for fear of being judged wanting.

Labor narrowly won a majority in the House of Representatives at an election with seats won by Teal independents revolting against coalition inaction on climate change, and its resistance to efforts to attack corruption and secrecy in government. The Teals, each able and articulate and standing in mostly inner-city seats which had been held by Liberal moderates, declared themselves willing to work with a Labor government in the implementation of key policies it had put forward. With some of them, such as the National Anti-Corruption Commission, Teals, Greens and other independents in fact had a stronger public profile than Labor, which had originally had no enthusiasm but realised belatedly that voters wanted it.

Albanese initially signalled that he was keen to work with the crossbenchers in drawing up the best NACC possible. But his engagement with them was temporary, and he began to negotiate with the opposition instead. It seemed that he did not want them getting too much of the credit. It also became clear that the straightforward policy put to voters, both by Labor and the Independents, was not the NACC that he really wanted. He wanted one less powerful, and one operating in the shadows, far less able to embarrass and compromise ministers and officials abusing their power, authority and discretion.

Emasculation of NACC is already undermining it.

The original plan was for a commission which would conduct private investigations until it saw a strong case of corruption, and would then hold public hearings at which the public could see the misconduct on display. Now Albanese has adopted old coalition arguments he had rejected when he was in opposition that public hearings should be rare, and that they might threaten fair trials for those accused of misbehaviour.

Labor always had the numbers for the proposal put to and endorsed by the electorate. No new information or argument came forward, other than confirmation of the known fact that the Attorney-General’s department, deeply politicised and discredited during the Morrison years, was opposed. Albanese did a secret deal with Dutton so that he could claim the new watered-down measure had bipartisan support. He infuriated the Teals and others – and invited speculation about his own commitment to improving the general quality and integrity of government. This was because he and his department led an increasing tendency towards secrecy and diminished accountability.

There has been no convincing explanation for his retreat. The rationales for secrecy were ones he, and Labor, had previously rejected He may have been thinking that the commission would be more likely to endure if both alternative parties of government committed themselves to it. Against that was the fact that a more certain strategy would be the existence of a body seen to be strong and significant, a new watchdog on overreach of executive power.

The emasculated NACC has been in existence for nine months, and its public achievements, far from impressive, have mostly involved continuations of investigations previously being carried out by the law enforcement integrity operation that the NACC has replaced. None of these have delivered public reports of any significance, or educative value. Instead, they were simple prosecutions where, after guilty verdicts, the NACC claimed some credit. While the behaviour involved was certainly criminal, none involved matters reflecting fundamental problems in government such as Robodebt, sports rorts, dodgy parking grants schemes or the conduct of officials such as Mike Pezzullo.

Opinions may differ about the relative balance between the public exposure and denunciation of corrupt and corrupting behaviour and the continuing rights of all citizens to a fair trial. It is not the NACC’s fault if its legislation loads the scales towards privacy and rights to a fair trial. It’s already obvious, for example by the shameful misbalance of competing considerations by the Public Service Commission over the Pezzullo affair that the approach to the public’s right to know is being duplicated by enthusiastic public servants elsewhere. Whatever the promises, both Anthony Albanese and Mark Dreyfus have proven to be active opponents of stronger freedom of information laws, setting examples of a lack of accountability and transparency that would have done the Morrison government proud. The public service has not changed in any significant way because of the Robodebt royal commission.

But the NACC will prove an especial disappointment if it is not seen as a scourge of public service behaviour lacking integrity. It should be producing public reports even if its systems are closed to public review and criticism. Its commissioners should have a public profile and be known for having opinions on critical matters such as when patronage and grant-mongering become corrupt. If it is to be a mere timorous evidence gatherer, afraid to put its own reasoning on the public record, it will be seen generally as a failure and a wasted opportunity.

As things stand it cannot be said that the circumstances which made a commission necessary have disappeared, whether because of the mere existence of a NACC or because Labor ministers and their bureaucrats are of exemplary virtue. Indeed, all the evidence so far, including the firm push towards greater government secrecy, the further criminalisation of public servants who speak out, and the surrender of fine whistle-blower principles to the national security establishment suggest the problem could be worse. These are not regarded as events independent of Albanese’s deal with Dutton: they are the direct (and probably intended) consequence. In only a short period in government Albanese and Dreyfus have shown themselves to have been got at by the enduring self-interest of bureaucrats and the permanent agenda of the Attorney-General’s Department. The end-up consequence will not be a cemented-in NACC but one so weak there will be new calls for one with presence and teeth, along the lines that the crossbench wanted all along.

If the coalition won’t play, PM should enhance the role of the crossbench in debate. They have a lot to contribute.

Albanese has yet another reason for reconsidering his coalition-first approach. The Dutton strategy, like the Trump strategy, is to show that government doesn’t work. It enervates and undermines all in its presence. The respect and attention given the deliberations of parliament, or its committee system, will inevitably decline as the coalition is not interested in arguments and debate about the best policy. It is even further undermined when alternative parties of government show no interest in developing across-the-board policies but focus only on a few policies (such as nuclear power) for headline purposes. The lack of interest in genuine debates affects the quality of legislation going through; paradoxically, it also makes ministers and parties far more susceptible to the secret influence of lobbyists and behind-the-scenes players.

Albanese cannot make Peter Dutton or the opposition play the game. But he does not have to walk away frustrated. The teals and other independents and the Greens have shown a keen and critical interest in wide areas of policy, including health, welfare, education, the environment, industrial relations, housing and transport. If the opposition won’t play, the crossbench should be allowed to play in their place, if only to sharpen the government’s game and to hold it to proper account, rather than mere sloganistic criticism. The actual quality of public debate, and perhaps the calibre of legislation, might improve if the players on both sides were forced to argue from first principles rather than in mere ritual support of tactical decisions made by party leaders.

Most particularly, the crossbench has much to offer any debate on defence and foreign policy. It is a debate Labor has been shirking, by shameful agreement with the opposition. Only rarely is the crossbench given a go in the area. It is only the crossbench which is offering thoughtful criticism, review and discussion. Labor may have political reasons for its approach in these areas. But its unwillingness to explain, to attempt to justify, or to have an open mind on details makes for weak, depressing and unconvincing rationales.

There is, of course, another reason for the Albanese approach. He fears that any enhanced role for the crossbench will give an even bigger platform to the Greens. He is himself vulnerable to the support the Greens are getting, particularly in inner city electorates. A significant part of that support comes from Labor’s “pragmatism” over issues such as defence and immigration, and its de minimis efforts on climate change. Albanese no doubt calculates that all people who are left of centre will give Labor their preference, provided Labor is ahead of the Greens at the end of the count. It may seem to make sense that Labor gives the Greens as little opportunity for publicity or criticism of a timid and disappointing Labor performance, and as little air as possible.

But these are not matters in Albanese’s control. Increased third-party representation, more independents and credible figures with different perspectives are part of the modern scene in Australia. Their rise owes much to popular disappointment in mainstream parties, in their uninspiring leaders and their failures in practical and honest government. It’s Albanese’s performance in government, not the space he gives the Greens, that determines their relative success at elections. The Greens do so well because Albanese does so badly.

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