Has Labor timidity hobbled its right to exercise power?

May 18, 2022
Anthony Albanese
If Anthony Albanese and Labor win comfortably no one can dispute the party’s right to government. AAP Image/Lukas Coch

One of the more amazing elections of the past 50 years was in 1974, less than 18 months after the Whitlam government took power – at least in the House of Representatives. It did not have a majority in the senate and was often frustrated there, in part because of the crossbench numbers of Democratic Labor Party – foes of Labor since the 1956 Split. The DLP was led by Vince Gair, a former Labor Queensland premier, a fairly good one really who had been expelled from Labor with some of his ministers, including Bob Katter’s dad, for daring to defy an AWU official.

The main purpose of the DLP had been to keep Labor from power, but that was usually achieved at election time, and in idle and very boring moments in the old men’s club that was the senate, the Labor leader, Lionel Murphy, ratbag Liberal senators and even DLP ones would sometimes collude to make life more interesting, such as by inventing the senate committee system. Early in 1974, Lionel Murphy got wind of the fact that Gair, ageing and bored, and reduced these days to sexual harassment, might be open to an inducement that would take him out of the senate, and give Labor a particularly good chance of grabbing his seat at the next senate election. Gair was offered, and accepted, the ambassadorship to Ireland, though he neglected to submit his resignation. Alas for the plotters, the appointment was leaked to the inimitable Laurie Oakes, and, in the furore after, Joh Bjelke-Petersen and various Country Party members inveigled Gair into drinks and “the night of long prawns” outmanoeuvred Whitlam by delaying the resignation until after a very pliant and anti-Labor Queensland governor issued the writs for the election.

While the plot was afoot, the Leader of the Opposition, Billy Snedden was beside himself with indignation at what he saw as the corruption of it all. He announced that the opposition would block supply in the senate. Whitlam already had a stack of bills which had been twice rejected by the senate, and did not hesitate, heading straight off to Government House, where Sir Paul Hasluck granted him a double dissolution of parliament, which put all of the senate seats, including the five DLP seats on the table. The effect was, as Peter Blazey wrote in the Political Dicemen that Vince Gair, a Labor rat, achieved a feat unequalled in the history of political rodentry – he sank the ship he was swimming away from. No DLP members were in the new senate

Labor won, losing one seat (Al Grassby’s) and now had a majority of five. In the senate, Labor and the coalition had 29 each, with Steele Hall, of the Liberal Reform Movement in South Australia, and Michael Townley, as independent, adding to the numbers. Disastrously, from the coalition’s point of view, it meant that when the new senate again rejected Whitlam’s six double-dissolution bills, Whitlam was able, under the constitution to convene a joint sitting of both houses. As a result, the bills passed into law.

In the aftermath of the election, Billy Snedden acted oddly. He refused to admit that the coalition had lost. He did not claim to have won – in a Donald Trump style tantrum – but seemed to insist that the result had worked to the coalition’s advantage. He was widely ridiculed – and not long after, Malcolm Fraser rolled him for the leadership on his second attempt.

Can an election so narrow and confined restrict the elected government’s right to do what it sees fit?

We may be thinking of this next Saturday. One of the two sides will be in government, but observers will be looking closely to see if it can be called a “win,” and, if so, for what it provides by way of a mandate, or a grant of power limited only by what the senate approves.

In the unlikely event of a second Morrison miracle – his capacity to reform his government in his own right – Morrison will claim popular endorsement to carry on with what he has called his plan. Indeed, he will be able to claim that the people have endorsed his secretive, unaccountable and lawless style. If that happens, Australia will be on the path to authoritarianism. It is unlikely that a demoralised and shattered Labor Party would be able to resist.

If Anthony Albanese and Labor win comfortably – for example with the 80 seats being predicted by The Australian this week, no one can dispute the party’s right to government and the trappings of office. But given the extremely narrow program put to voters, those who do not welcome his victory will be disputing how broad his mandate and how much freedom of action he really has.

There are models for making the work of government intense, and exceedingly difficult. Tony Abbott, for example, treated opposition as providing a duty of utter non-cooperation and opposing everything the government did. In modern times, he and the Murdoch press have become attracted to Trump-like calls for mutiny, disobedience and disruption whenever any deviation from the past occurs. As over lockdowns, masks, vaccines or any other “threats to freedom” that occur. The executive government which Albanese may inherit is strewn with booby traps, including an array of frank coalition partisans given jobs with statutory tenure. And parts of the bureaucracy that ought to be instantly available to the new government will be sidelined for a time, if only because they were effectively put out of action, or were compromised, by the Morrison government.

The new prime minister could live in interesting times. And how much more if the majority is tiny, or it depends on independents, or must immediately make hard choices that alienate the cross bench in the senate.

Albanese, if prime minister, will have no problem claiming a mandate for action on anti-corruption legislation, and work on re-regularising public administration, including the restoration into effect of the financial management act, treated almost as a dead letter by Scott Morrison. Likewise with action on climate change and environmental improvement. But whether and to what extent such action fits into some announced program of action can be expected to be very closely contested. No doubt the Nationals will want everything to be approved by one of its impartial committees first.

There has been a lot of debate about economic management. Morrison’s claim that the Labor team is not to be trusted in running the economy will have been implicitly rejected if Albanese is elected. But one can imagine that opposition spokespeople will find in Labor economic promises almost legal limits on new taxes and spending. The right of close scrutiny they will claim this gives is not, of course, a privilege that they extended to Labor or independents while they were in government, but this would be different, presumably because Labor is on training wheels.

Albanese is, of course, used to government, and experienced, if mostly from old positions as leader of the government in the House, at putting down the pretension of opposition members without the numbers. He also has experience, from when Julia Gillard was prime minister, of dealing with independents in minority government. His alleged problem will be, however, that he set himself up for such restrictions by the timid way he threw out a wide range of long-standing Labor philosophy and policy. He explicitly restricted himself, in his electoral campaign to such a limited agenda.

Can you go narrow, and pretend harmlessness until one wins, then claim a power as unlimited as that which Morrison and his government claimed for themselves, the coalition critics will ask. Wouldn’t that be taking power by deception?

My own fear is that some traditional areas of Labor approach to subjects, particularly in the welfare field, will not be able to be said to be affirmed by platform promises or campaign rhetoric. It’s all very well to speak of a “people approach” to disability service management – whatever that means, if anything. Albanese, traditionally a man with a soft heart, has gone out of his way to talk tough on matters such as entitlement. In any event one cannot say comfortably that Labor, in the recent past, has had a “people approach” to single parent benefits, unemployment benefits and invalidity. Coalition ministers and pliant senior bureaucrats may have developed new levels of meanness, rigour, grinding suspicion, and mechanical and impersonal zeal during their last turn at bat. But they worked off a model Labor was developing. Remember the Jenny Macklin and Penny Wong-inspired cuts to single mother’s benefits which saw 100,000 single-parent families have their income reduced by $120 a week – supposedly to give them more incentive to look for jobs once their youngest child was eight?

Everything Labor does on refugees, including with new programs involving Ukrainians and Afghans, will be carefully parsed and scrutinised by coalition ministers convinced that Albanese has bound himself to make minimal changes, and by bureaucrats who, like politicians, have convinced themselves of the need for cruel and arbitrary and inhumane treatment of refugees, if only to discourage them from seeking Australian help. This goes against the instincts of many on the Labor left, including Albanese, but he has convinced himself that showing “toughness” is the only policy that works. Sure, ask Angela Merkel.

In practical programs in Aboriginal affairs, recent Labor ministers helped turn the clock back to the 1960s – perhaps 1950s in relation to housing. It would be a dreadful pity if Labor turned all its energy into implementing the statement from the heart, while neglecting the practical programs which could be, but are not yet, improving quality of life.

The lamentable thing is that the election has been fought and won with the electorate pretty much convinced that the terrible things that one side is saying about the other are more or less true. That’s the case with Scott Morrison. Most of his colleagues did not want him campaigning in their electorates, and that dislike has become visceral for many voters, especially women. He is ending up arguing that even if you hate him, you should respect him as better on managing the economy than Labor. There’s no evidence that this is true, or that he has a particularly good record.

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