Is unsure, cautious Albanese wily enough to outwit Morrison?

Jan 25, 2022
Anthony Albanese
Anthony Albanese will have to manage China hawks in his ranks. (Image: AAP/Joel Carrett)

Voters like the Labor leader, but there are no signs of a passionate embrace. This is the first of two articles. The second will appear tomorrow.

Anthony Albanese might be further down the road to power were he not dragging  the weight of the doubts among Labor-oriented voters about whether he is up to the job. For a man leading a party which is well ahead in supposedly reformed opinion polls, a good many people still wonder whether he can win. Some also worry whether Labor deserves to win under his leadership, or whether a victory by him would be worth the effort, given the ruthlessness with which he has dumped treasured Labor shibboleths to get to the finishing post.

The electorate generally appears to have a rather more benign view. Albanese is never going to win a popularity competition among Coalition supporters, but years of professional sniping and attempted attacks on his character have not succeeded in dragging him down.  They have failed to paint him as an ideologue, or as a person temperamentally unsuited to having his hand on the government chequebook. He was an experienced minister in the Rudd and Gillard governments, but not much of the mud that is routinely thrown at the opposing party has been about him or things he did. Or didn’t do. Mud has not stuck; indeed he has excited some affection as both a knockabout character of humble beginnings and a sense of humour — characteristics Bill Shorten could not mimic. Even The Daily Telegraph — a propaganda sheet against Labor —  campaigned to save him from the wrath of Green voters in his inner Sydney electorate.

His critics can complain that voters know too little about the man. But they have not, so far, been able to point to some scandal, mismanagement or blindness that has been missed from the public relations glitz — something suggesting that this man is not who he pretends to be.”  The wider problem may be that he is boring, not exciting, that he cannot enthuse, or be the reason or the personality inspiring people to work hard to throw the incumbent out. Indeed, that once he was not so boring, and could lead a minority faction with roots in branch warfare, but has deliberately played this down, and often been ominously quiet as the Coalition has made its own mistakes.

An attractive character with some gift for seeming authentic has shrunk into a ball, become inward rather than outwardly focused, become himself something of an automaton with the slogans, and willed himself to avoid making public commitments. He has disappointed by the way that he has restrained his criticisms of his opposite number, often being vaguely supportive of government intentions if mildly critical of its execution. A man playing, and moving about, as a small target. A  person playing the long game who is still very parsimonious in handing out fresh policy, too restrained to launch an all-out attack on Morrison, more focused on creating little flesh wounds to fester, from little darts and shafts, rather than artillery. I am not saying that he is necessarily pursuing the wrong strategy. But It is a risky strategy, one that might not increase his chances.

Albanese could be leaving it too late to make the strong impression that is still needed at the final push. He needs the electorate to do more than throw out a tired and very corrupted party that is no longer competent or focused on good policy and outcomes. He needs that, but he also needs to be positively selected as the alternative. He needs to convey a firm impression about how routine government by his team will involve a reversion to accountability, transparency and integrity — qualities we are not presently getting.

Albanese needs the electorate’s mandate as much as the party’s because the party is by no means united about what it wants to do in government. At least it is focused on the journey, rather than on what it will do when it arrives — one of the mistakes Shorten made. But when Albanese wins, if Albanese wins, he will have no special authority within his caucus based on the fact that he is a winner. Nor from the fact that his risky strategies worked. He will not be like Morrison at the last election, winning his “miracle” against the odds, with virtually no assistance from people on his own side. Nor will he be allowed the self-indulgence of being allowed to think that victory was a direct mandate of God, after he could rely on his own instincts and anointed head rather than take into account the wishes or the interests of  the electorate.

Potential Labor critics and white-anters will be revising the story from the moment of victory, if there is a victory. They will say that a drover’s dog could have won this election. They will say Morrison defeated himself. They will deny that Albanese got electoral endorsement for any particular policy. They will point to the junked headline policies and the general caution and timidity of the campaign. They will say that all Albanese did was to try to head off allegations of some inbuilt Labor tendency to profligacy, big programs, and waste. A negative neutralised is not a mandate.

The Coalition will argue, as ever, that Labor has a secret agenda to raise taxes, to spend and borrow the nation into recession, and to dump treasured policies against asylum seekers, terrorists and the supposed yellow peril. The pity is that modern Labor hasn’t the guts to change such policies and instead intends to continue with them. Labor should be campaigning about restoring good government, and remaking the federation — a task that involves flexibility and policy courage, some capacity to take risks, and willingness to experiment. The last thing the country needs is for Labor to have ruled out options for fear that the Coalition — during the election campaign — might raise a scare campaign.

Overwhelmingly, those with doubts about Albanese are from within Labor. Coalition attacks on his character haven’t worked, and most of the people in the middle rather like ‘Albo’, albeit without much depth of passion.

If Labor was doing its job of opposition with the confidence that a party which deserves power should have, Morrison government ministers would be so busy defending their own actions,  that they would not have the time nor the credibility to be raising a spectre of what Labor might do.

Morrison and company have so long lost their credentials as prudent, cautious and careful managers — always apt to tax and spend less than Labor. They lost that reputation by their own ineptness rather than skilled Labor attack.  If Labor was campaigning effectively Morrison, or Josh Frydenberg, or Barnaby Joyce would scarcely have the time to be arguing that Labor would govern by debt, deficit, unrestrained spending, higher taxes and an ever-burgeoning public service.

The party responsible for the national security surveillance state and ultra-coercive and un-Australian bossiness in welfare policy would not be allowed to get away with any claim that it was the party of “freedom”, as against a party addicted to collectivism, centralism and political control. That’s if  Labor had the guts to mount a critique, an argument. By default Labor stands right alongside a coalition dominated by a former policeman and the son of a policeman-politician, each with a taste for coercion, each having strong punishment instincts and no impulse for compassion or human rights.

We would not be moving towards a police state if a mainstream party, apart from the Greens, would call it out. A government whose officials so frequently overreach and abuse power in areas such as border entry controls, leaking, Robo-debt and dealing with systemic and widespread dishonesty in the banking system, would simply not be allowed to claim that it is the party of the rule of law, the protector of the citizen against the overweening state, the guardian of the innocent-until-proven-guilty principle.

Some inclined to excuse poor campaign performance or strategy will say that Labor’s difficulty and caution is magnified by the absolute hostility of newspapers in every state, and by increasing hostility from within the old Fairfax press.

Yet the truth is that thanks to public electoral funding — a fraud on the public that Labor supports as strongly as the Coalition — Labor has about $50 million to spend at a federal election without much in the way of serious fund-raising. That may not be as much as the big spending from Clive Palmer, but it is about twice as much money as it cost struggling battlers in the mining industry, such as Gina Rinehart and Twiggy Forrest, to destroy mining taxes. Then Labor was complaining that nothing decent could survive such an onslaught — the power of so much money. So why is Labor making only limited headway with twice the money?

Read the second part of this article here.

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