JACK WATERFORD. Albanese’s race against time (Canberra Times 20-9-19)

Sep 24, 2019

On paper, Anthony Albanese has all the time in the world. The electorate is not paying any attention to defeated Labor at the moment, and won’t probably for at least another year. That’s time enough for a comprehensive review of how Labor snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in May. It’s time enough to plot, develop and project an entirely new image for Labor at the 2022 election. All the more reason for hastening slowly, as he has been explaining patiently to his Caucus.

But he has no time to lose. His enemies, even some of his friends within the party, and not a few observers are wondering whether he really has what it takes to lead Labor to victory. Whether he will possess the capacity to cut through. To hold the party together and to build coalitions in the community. Particularly among some of those who abandoned Labor three months ago, and reduced its primary vote to just a third of voters.

It’s not, as was said to be the case with Bill Shorten, nagging doubts about his character or his commitment to Labor values. Nor, strictly, about his capacity to cope in the factional wars, or the tactical engagements with the government in question time, or, strategically, to position the party on the right side of history. Nor, above everything, about his willingness to give his utmost. On all of these, as well as authenticity and a rhetorical capacity to make an appeal to the heart as well as the head, the man who put his hand up in the wake of defeat is the same person who got elected.

But has he got what it takes? The judgment for the popular mood – cool and pragmatic as much as idealistic and passionate? The firmness – a Howard-like capacity to be seen as having unshifting core values even as he gyrates on policy, or has to promote bad policy that he thinks is the best the electorate, or the caucus, will let him get away with? The ruthlessness to dump old sentimental policies – regarded as fundamental by one or another section of the party – because he knows he can’t sell it because the electorate does not want it? Can he galvanise the party, and ultimately the electorate, with new ideas, new enthusiasm and a fresh sense  of urgency about taking back government?

Whatever cost  Shorten the election – and most now seem to think it involved doubts about his sincerity and his character – he was not leading a divided and mutinous party.  Members could sense victory and maintained party discipline. Shorten had critics who murmured to their mates, if not to the world. But the Labor team, including Albanese worked productively under able chairmanship by Shorten on the policies and presentations. Albanese may be able to suffer a somewhat more relaxed discipline, but he has no hope at all if the party turns into a rabble.  Yet he is from the party’s left – indeed, for what it is worth, the latte sipping inner city left – and has been bitterly hated and despised, particularly within his own state, by a very tribal and entitled Labor right. By long Labor traditions, there are factional operators who would prefer their knives in the backs of their factional rivals than in the chests of the other political party. Particularly if they have no great confidence in imminent victory.

Albanese has the benefit of incumbency and relative immunity from challenge. He would have to lose a lot of support from the Labor left before he could be forcibly displaced. More likely, if his enemies decide to move, he will get the Graham Richardson “playing with his head” treatment. That involves long sequences of serious and damaging leaks, seemingly coming from nowhere. The certain knowledge that some of his colleagues sitting around the table – but of whose identities he can only guess – are consciously trying to undermine him, and to make Labor’s position less tenable. People willing to cause long-term damage to the party if they can sap his confidence to the point that he throws in the towel.

It hasn’t come to anything like that, as yet. It’s been more a matter of coming to understand that Labor is not going to be scoring many points from a triumphalist prime minister, and jeering ministers who think there was a complete electoral endorsement and a mandate from a fairly narrow, if unexpected, victory, and a razor-thin majority in the House of Representatives.

For the moment at least, Albanese should not be worried too much about the day to day business of the parliament, even if it is vital to his standing that he, and the party, take the fight, or the questioning, right up to the ministry every question time. Nor should he be sitting tests devised by the government to force his hand, or to box him in. Labor, in parliament has to take it up to the government, but with broad ideas and philosophical approach, rather than detailed policy.

He needs an open – possibly a damaging and bitter – debate  about the causes of the electoral debacle, because if mistakes were made, one can be reasonably sure that they will be repeated, unless they are consciously addressed. There appears to be a consensus that it was not the policies, as such, that were poison, although some electioneering remarks (for example suggesting that those who did not like the ill-explained imputation tax changes should vote for the other side) were hardly helpful. Nor was it necessarily that  the platform was all too much, or that there were too many policies, with the central messages being lost in all the blather. Nor even that it involved more spending and more revenue raising , or taxes.

It was, rather, or so some research suggests the effectiveness of Morrison’s hammering home a theme that Shorten could not be trusted. This was not merely a reflection on his character, or his honesty. It involved claims that he could not be trusted to manage the economy properly, that he would let spending get out of control, and that he was focused on taxing people more – even to the point of unannounced “death taxes”.  Fair or unfair, right or wrong, the campaign seems to have worked, particularly where it could. Morrison virtually fought the election alone, and his tactics and his want of policies were much criticised, including by me. But his miracle vindicated the way he maximised the chances of an unlikely victory.

It is entirely possible that government could fall into Albanese’s lap next time around simply by his being there. The government could become deeply unpopular, perhaps because of a recession, or fallout from the trade war between China and the United States.  Elections are usually a referendum on the government, with the capacity of the opposition figuring only occasionally (as in 1993, 2004 and 2019). Historically however, Labor has never won office from opposition without its campaign having elements of a crusade. Voters need a positive reason to vote Labor, even when they are mighty sick of the other side. And with Labor, they want passion. Passion from the party itself. But, equally, reasons to be passionate about it.

Albanese’s biggest task is to try to reform and rebuild the wider party. For more than two decades, most of the decisions about party strategy and tactics, particularly at election time, have been decided by a tight coterie of party officials (pending their departure to work for the gambling industry), advertising folk and pollsters. The party organisation has been too much controlled by a small coterie of union officials and factional daleks, with the formal party membership almost entirely shut out.  As some say, Labor has become a mere brand rather than any sort of movement or abiding idea. It has particularly failed to galvanise and enthuse the broader population in the way that real political leaders – Bob Hawke or Gough Whitlam for example – were able to do.

It is not a matter of severing the links with trade unions – although these, in days of much reduced union membership invite some imaginative rethinking, in particular about the way that union officials are allowed to vote as a bloc. Nor is it a mere matter of hustling more people to attend monthly meetings. Rather it is a matter of energising its support base and harnessing its talents, not least its expertise in devising policies that will get the party support.  The internet and social media – as well as the examples of Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders in the US, Emmanuel Macron in France, perhaps Jeremy Corbyn in Britain – provide new opportunities for grass roots engagement. For new types of party democracy, safer from the “suits” now dominating party affairs.

Too high a proportion of elected members (including Albanese himself, and Shorten) have spent most of their lives in the party’s employ, or working with bodies, such as trade unions, that are closely associated.  These are the geniuses who have become fixated by polls, by slogans and by cynical manoeuvring, who have lost election after election, and whose activity has led about a third of what ought to be Labor’s natural support base to refuse to give Labor their first preference vote.

As a persecuted representative of an only barely tolerated minority faction, Albanese knows only too well how Labor figures whose authority and power is under challenge will resist reforms that threaten their position. It is important that he take them on, because the party is doomed in the long run unless it does change.

 It is equally important that the new structures are open, transparent, honest and meet ordinary standards of governance. A mere fiddling with proportions, which is what normally passes for reform is not enough. Likewise, Labor should support the idea that unions, as the legal representatives of worker interests, meet minimum standards of governance too. Defending union rights and union activity against the government’s wedging tactics is one thing, but is not to be confused for defending, or suffering, unaccountable rorting by union leaders, or their abuses within the party.

Labor has to carefully consider its policies on key matters of great emotional significance to parts of its potential constituencies. It cannot waste another three years.

The first is climate change – described by Kevin Rudd 12 years ago as the greatest moral challenge of our time. Labor knows the electorate wants action – a lot more action than the Morrison government is providing. But merely having policies on the books has not been, of itself, a vote magnet. There is talk of muting its policies, and, in particular, trying to decouple them from regional employment issues, and mining controversies. Yet every retreat on such issues is costly to Labor credibility. It is also likely to sap the idealism, enthusiasm and desire to work in the community for Labor by an army of older people and younger people. (It’s people between them who are least engaged.) Campaigns by independents in seats such as Warringah and Wentworth, and, in the state elections, in rural and regional NSW showed that a strong stand on the environment and climate change can be a vote-changing issue, and not only for middle-class trendies.

Labor needs to retain, or regain, credibility on economic management issues, and to make a healthy economy the basis of, and the constraint upon,  its broader policies. Conservative politicians will always accuse centre left politicians of economic profligacy and collectivist delusions, but Labor’s record of economic management and economic reform over the past 40 years is at least as respectable as that of the other side. Yet it always seems ready to hang its head, as if with a guilty conscience, just as it does when people suggest that it is unsound on national security issues. That’s been more a matter of believing the other side’s propaganda.

Labor needs to re-think its policies on welfare. Under Jennie Macklin’s stewardship, it set the standard, now being refined by the other side, for tough love, manifested by an increasingly mean, cruel, coercive, punitive philosophy. It created the templates for robo-debt, the Basic Card and the torturing of the unemployed with endless and unjustifiable suspensions of benefits.

This need not convert Labor from being the party of working men and women, rather than mere advocates for those who need and depend on public benefits. It is about jobs and opportunities, incentives rather more than beatings. And dropping the obsession that someone, somewhere, might be getting something slightly more than the book prescribes. With closely targeted welfare systems, there will always be the odd rorter (if in smaller proportion and at less cost to the taxpayer than from middle-class or rich dodgers). But  people can be treated with dignity rather than as barely suffered scroungers. Personally, I’d start off by abolishing call centre answering systems throughout the public service, and by listing the telephone numbers of all public servants in a restored Commonwealth directory.

Labor needs to develop some guts, and some respect for the liberty of the subject, in national security debates. The arguments for an increasingly unfree surveillance state need to be countered, and with conviction as well as an open mind. The political business of putting up ever-more-extreme policies has been more to test Labor than save us from terrorism. It’s a test Labor has been failing.

Morrison has given Labor a big advantage by resisting any serious type of integrity or anti-corruption body. One can be sure that most politicians and public officials are honest. But the quality of outside scrutiny of government is in decline, and good government suffers when that happens. There’s been  failure to develop proper and effective and accountable watchdog mechanisms as the power of police and public officials has increased, and greater temptations of discretion in spending public money.

There are other areas of government –  indigenous affairs, in refugee policy, with immigration levels, resettlement and the use of foreign labour – where Labor could present a different and more humane face, and then act as though it were not ashamed of it.

That Albanese is in some respects an outsider, with his heart rather more on his sleeve, may inspire him to some leadership and policy courage. But as an emerging group of critics worry, there is also the fear that his courage will flag as he finds any every task daunting, the more so when entrenched privilege with the party feels threatened.

Jack Waterford is a former Editor of The Canberra Times

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