Nuclear vibrations pose more threat to Albo than Dutton

Jun 25, 2024
Australian Opposition Leader Peter Dutton unveils details of proposed nuclear energy plan during a press conference at the Commonwealth Parliamentary Offices in Sydney, Wednesday, June 19, 2024. (AAP Image/Bianca De Marchi) NO ARCHIVING

If Labor permits the next election to be a referendum about nuclear power, there’s a very good chance that Peter Dutton would win handsomely. For one thing it will be on ground of the Opposition’s choosing. For another, it would not be a poll about nuclear power for very long, but an open-ended referendum about the merits of the Albanese government. That would be tapping a lot of disappointment as well as discontent.

Labor would find that Dutton in campaign mode is the same slippery customer whose side tore apart the Voice referendum. Almost impossible to pin down on any detail, or even on emphasis. Failing to behave to any script or timetable and dealing mostly in smoke and mirrors.

People promoting the Voice seemed to fall behind in almost any debate on mere facts. The measure of it was that public opinion shifted from about two-thirds Yes to about a third over a matter of months. Nothing that Albanese, his ministers, or the Yes campaign said or did seemed to persuade ordinary voters. Appeals to history, morality, duty or evidence of disadvantage seemed to drive support away. In fact, of course, it was no more about any of these than a referendum pitched about nuclear energy would be about facts, figures, or sensible choices. It’s about the mood and the vibe, and Labor, it seems, isn’t cutting it to the same extent anymore. The fact that it isn’t cutting it – on the cost of living in particular – and the fact that its message is not cutting through may persuade enough voters to give them the boot.

An election campaign might well be a repeat, without coalition candidates being bound to any particular arguments. The media will struggle to get clear answers to questions but, probably, will be itself painted as out of touch. During the Voice referendum, No leaders had differing, and sometimes shifting positions. Dutton was prepared to step back and let others speak. But his interventions focused on the idea that elite intellectuals and indigenous academics, out of touch with real Australia, were attempting to impose their woke agenda on us all. He was, of course, mining resentment against the political interests of indigenous Australians. But he was also promoting the feeling that “elite” Labor had already lost the plot and was too much beholden to inner city types.

Peter Dutton’s coalition won’t play by the old rules, decencies or conventions. He well knows what they are, and will, when convenient, call foul play by any opponent as loose with the truth, the facts or the prejudices. Yet this is not a campaign for old-style launches, policy costings or set debates. He will want it free-flowing and will want Labor, by contrast, to seem stiff and formal, responding mostly to the opposition’s momentum and not quite sure of what is happening. The mainstream media will give Labor no help.

The electorate can’t get too excited about what Labor has achieved

Worse from the Labor organisation’s viewpoint are the structural weaknesses of Labor campaigners and debaters. Anthony Albanese is not a good or a disciplined campaigner, and not a good speechmaker. He may have reasonable political reflexes for events, but he has never had the measure of Dutton. Neither he nor his ministers have shown any aptitude about anticipating where Dutton will go. They reason from their own framework of ideas and prejudices, and, sometimes from what the coalition has done before to infer what policy might be. They give too little credit for the idea that Dutton is being contrary merely so as show himself as a different type of person to an unengaged public. He may borrow from Tony Abbott’s complete disruption, and from American republican scripts but he is not playing a part scripted in some other back room. Dutton is not particularly ideological, or particularly conservative. He’s trying to create a settled impression of himself on voters, but not necessarily becoming their friend, or their delegate sent to Canberra to achieve some mandated outcome. Least of all about promises with a long horizon, like nuclear power plants.

Recent polls are alarming for Labor. First, they show that voters are actively contemplating Dutton as next prime minister, and that they feel that they know how his character and known predispositions would be applied. That’s from some mere thought bubbles without the benefit of any detailed policies. The confidence that Dutton could handle defence better than Albanese must be particularly galling to a politician who has pledged untold billions (which is to say many many nuclear power plants) without any political dividend.

These polls suggest that Labor will struggle to gain traction from a scare campaign focused on the character of Dutton, or the threat of a revival of Morrison era policies and programs. Dutton was a very active player in the type of lawless and unaccountable government that Morrison delivered. But the electorate might have moved on. If public anger at the liberties taken by ministers and senior bureaucrats has subsided, Labor can blame only itself. Such reforming zeal as it possessed was quickly dissipated. There is nothing it has bungled more than the anti-corruption legislation, the promises of major change in the public service and the promise of open and accountable, and more transparent government. If the government has seen little need to change the status quo who could blame voters for being unexcited about the choices before them. The backdown on opening hearings of the anti-corruption commission sent a powerful message.

An effective campaign is also being held back by Albanese’s marked reluctance to engage in “the vision thing”. The government is busy on matters of substance beyond mere public relations stunts, not least in areas where the ministers are women. What’s so often missing is word from the top that puts government achievements in context. Or, sometimes, lets people know what’s happening.

Labor’s secretiveness failing to mobilise any sense of partnership with voters

Voters are constantly reminded of the constraints and inherited poor economic conditions limiting the government’s capacity to be free spending, even in areas of priority. But they are given little glimpse of what could be, or will be, when conditions improve. The failure of the government to convey anything in the nature of a plan and an order of battle deprives voters of any sense of partnership with party as circumstances change. This is far less of a problem for Dutton, who has only to pretend that he will govern wisely as the circumstances dictate.

Expert government commentary about the risk of delays, cost overruns, and scientific, legislative and safety concerns with nuclear energy will be read, reasonably, by many voters as also being applicable to submarine contracts. Voters always apply a discount. Most would reckon there’s about as much prospect of nuclear-powered submarines patrolling our waters over the next four election cycles as there is of economic power plants supplying electricity.

First and foremost, it is Albanese who must be seen to be taking charge. He does not need a personality transplant, but he and his staff must seriously address the messages that are going out, and a strengthening feeling that this government has made too little of its opportunities, has been too timid and lacks a sense of where it is taking the community. Albanese had a reputation, and popular goodwill, when he became leader of the party. Since then, he has earned gratitude by taking his party to government. But there’s not much that has happened in government that has galvanised the public imagination about him. Voters have yet to acquire some sense of ownership of him, or any feeling that that they know and understand him.

The answer, as Albanese would know from his days in the Gillard government is not public relations stunts, non-stop announcements, often out of date by the end of the week, or feel-good experiences. Nor is it about instant firefighting of any instant PR disasters. It is about a sense of competence, of showing that he knows what he is doing. And it’s about taking voters into his confidence and explaining the tasks, priorities and choices being considered.

It also involves showing a bit more personality and imagination. Albanese has been in parliament two decades. In that time, he has never been in much trouble. But that’s by very limited investment of his inner self or character. He has scarcely uttered a memorable line, knelt to any relevant modern sacred cow, or waved any personal standard that people would want to follow. He is old and wily in his politics, particularly in the bastardry of Labor factional games. But –and this is the telling thing at this stage of the political cycle, Albanese does not have the measure of the other side.

The government has a confident and able ministerial team. Some of its ministers, particularly on the health, education and welfare circuit are articulate and policy focused – safe pairs of hands. But Albanese is making too little use of them, particularly his women ministers. He relies too much on men who can do tradesmenlike parliamentary blather and attacks without ever scoring a real point. Lines may be rehearsed, often with pre-prepared jokes. But parliament seems to lack the zing of genuine debate. Too many are not good at the real politics, the practical and flexible salesmanship, and, particularly at working the heart and the emotion that must follow the head if political leaders are to be successful.

The person notionally in charge of energy policy, Chris Bowen, has been successful in proving the lack of scientific and economic sense behind the vague promises of half a dozen nuclear power sites. His arguments tell in the economic marketplace, and no one of any sense would be preparing to invest in what the opposition has said.

But Dutton is away talking to another audience. People prepared to leave the science, the economic facts, the safety, and for some the morality to the experts. The coalition has given the broad idea, and it is that, rather than feasibility they are judging. People who don’t trust any politicians, even Dutton, much. These people, it seems, want something to happen that inspires some patriotic zeal. They want some ownership of a plan. To make themselves partners with plan. What they want, it seems, is some great big national project and a future powerful industrial base.

Whether for want of real substance, or poor salesmanship, Albanese’s Build Australia flim-flam does not cut it as an alternative. It’s not even noticeably more economically respectable.

Nor do the words of Albanese, or Bowen, or other ministers do much to convey any overriding sense of purpose, or urgency, or mission about what the government is doing. On nuclear energy, one might think that this context comes from climate change. Alas, many of those who care passionately about climate change action have concluded that Labor was never very serious about doing anything much. They will not swing to a party promising to anchor Australia in the status quo. But they do have alternatives, and not just the Greens. Independent politicians, including the Teals are much more likely to deserve a vote if the object is to put down nuclear nonsense.

Britain is soon to go to election and a new Labor leader who may prove to be as unimaginative and timid as Albanese. In the US, many voters feel that there is little to choose between two elderly and somewhat repellent candidates. In both Britain and the US, voting is voluntary, and much effort by the political machines is focused on persuading people to vote at all, and then for your side. When candidates haven’t impressed, voters are usually unenthusiastic about waiting in a line. Generally, the bigger the turnout, the more likely that a Democrat will beat a Republican, a Labour candidate a Tory. If Trump wins, and he may well do so, it will be in part because Biden’s unconditional support for Israel has seriously affected his support base.

Australia has compulsory voting. But campaigns are noticeably affected by the fervour and passion of those who must vote. How most people vote owes more to conversations in their workplace, their community, their neighbourhood and their family than to anything coming from formal party advertising. The challenge to Labor before an election is to mobilise people with positive zeal to return them.

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