Labor needs a charismatic leader to win an election from opposition. But Anthony Albanese has eschewed the larrikin personality that got him to the top.
The polls suggest voters have rejected Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his government. But does that mean they are embracing Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese?
One might also ask a slightly different question.
Assume for the moment that a majority of the population have decided that the Morrison government has had its time, and needs to be replaced. Is it necessary that, having made that decision, they implicitly embrace Labor as the alternative?
It is here, I suspect, that Bill Shorten failed with voters who had been ready to throw Morrison (or either of his predecessors, Malcolm Turnbull or Tony Abbott) out. But over the course of the campaign, they had a look at what Labor had to offer — mostly in the form of Shorten, but perhaps also in terms of forked tongues about mining jobs and tax credits — and decided he was not to be trusted.
At state levels in the federal system, voters do not seem to have a great deal of problem about throwing out one governing party and installing another. They have shown themselves ready to do this even if the incoming party was relatively recently (perhaps two terms ago) severely punished for corruption, scandal and mismanagement.
This is, I think, on the supposition that a new government, after two or three terms, will become complacent and take the electorate for granted, and will have mostly run out of ideas. Whatever the reason, throwing out the incumbents after a few terms is generally an excellent idea — serving to remind politicians that they hold their power on leasehold rather than freehold.
But it has never seemed like this at the national level. Since World War II, Labor has never won an election from opposition without a strong and charismatic leader, with a strong smorgasbord of policies. Think of Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke, Kevin Rudd. These did not win power simply because the electorate has tired of, or become disillusioned by the predecessor.
By contrast, some Liberals have gone from opposition to government without a charismatic message. John Howard won office in 1996 for a conventional reason — that the electorate was sick of Labor and Paul Keating, but spent much of 1995 avoiding the limelight.
If this is the case, is Albanese putting forward all that he needs to offer?
I have remarked before that Albanese has long been popular with Labor members, in part for a supposed larrikin personality. But, having won the leadership, he has seemed to become like any other national Labor clone or suit from the professional class of tired and uninspiring minders. He has eschewed the personality, and perhaps the sense of daring or plain-spokenness — authenticity even? — that got him to the top in the first place.
Just what policies a leader brings to an election do not necessarily tell rusted-on members of the party everything there is to know about him.
Whether he stays with taxation policies that seemed disastrous at the last election, or some climate change action formulation is usually more about tactics than about core values.
The value of “small target” policies is generally over-rated, but it is certainly true that one can step back so that voters can see the bad things about the other side. But the party — perhaps particularly the Labor Party — must still send out constant signals, whether to its own loyalists, or to those whose votes it wants — about what the party stands for, what its values are, and why it stands for what it does.
The genuine Albanese is in fact fairly good at this sort of thing, the more so for a certain roughness of presentation, coupled with undoubted sincerity and authenticity. By contrast Morrison’s slickness seems to have been rehearsed in front of a mirror.
It is by no means clear that Labor is transmitting a message about who it is and why it deserves a popular vote.
Even on issues that have some emotional appeal — for example about climate change policies, or higher education, or coming out of the pandemic — Labor seems to have spent more time de-emphasising its policies than in loudly and proudly declaring what it stands for.
Climate change warriors have no particular reason to embrace Labor with enthusiasm. Tanya Plibersek is an able and talented frontbencher but do voters even know that she is shadow spokesperson for education?
Does anyone have any idea about what Labor will do about the wholesale destruction of the university sector under Morrison?
Albanese speaks non-stop about infrastructure but seems to refer only to roads and trains: from Labor we have heard hardly anything about rebuilding social or cultural infrastructure, building new communities seriously affected by structural change, or undoing the damage to the fabric of government caused by decades of debilitating policies, some at the hands of Penny Wong when she was finance minister and addicted to efficiency dividends.
Albanese, like Shorten and Julia Gillard before him, has decided that China, foreign affairs, defence, national security, refugees, human rights and mass surveillance must so closely march in lock-step with the government lest Labor be wedged as “soft” on such matters.
This has done the nation a severe disservice, with the Coalition using Labor’s moral cowardice to continually move the taw rightwards, and to deprive citizens of an informed debate about often foolish and dangerous policies, whether on China, submarines, or military adventures with the United States.
It is worse than appeasement; it seemed to involve surrender after the least resistance.
It need not be Albanese who takes the lead in setting out a thoughtful and independent critique of our place in the world (though I cannot see why not). What Australians deserve, however, are alternative policies, not the ones promoted by party surrender monkeys such as Richard Marles, Kimberley Kitchen, Mark Dreyfus and Penny Wong.
It is not necessarily a matter of big-ticket policies, or even of re-distributional ones.
It is more a matter of the right signals, and about messages focused on areas where voters sense the deterioration of public and social services, and the consequences of handing out large sums of public money (much of it notionally debt) to the private sector.
Some of it could even make Coalition opponents squirm, for example treating Australian agriculture as national core business, rather than an embarrassing add-on to servitude to the fossil fuel industry. Time is running out for Albanese to show that he is the better leader for our time.