To his adversaries, Albo is a pushover

May 14, 2024
Australian Parliament House in Canberra

The way that the government has permitted the opposition and the Murdoch media (and even the ABC and Fairfax media) to push it around on issues such as climate and immigration policy raises the question: Does modern Labor have any moral bottom at all?

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese is an excellent negotiator. He won’t be panicked and will adopt an idea only after he has been taken through the reasoning and the logic, and the political factors involved. He himself has charm and considerable capacity to persuade. He, or those acting on his instructions usually emerge from discussions having achieved what they want, even if it appears to be something less. That’s a part of the theatre of bargaining, by which both sides are allowed to think they got something.

Albanese can be confident and breezy about his advocacy skills in a closed meeting because those who are supplicants at his door continually tell him what an excellent negotiator he is. Not only privately, but they often affirm it in public by talking of the hard arguing that took place, the prime minister’s initial implacability, and then the masterful manner by which he gave way and pointed to a resolution. The tougher the dickering, and the more the tension is underlined, the greater their case for a success bonus.

His adversaries are often pissing in his pocket. Albo is often a pushover. He may be stubborn or obstinate if rent seekers and lobbyists are urging action which goes against the grain or his political instincts. But if the urgers have done their work in creating the appearance of a climate of opinion, he can be surprisingly flexible, even in discarding established policy. It depends in part on whether he trusts his own advisers. That turns on factional loyalties, experience of his dealings with them in politics and government, and feelings about their judgement and bona fides in politics, in government and old grudges.

He does not trust anyone much and has few sentimental friends. He is nothing if not tribal, at least until his mind is made up. The colleagues with whom he works most closely are not selected for being allies. All are under a tight rein in whole-of-government matters.

Particularly if the creation of a climate of opinion has involved working hard on opinion leaders in the press. You can get him to act by getting the opinion writers from The Australian and the Financial Review involved. Then he knows he has a problem.

If the effect of action is to reinforce an image he is trying to sell — that he is pragmatic, not an ideologue — so much the better. He feels, it seems, weighed down by the expectation among some people broadly on his side that he will act, or must act, in a particular way. He does have his instincts and loyalties, but he wants to be seen to be thinking through his responses to events, to be weighing costs and opportunities. Likewise efforts to avoid “division” by going along with the previous government’s approach, even when he had previously criticised it, presents an image of being above the fray, putting the national interest rather than mere partisan advantage first.

Though he has a good command of policy detail, his focus is far more on the politics of any proposal. And that is not a mere calculation of short-term wins or losses but about the place of the proposal in the broader picture, and the medium term.

Neither he, nor his advisers or his colleagues are particularly good at anticipating the future or recognising the risks of policy failure. Often however, the very incrementalism of many of the government’s decisions allow early minor adjustments, without much political embarrassment, if there are early problems in implementation. In recent days, however, the government has been severely embarrassed by unexpected problems in refugee administration, and by the seeming incapacity of the agency to give good advice or back-up. This is a government not yet good at fixing political problems on the run. By contrast, the opposition is very policy shy, but very experienced at attack.

A government not wanting to achieve much, and in no hurry to get there.

The conundrum of Albanese in power is about his management – mostly dampening — of expectations. He has not been frightening the horses, so far as business, the economy, and a conservative electorate has been concerned. But his government has been far less effective in galvanising its own natural political constituencies. Or at enthusing them about the government’s agenda or performance. Most of the disappointment – and disappointment is the word that many critics use – is focused on Albanese himself.

In the past week, for example, the Albanese government has announced that it will still be using gas indefinitely for electric power. This has come as a surprise to many government supporters, who have been expecting a much faster progress towards eliminating the use of hydrocarbons than the government is planning. Already several backbenchers – significantly including members who, like Albanese, represent inner-city seats – are expressing alarm. Just as importantly, the Greens, who represent a considerable threat to Labor in just such seats, are having a field day about Labor’s weak and half-hearted performance in action against global warming.

The announcement, which has no immediate practical consequences over the next few years (including the next election) adds to the government’s weak and half-hearted performance in closing coal-fired generators, and its seeming to drop the ball on developing renewable energy. The electorate, including with the addition of the Teal revolt against the coalition, had seemed to endorse committed action on climate change, and a much more substantial progress towards emission reduction, and ultimately net-zero emissions. Labor, enthusiastic on the campaign trail has been trying to reduce expectations since, even if it set, as a point of difference with the coalition, a slightly more ambitious reduction goal.

As it happens, it will be struggling to reach even that disappointing goal, and, more likely than not, emissions have actually increased since Labor came to power. And that is without considering the likelihood that an honest accounting of carbon capture projects would reveal a picture far worse than successive governments, including the current one, have been pretending.

It seems likely that Albanese’s dreams of encouraging new manufacturing industry and innovation by picking winners spells danger for climate change aspirations. Likewise, Albanese’s swift retreat, after what he called consultation with motor lobby groups, on vehicle emission standards suggests that this is a government big on the talk, but cowardly on the action, in doing anything very much on what Kevin Rudd called the moral challenge of our time. It also suggests that Albanese and the government are weak and irresolute in the face of opposition from the hydrocarbon lobbies. This is an impression accentuated by decisions to give West Australia a virtual free pass from environmental and emission controls in its mining industry.

Action on climate change is an emotional as well as intellectual issue for left-of-centre voters. It’s like several other issues in which Labor has almost seemed to have gone out of its way to disappoint. There’s the AUKUS pact and the submarine purchase, along with sabre-rattling at China.

There’re the rights of boat people, and now that Labor has made such a mess of its deportation and indefinite detention policies, the whole question of a more just and compassionate immigration law. There’s also the illiberality, and impropriety of panic legislation designed to reimprison rejected asylum seekers without a home to be deported to. For most Australians this is an issue quite separate from the question of the number allowed in the annual intake of immigrants.

The mismanagement, and the way that the government has permitted the opposition and the Murdoch media (and even the ABC and Fairfax media) to use it to stir up community hatred invites questions of whether modern Labor has any moral bottom at all.

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