Why does Albanese pander to his enemies and neglect his friends?

Jul 10, 2024
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese

Before leaving the Labor Party, Senator Fatima Payman made it clear she did not sign up to a Labor Government whose caucus had not itself signed up to the Labor Party platform which required a recognition of the state of Palestine and a two-party solution to the Middle East’s endless malaise. She made that discovery after the events of 7 October 2023, spoke up accordingly, and crossed a personal Rubicon in the Senate by voting for a Greens’ motion calling for recognition.

On Anthony Albanese’s haughty response, Jennifer Wilson (X: @noplaceforsheep) made a succinct assessment of the Prime Minister’s character: “If Albanese was the kind of politician who could handle the Payman situation with maturity and dignity, he’d be the kind of politician who would already have acknowledged the Palestinian state.”

So what kind of politician is Prime Minister Albanese? Apart from lacking the attributes that would have enabled him to act with maturity and dignity, as Wilson observed, an adverse mark on loyalty could be added. When dealing with one of his own people in Payman, even though she was a lowly female backbench Senator of colour, he could have calmly acknowledged the merit in what she was saying, and what a great many Labor supporters were also saying, and used it as an occasion for reversing the hole he had dug for the Government in its position on the Gaza conflict, a position former PM John Howard described as “pussyfooting”.

Howard’s support for Netanyahu was notable for its pitiless brutality, but he was correct in pointing out that Albanese’s indecision and ambiguity on the issue made him look timid. Coming from a former PM who took glory in being described by George W Bush as a ‘man of steel, that was a scathing critique that might have prompted a strong Albanese response.

But instead of taking a firm stand that distinguished Australia’s position on Gaza that was consistent with his own party’s platform, and differentiated it from the callous inhumanity that marked the positions of Peter Dutton, Joe Biden and Howard, Albanese reportedly began a relentless exercise in briefing journalists about the supposed flaws in the character of Senator Payman, even to the point of questioning her religious faith and section 44 credentials.

The circumstances sparked by Payman seem an opportune time to look again at the character of the man Australians made Prime Minister two years ago.

Albanese was the Infrastructure Minister when Murdoch’s News Corp joined with James Ashby and other lowlifes in their campaign to destroy the Gillard Government by an onslaught of tabloid headlines, which by June 2013 came to a head in a party-room spill. At the time, Albanese told Julia Gillard he was her friend, but would be joining her enemy Kevin Rudd to take on the Deputy Prime Minister job as part of the ill-fated second Rudd Government.

You might ask what Albanese got out of that Titanic move. Rudd was always going to hit a Murdoch iceberg. The short answer is he got a coveted CV item within the Labor Party. The cost was abandoning a friend; the benefit was using the CV item as a credential to win Party leadership unopposed following Bill Shorten’s 2019 election defeat.

In 2022 the Albanese-led Labor Party played safe before being elected into government and has continued to play safe with just 10 months to go before another election is due in 2025. Another way to describe Labor playing safe is to note that it spends its political capital cosying up to its enemies while neglecting or insulting its friends. Albanese has form playing that game, Payman being a recent example.

Two signs of how Albanese was going to lead the country were apparent from the earliest days of his government.

The first sign came a month after being elected in June 2022 when the political staffing allocations of independent members and senators were cut from four to one. When Labor went into election mode with its head down, a number of Teal independent candidates took the fight up to Labor’s Coalition opponent boldly and articulately on the key issues of climate, corruption and gender equity, and so thoroughly discredited the Morrison government that its defeat was welcome and unsurprising.

The second sign was a meeting two months later in August 2022. Albanese, Penny Wong and Richard Marles met in Sydney with Labor’s longtime declared enemy Lachlan Murdoch and News Corp executives. Neither the Prime Minister, Wong or Marles have ever spoken about the meeting, nor have they deigned to say anything about what was discussed at it.

Before being elected, Albanese declared that a government led by him would “do politics differently”, meaning in particular that it would be transparent in its dealings unlike its predecessor which he said was “government by deception”, government in secret.

Having made those claims, Labor supporters were waiting for his new Government to do things its leader undertook to do, first among them being to “lighten the load” of Australians who were caught in a poverty trap as he had been as a young boy being reared by a single mother. He “understood the difference that government can have to people’s lives” he said. Yet his first budget showed little interest in lightening the load for groups such as unemployed and young Australians. They were ostensibly Labor’s friends yet all they heard was opaque talk about “budget restraint”.

Many Labor supporters were also waiting on Albanese to say something openly about AUKUS, an uncosted blank-cheque policy initiative that had been sprung on Labor a few months before the 2022 election by Albanese’s political enemy Scott Morrison. Arguments from well-placed national security experts revealed the submarine centrepiece of AUKUS was a seriously misguided defence strategy, and that a superior strategy could be achieved at a fraction of its cost.

AUKUS had not been an election issue and had never been subjected to a contested debate. At worst, it was simply a ruse that Morrison sprung to catch Labor flat-footed, knowing Albanese did not want to engage in a rancorous national security debate just before an election. It was not a time to try to explain to voters the difference between a porcupine defence of Australia’s borders and a forward defence in the South China Sea.

Once Albanese won the election, to his credit he largely debunked the China threat myth while also restoring $20 billion of trade with China that had been lost because of his predecessor’s war mongering talk. Albanese was presented there and then with an opportunity to disengage from a ridiculously expensive and flawed defence strategy, but for reasons best known to himself, it became clear it was not an opportunity he intended to take.

Without adding anything to what was known about AUKUS, which wasn’t much, all Albanese really did was put a massive $368 billion price tag on it, and focus on the supposed Pillar 2 economic benefits of promises made by the US and Britain about shared hi-tech intelligence.

Albanese and Defence Minister Richard Marles were seemingly content to cosy up with their new important foreign friends, ones that by 2025 could transform into friendships with a known quantity in Donald Trump and an unknown one in Keir Starmer. The price Australia will pay on top of the dollars is to make certain we are a nuclear target and to continue the narrative of domestic budget restraint while failing to lighten the load of struggling young Australians like he once claimed to be.

It is sometimes said that it’s dangerous to be America’s enemy, but it’s more dangerous to be America’s friend. To the extent there is truth in that saying, Albanese is paying a big price to court a problematic foreign friend at the cost of alienating domestic friends. Biden’s poor debate performance aside, his support for Netanyahu is arguably reason enough to find another Democrat presidential nominee. Albanese’s eminent Labor friend Paul Keating put the matter forcefully when he labelled AUKUS “the worst international decision by a Labor government since Billy Hughes tried to introduce conscription”.

But pandering to his enemies won the day and Albanese showed he was not for turning. A likely coalition leader in the French election, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, has made a priority of joining the 145 countries of the 193 member states of the UN General assembly that recognise the sovereignty of the state of Palestine. It appears Albanese will not be adding Australia’s name to that list in the short term.

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