As Anthony Albanese might see it, almost all of his political good fortune has come from preferring his own judgment and instinct ahead of the advice and experience of others. He has a very long background in politics.
He first prospered as the head of a minority party faction which was completely frozen out of exercising power within the party even if it received a small portion of the spoils of government if the party itself gained the support of the electorate. Elected to parliament, he was to spend 11 years in opposition, mostly fighting factional enemies rather than the Tories, before he was to get ministerial rank under Kevin Rudd, the leadership of the House of Representatives, and the deputy prime ministership. But there were then to follow nine years of political impotence. The first six were the more frustrating for the knowledge that while he was the popular choice within the party for its leadership, his factional enemies would not allow it. But his predecessor did not fail for want of Albanese’s loyalty, and if that was not fully reciprocated, a party sick of opposition was disciplined enough to follow the leader’s tactics and preferences. Albanese’s first actions were to dump policies that were a drag on the party’s popularity. He then presented a stripped-down platform to the electorate, and won handsomely, despite the budget of the opposing parties and the fears and reservations of people in his own party.
There were some who wondered whether he had the courage, the boldness and the calmness for the top job. During the campaign it was not always in evidence, especially given how a hostile media was focused on silly mistakes, failures of concentration and trivial stunts. There were others, such as me, who worried that a small-target strategy, focused on only a few policies, was neglecting the opportunity to position Labor as a party of change and reform, intent on reversing a breakdown of ordinary, open, transparent and honest government under Scott Morrison and the National Party. The new discipline was seeing Labor and his frontbench ruling out policy options when it hardly seemed necessary, loading itself with absolute commitments (such as to stage three tax cuts and refugee policies as cruel and unnecessary as those imposed by the coalition.) That may have been more a matter of not allowing the campaign to be distracted or misrepresented, but it also made Albanese seem timid and uncertain, with goodies rather than policies, and not much sense of excitement on offer.
Be all that as it may, Albanese ignored all such advice, from without and within. The campaign may have introduced him to electors who scarcely knew this man who had served in parliament for 26 years. But he did not change character, grow in stature, or paint a picture of a new society coming out of pandemic, dealing with major debt and facing a hostile China. Some of the campaign contributions of Jim Chalmers may have been memorable, however disciplined. But Albanese concentrated on trying to look competent and professional (with some difficulty given the unfair emphasis on economic trivia questions) and of not frightening the horses. There was hardly a memorable positive sentence, apart from constant repetition of a housing commission background, and not one that inspired a new movement or generation of Labor supporters.
But Albanese was transformed by election. He suddenly was the sort of leader we had been missing. Not full of PR and marketing bullshit, but with calm and determination, and a complete unwillingness to be browbeaten by journalists. It was accentuated by a sudden urgent burst of activity as he immediately flew to Tokyo to consult with the leaders of Japan, the United States, and India over tensions with China, and as his foreign minister, Penny Wong, flew into the Pacific to calm excitement over China’s flirtation with the Solomons. His coming to power was greeted with widespread relief, a feeling that something profound had changed, and a sense that a nightmare was over. It was remarked by assembled nations as Australia suddenly seemed to become a goodie on climate change, and by neighbours entranced by the elevation of Penny Wong, herself born in the neighbourhood rather than in Australia, as foreign minister. For many, the turnover was the happier, because Scott Morrison and his baleful influence seemed to evaporate overnight, and Josh Frydenberg, his colleague-in-arms, lost his seat. It became swiftly apparent that Chalmers, his successor as treasurer, was more competent and confident in the job. For those disposed to Labor, the coalition transition to Peter Dutton seemed to confirm that the Liberal Party would be unelectable for several terms.
Teals did not take seats from Labor and are no threat to them
The election of an array of Teal independents, and others like them, as well as of more Greens representatives was not at Labor’s expense. Teal Independents took seats from the Liberals – ones that Labor could hardly have hoped to win. The effect was to further reduce the number of coalition members returned to the parliament, but not to increase Labor’s numbers. Labor was in a majority even before votes of the Greens, the Teals, or of other independents were counted and had not expected to win inner-suburban seats held by Liberals. The Teals were moderate, or small l liberal in philosophy. The sitting members were also moderate Liberals who argued that their influence in the party’s councils helped promote moderate policies, but their success in doing so on the issues which galvanised Teal support was not obvious.
For most, the sharp point of Teal distinction with the coalition was with a sense of urgency about doing a lot more to counter climate change, along with strong support for an anti-corruption commission. While the Teals tend to share an interest in honest government and environmental change, they are not a party, at best a group of independents with a common outlook. On many issues, not least over economic management, they are more conservative than Labor, and on some issues, such as union power, they are very suspicious of Labor. Within their electorates, they are doomed to being accused of being secret Greens, agents of Labor or of sinister forces such as Simon Holmes a Court and the Climate 2000 group. It is important for their long-term survival that they can demonstrate that their approach to many issues is like the temper of their electorates, and that they are not captives of Albanese or any extremist tendency in politics.
I began this column with some expression of respect for Albanese’s judgment, and his refusal to take much notice of those urging on him different tactics and strategies. He could say that he has so far been vindicated by events, with those impertinent enough to publicly push him in other directions proved wrong. They were not necessarily proven wrong; Albanese might have won even if had changed his approach. But he has no reason for shrinking. That said, I cannot for the life of me understand the reasoning behind his consistent strategy of denying the teals any place at his table.
He showed this soon after winning government by his decision to wind back the number of staff to be allocated to independents. It is true that Morrison and his coalition predecessors had sometimes sweetened independent support by the allocation of extra staff or perks. In this sense some winding back may have been justified, the more so with a stressed budget. But it became quickly clear that the measure was designed and intended as some form of reproof of the Teals, and of Independent David Pocock in the Senate. It was a proclamation that Labor was not beholden to them, and that it would not allow them any extra rights or privileges simply because their outlook on some key policies was not dissimilar to Labor’s. Naturally it was received as such, exciting almost instant puzzlement and anger. The Teals might not have been expecting any favours – indeed a part of their common policies might have been an end to insider-favours and quasi-bribes for electoral support. But why was Albanese going out of his way to antagonise them?
More focus on the whites of their eyes, not the light on the Hill
Albanese sometimes talks wistfully about wanting a parliament of respectful and courteous debate, and a genuine search by most parliamentarians for the common ground. Not everything has to be politicised, or seen, as Morrison relentlessly did, only from the perspective of potential electoral advantage or the capacity to trip or wedge the other side. Albanese may these days be milder-mannered and less combative than some of his predecessors, but on many issues, including his approach to the Teals, he is a warrior at heart. He once described the sum of politics as being “fighting the Tories”. It has seemed clear from his first six months in power that he prefers his rivals within shooting range and does not bother or think much about the light on the hill.
His animosity towards the Greens is easier to understand, or at least to explain. He represents an inner-city seat. Most of its voters are progressive; an increasing proportion of them are professionals rather than of the old working class, and many are focused on fashionable causes, which however worthy, are less popular with Labor voters in outer suburbs and the regions. These seats have always contained centres of support for environmental causes and a focus on discrimination, gender and social justice, here and abroad. Many traditional Labor supporters, particularly from left factions of the sort that Albanese has represented, were appalled at Labor pragmatism during the Tampa election of 2001. Their vote went to the Greens. It has been said that Labor lost half of its paid-up membership in the immediate aftermath, and that most who left the fold never gave Labor their first preference again. They have particularly lost any reflex allegiance to the idea of Labor as the political arm of the union movement.
Albanese’s early career in factional politics showed that he was emotionally of the deserters, particularly over boat people, the environment and climate change. But he is also a classic insider – a man who has never really had an adult job outside the Labor Party, a person whose activism and power has stemmed from his relationship with certain big unions, and with the power and patronage that involves. However much he may have smarted about always losing the fight until power-sharing reforms came to the party, he has always understood that mainstream political parties must compromise between the interests of different forces and lobbies.
Moreover, Albanese’s seat has at times been under heavy attack from able Greens candidates, who recognise in his constituents, and in their primary concerns, just the sort of people likely to support them. Indeed, some of the state seats within his electorate have fallen to the Greens. Albanese thus has always had to have a critique of Greens philosophy compared with Labor’s. He has attempted to take up the middle-ground, complaining that green extremism and purism would strip Australia of viable industries, a mining sector, and friendly relations with allies. He has not had to fear losing his seat to a coalition candidate; his focus is on not giving the Greens anything that could amount to a break. Many other Labor members not from such inner suburban seats are far more relaxed about dealings with the Greens. An increasing number hold their seats because of green preferences. And, whatever the arguments on points of detail or theology, each recognises the other as a Left of Centre Party with broadly similar starting points.
Albanese’s contest with the Greens is fundamentally different from any problem with independents
All of this explains why Albanese won’t be a patsy for the Greens, nor accidentally do them favours they are able to use in campaigning against Labor. More so because he recognises that both Labor and the Greens are aggressively seeking the support of the same voters, even as they actively exchange preferences on polling day. Down the track one can expect that more Greens will take seats on Labor preferences. That may make some Labor warriors, including Albanese uncomfortable. But, even from his point of view, that is a better outcome, in both the short and the long term, than the seat falling to the Liberals.
But Albanese’s argument with, grievance against, or contest with the Greens has no parallel with the Teals. First, Labor has almost no chance, even in the medium term, of gaining their seats. Teals win seats Labor can’t. Teal Independents have been displacing people who have proclaimed themselves Liberal moderates. That, at least in theory, has the effect that remaining and continuing Liberal Parliamentarians are increasingly right-wing.
In the short-term Labor can have things both ways. It can be in intelligent conversation with the Teals, because they agree on a lot of things. The effect of this could be the recreation of that age so much deplored by John Howard, when (to him) Labor had captured all of the public institutions. The public square, and the public conversation, even much media discussion, would reverberate with argument and civilised discussion that were on Labor’s agenda, not the Liberals. Howard once explained his hostility to the ABC as being because it was “their people talking to our people’’. That’s hardly something he could complain about today.
There are conservative Liberals who think their party can only regain office, and deserve to regain office, by becoming more right wing. The party, they think, has been undermined by the presence of Liberals In Name Only, LINOs. Their critique is not dissimilar to that which galvanises Trumpism in the US, or the disasters of the last three prime ministers of England. Many others, myself included, think it a strategy for political suicide. Even more so given the tendency for rump parties to fall under the control of entrists, extremists, and nut cases. Some of those moving in in Australia, particularly from organised movements inside religious cults, would make the party unelectable anywhere.
A day will come when right-of-centre citizens will want to reform the Liberal Party by bringing the Teals and their supporters back into the fold. That’s a long way off if a significant rump is determined to avoid Teal contagion at all costs. Albanese should be actively mischief-making by giving the Teals a voice. Not by doing shameful deals with the Liberals, as Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus has done on a now-weakened national anti-corruption commission. This denies Independents the credit they deserve for conceiving and bringing a Commonwealth integrity body into effect that is beyond anything that Dreyfus or Labor would have conceived. Just why would Albanese and Dreyfus prefer to weaken legislation as a favour to the Liberals rather than cooperate with the Teals?