Will whatever got Albanese elected get him re-elected?

Jun 28, 2024
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese

Watching Peter Dutton deliver his nuclear power announcement at a press conference on June 19 was a reminder of two things. The first was a recent observation by former Victorian Liberal Party strategist Tony Barry that the Coalition commitment to nuclear energy “is the longest suicide note in Australia’s political history”. The second reminder is its contrast with the ‘small target’ strategy that Labor adopted when contesting the 2022 election.

The Labor Party strategy is credited in some quarters as a masterstroke that won Albanese the 2022 election. It was clearly designed in reaction to the 2019 big-target strategy of Bill Shorten, which was bold but not sufficiently nuanced. The Albanese campaign was fortunate, but not for the simple reason of it being based on a small-target strategy.

Albanese’s good fortune in 2022 came about because he was blessed with the emergence of a number of bold and highly articulate Teal candidates around the country who were able to compellingly argue for positions that Labor was too timid to take on. The Teal candidates confronted the Morrison-led Coalition directly and did the heavy lifting on climate, corruption and gender equity. The result was that very many voters saw Morrison Government candidates as ‘on the nose’, thus enabling Labor to win seats on preferences, despite Labor’s primary vote being relatively weak.

When Labor took government, Anthony Albanese seemed to persuade the Party’s parliamentary MPs and senators to believe they got there on their own merits and to put out of mind the notion that any assistance given to them by the Teals and, to a lesser extent the Greens, was significant. Having adopted that haughty attitude, Albanese began to reveal that Labor was not going to honour its promise to do politics differently, nor was it going to acknowledge any debts of gratitude to successful independent candidates who greatly contributed to defeating the Morrison Government by exercising courage when Labor was desperately keeping its head down.

Hence, with old adversarial attitudes prevailing on the Labor front bench, Albanese felt free to cut the staffing numbers that independents were counting on to assist them in doing politics differently. Never mind that the Kate Jenkins report released in November 2021 on the workplace culture malaise within the Parliament had found that excessive working hours was a major contributor to heavy drinking, bullying, sexual harassment and sexual assault in the House and the Senate.

An aphorism often used by business CEOs and sporting coaches goes like this: “What got you here, won’t get you there”. Someone needed to point out that thought to the Labor leaders in the initial days of the Albanese Government because they showed early signs of a fixed determination to remain a small target in government rather than take up the challenge which voters had handed them to govern boldly. Instead, Albanese appeared content to play power games at the expense of his political allies. He also also seemed unable to grasp that what got his government into power was not going to make it an effective government, or get it re-elected.

The first real sign of unease came with the realisation that Labor was not going to overhaul or reject Morrison’s uncosted AUKUS deal other than to reveal it was going to cost Australian taxpayers a figure in the magnitude of $368 billion. The AUKUS deal, such as it was, involved building eight nuclear powered submarines over 25 years to spook China as part of the United States obsession with containing Australia’s major trading partner. AUKUS firmed up the notion of Australia as a nuclear target and our acquiescence to America’s use of intelligence and port facilities at Pine Gap and other places, substantially sacrificed Australian sovereignty .

As a ridiculously expensive deal shrouded in signature secrecy, AUKUS was entered into by Morrison in September 2021 without any voter mandate. AUKUS was not an election issue in 2022 and Albanese, like Morrison, has never attempted to offer a credible policy narrative in support of it. Its singular political merit for Albanese was in eliminating national security and defence as areas on which Murdoch’s News Corp and the Liberal-National Party could attack his Labor Government.

Since then, after more than two years in Government, for reasons best known to himself, Albanese has placed a priority on vain attempts to eliminate issues that open it up to attack by its opponents in the Parliament and the press. They include big issues such as the Israel-Palestine conflict, the High Court decision on indefinite detention of refugees, and on immigration in general. In addition, Labor’s anti-corruption commission collapsed mysteriously but spectacularly at its first hurdle, thus sparing at least one Morrison minister and five problematic public servants from having to face corruption hearings that might have led to referrals for criminal prosecution.

Despite his persistent efforts to appease his political enemies, Albanese has continually failed to get credit for his acquiescence on any issue. The dominant News Corp media and its mainstream acolytes, including the national broadcaster, characterise his nuanced approaches as weak and indecisive compared to the bold confidence and certainty of the simple hard-line positions taken up by his political opponent. ‘Beware the uncomplicated politician’, blasted a typical headline from Nine’s Financial Review, unashamedly promoting the political virtues of Peter Dutton over Anthony Albanese.

Albanese’s timidity in the face of News Corp has by now dealt him so much accumulated damage that Dutton has felt on sufficiently safe ground to throw caution to the winds by announcing a wafer-thin proposition to build seven nuclear power reactors on the sites of existing coal-fired power stations by 2036, and to demand a “mature debate” on the matter from the Albanese Government. Dutton’s uncosted proposal has being run widely in the media as bold and visionary despite Australia having no nuclear workforce or experience in building a reactor, factors alone which would make 2056 an optimistic completion date to build the first reactor, much less the other six, were it possible to ever negotiate a social licence to do so.

By relentlessly pursuing the politics of appeasement with his declared enemies combined with neglect of his support base, Albanese has left himself open to speculation in some quarters that he is toying with the idea of appointing Scott Morrison as his envoy in America to smooth a 2025 transition to a Trump presidency. Like Dutton, Morrison is a Trump enthusiast.

Albanese’s record of making problematic senior appointments and living with partisan department secretaries and heads of agencies, has lent credibility to what would normally be taken as an absurd piece of mischievous speculation. How could a self-serving confidence trickster and architect of robodebt possibly be trusted to work with a Labor Government to further the interests of the nation from which he has walked away? That said, the speculation has been accorded extra fuel by Albanese giving Morrison a green light to launch a book he has written for American evangelicals by making use of the hospitality provided by the the Australian embassy in Washington DC, hospitality that reportedly included some generous diplomatic words from Australia’s US Ambassador, Kevin Rudd.

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