Anthony Albanese, seven months or less from a federal election, ought to be able to contemplate his position with a certain amount of calm. He has had a year in which the government has done far more damage to itself than it has been able to inflict on Labor, or on Albanese himself. The polls suggest not only that Labor is comfortably ahead, but that, because the gap is not changing much, the electorate has more or less made up its mind about the Morrison government. No one in Labor trusts the polls much after recent experiences, but the figures accord with the gut feelings of many observers, some not predisposed to Labor or to Albanese.
Strictly, Albanese looks to be in a far better position than Bill Shorten about the same time from the last election. Shorten seemed comfortably ahead, but did not have the gap that Albanese enjoys. Most people, including most Liberal ministers and Shorten himself, assumed he was home and hosed, and were stunned by the miracle that Morrison, alone and almost unassisted, pulled off. Overconfidence or taking things for granted is not a mistake that Albanese seems to be making.
At the last election, the coalition appeared tired and exhausted by years of division and leadership changes, and debilitated by some of its policy arguments, particularly over action on climate change. Shorten had worked calmly on policy development, and seemed to have mastery of Morrison and the government generally. Labor was uncommonly disciplined - much more around Shorten than now around Albanese.
But if Shorten could argue that the government had done its dash, he had not developed his advantage to the extent that has been possible under Albanese over the last term. A central problem of Morrison and the Morrison government has become evident: he is never in front of a problem. He's always behind, playing catch-up, applying Band-Aids, and slinging money around, when problems start to overwhelm. In most cases he, and his ministers, and his political staff should have anticipated the problems - having identified potential ones in the course of policy debate. But Morrison doesn't listen, and is not proactive. He stirs himself only when things have reached debacle stage. He's a poor leader, but, just as bad, a poor manager and crisis controller. He places too much trust in colleagues of no particular capacity, and in those who have forfeited the confidence of the public. His unwillingness to admit fault, or to give the opposition any "victory" has multiplied his liabilities and reduced his credit and his asset base. His last minute efforts to have a respectable climate change policy for Glasgow is all of a one with inaction on fires, on vaccines and on national reconstruction.
There were long periods in which Morrison seemed simply unable to plan, galvanise and mobilise his own troops and the country around a succession of crises. His supposed marketing skills seemed to have failed him, and he acquired a reputation for being good at making announcements only. On a number of occasions he seemed unable to say the gracious word, to express empathy to victims, or to show understanding of widespread problems, not least sexual assault on women.
He earned and deserved some credit for the way that he and his Treasurer organised health resources and the economy in the face of the pandemic, but he squandered much of the credit by getting into silly arguments with the states, in misjudging the mood about the delicate balance between lockdown and fighting the pandemic, and the need to get the economic engines started again. Then he and his Health Minister made a succession of serious errors over procurement of vaccines, over the organisation of their distribution, and over consistently over-optimistic announcements about getting vaccines out to the population. Moreover he blatantly favoured NSW, his own state, in the allocation of vaccines, falsely claiming that it set the "gold standard" in pandemic management. Both he and his Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, a Victorian, continually attacked the Victorian premier and in a way that seemed to add to the allegation that Victoria had been deprived of the resources and money, and vaccines, to do as well as NSW when, inevitably, a Delta version of coronavirus escaped from NSW into the Victorian population.
But just as significantly, Morrison has spent a good deal of this term eroding and then finally destroying his moral right to govern. Long-term tendencies, such as his chronic secretiveness and resistance to conventional forms of accountability, expanded into major problems about integrity, such as the spending of billions on partisan rorts that should have been allocated on merit. The impression of almost continual personal and professional scandals, of mismanagement or their conversion to private goods, and serious waste and ideological idiocy has been pervasive. Morrison has been unable to separate himself from any, whether because of his own role, or that of his office, his resistance to admitting fault or even to reviewing anything in the past, and, perhaps particularly, his precarious majority. Likewise a government which (when Morrison was social security minister) devised and implanted a cruel and unlawful scheme to punish the poor, was shown to have handed over more than $40 billion to private enterprise in pandemic assistance without making any arrangements to recover money found not to have been needed for the purposes for which it was allocated. It seems to men to be clear that the failures were on the part of senior ministers and that they consciously decided to do nothing to secure public money or the public interest. It will be, or should be, the clearest sign that Frydenberg, widely regarded as the future leader of the party, is neither intellectually nor morally up to the job of leadership. Even the enthusiastic applause of News.com and, increasingly, Nine newspapers, should not be allowed to drown out a massive failure of public administration, costing many times more than all of the bureaucrat and political failures of the past 50 years.
The idea that has come to encapsulate most of the problems is that of a Commonwealth Integrity Commission, which, Morrison is determined, will be toothless and useless, operating in private, focused only on criminality rather than broader-brush corruption. As Morrison has doubled down, Labor has increased its commitment to a more open and accountable tribunal. The very actions of the Morrison government have convinced many outsiders that the problem of systemic corruption, cronyism and partiality at the Commonwealth level is now far more serious than had been supposed.
What would be the point of electing a government that will not do anything unpopular?
It would be only fair to comment that neither Anthony Albanese nor the Labor frontbench has done much to expose the waste, corruption or mismanagement, or even the industrial-sized rorting of grant schemes, particularly around election time. Much of the disclosure has come from the Australian National Audit Office - its revelations the more devastating because of the misleading and dishonest explanations proffered by ministers. Others have come from journalism, from victims (such as of sexual assault) whistle blowers, or from organs of state government. A few Labor senators, such as Katy Gallagher and Penny Wong, have done sterling work in arrears in parliamentary committees, but can rarely be said to have been ahead of the game. Albanese is entitled to his luck. He may even benefit from the fact that his relatively passive approach has created little space in which government ministers can accuse him of being carping, negative, constantly whingeing and criticising - while all of the time in a position to retweet slogans about integrity and accountability.
But the reluctance of Labor chieftains to relax is not a mere matter of avoiding counting chickens before they are hatched, or taking the election and the electorate for granted. There are still serious questions about the character, temperament and leadership capacity of Albanese. He may have been adroit in avoiding many potential conflicts with the other side, giving government a fairly free rein with pandemic and economic management, and in shedding unpopular platform commitments, especially about tax. But that cleverness has helped obscure what, if anything, Albanese and Labor stand for. They even raise the question of what reason or what point is served by having a government which, though not led by Morrison, will simply not do anything that is unpopular, whether in the short or the long term.
OK, they reject Morrison. Does that mean they embrace 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 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 WWII, Labor has never won an election from opposition without a strong and charismatic leader, with a strong smorgasbord of policies. Think of Whitlam, Hawke, 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.
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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.
Labor's surrender monkeys on defence, foreign affairs, China and human rights
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 Minister for Finance and addicted to efficiency dividends.
Albanese, like Shorten and 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 law 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.
- Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times and a regular columnist. firstname.lastname@example.org