It’s time for Anthony Albanese to toughen up and take the fight to Scott Morrison

Oppositions have a critical role in the Westminster system of government. It appears to be a role that Labor leader Anthony Albanese is struggling with.

At their most effective, oppositions, and especially opposition leaders, hold governments to account, present an alternative vision for the nation, and give voice to those sections of the community that are overlooked or disadvantaged by the government of the day.

Opposition leaders who simply see their role as patiently waiting for governments to lose office not only misunderstand their office but are doing the electorate a gross disservice.

Australia has a manifestly bad government: erratic, feckless, incoherent, disingenuous, mendacious and delusional. It is a government that is the personification of the man who leads it, Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

It is a government almost daily compromised by ill-disciplined, gaffe-prone, seat-of-the-pants ministers who are never held to account by a PM who is prepared to defend the indefensible, or simply look the other way until the caravan has moved on.

Living memory can produce no equal when it comes to a PM who treats the electorate with greater disrespect than Scott Morrison. Not surprisingly, his nitwit ministers, who collectively comprise the shallowest federal ministry on record, follow suit.

Two words should spell easy pickings for the opposition leader: Scott Morrison:

  • Scott Morrison, even as Australia burns – although it was he who was supposed to burn for Australia – refuses to acknowledge climate change and would rather chew glass than utter the ‘CC’ words.
  • Scott Morrison, whose advice to fire fighters and fire victims is to tune in to the cricket.
  • Scott Morrison, who seeks to make political capital out of those who dare to be unemployed, refusing widespread calls to increase the Newstart allowance as a matter of ideological principle.
  • Scott Morrison, who at the last election assured Australians that the economy was in robust health, making much of a meaningless budget surplus, is now struggling to craft a response to Australia’s economic malaise amid global economic uncertainty, conditions that were apparent even as he boasted of his government’s economic credentials.
  • Scott Morrison, who with trademark chutzpah claims credit for the banking royal commission, is now struggling with what to do with the Big 4’s banking oligopoly, a cartel that is simply too powerful and set in its ways for meaningful change to occur.
  • Scott Morrison, who perennially claims to have a plan but presides over policy wastelands when it comes to foreign policy (and in particular China), Indigenous affairs (especially on the matter of constitutional recognition), drought mitigation, water and the economy.
  • Scott Morrison, an avowed lover of coal and hater of “greens”, has flagged an overhaul of environmental approval processes that are ostensibly a disincentive for investment in major projects (read coal mines), even as the world’s fragile environment calls for tougher not weaker regulation.
  • Scott Morrison has also flagged a review of industrial relations with a view to reducing the “administrative clutter associated with the compliance regime”, even as the high incidence of wages theft reveals a systemic lack of regulation and/or enforcement.

Challenging neither the government nor the electorate

The Morrison government was re-elected just six months ago and yet it presents as a tired, tattered, tottering government. But in an almost schizophrenic duality, it is also an implacably ideological government, confident and bellicose in its determination to take Australia to the most conservative ends of the political spectrum.

Is this a conservatism that was knowingly endorsed at the last election, marking an abrupt shift to the right by the electorate? Or is the electorate, having voted to secure their hip pocket, being taken where it did not intend to go?

We don’t really know because Anthony Albanese is not putting these questions to the test. He is challenging neither the government nor the electorate.

Albanese is not so much absent from the political fray as hiding in plain sight.

Losing the unlosable 2019 election – on top of losing the unlosable 2016 election – has cruelled Labor’s political nerve.

There is some merit in the opposition tactic of leaving government to its own devices in the immediate aftermath of an election. Nobody’s going to be listening and the voters, having made their decision, are entitled to have that decision honoured with respectful silence.

But the election was six months ago and it’s time to wake up the electorate, not to mention Albanese.

Albanese’s role is more than taking the government to task. At stake is much, much more. What would Australia under Anthony Albanese look like? So far, we don’t know.

The Labor leader has gone out of his way to be conciliatory and even-handed with the Morrison government. The intent is clear enough. Apart from reflecting Albanese’s gentlemanly disposition – London to a brick Morrison will, at an opportune time, raise doubts about his opponent’s ticker – there is no doubt a desire to clean up Australian politics and the standard of public discourse.

It’s a worthy goal, but on this occasion misplaced. Morrison does not deserve Albanese’s bonhomie and exaggerated non-partisanship. Morrison treats his opponent with barely disguised disdain. The olive branch has been declined. Or more accurately, it has been seized by Morrison and repurposed as a stick to be thrown into the distance, accompanied by the command of “Fetch!”.

Albanese needs to step up. Australia cannot be allowed to lurch to the extreme right by default.

Labor lost the confidence of the electorate

Labor has concluded that it had too many policies at the last election. The charge should be that Labor did not adequately defend and explain those policies; did not present them as part of a cohesive vision for Australia. Labor’s loss in 2019 was a function of poor leadership and poor campaigning. The electorate was ultimately sold a pup, but only because Labor was found wanting on the hustings.

Labor was right when it went into the election expecting to win – in part precisely because of its extensive manifesto – but it was in the course of the election campaign  that Labor lost the confidence of the electorate.

Australia sorely needs a vision as opposed to the Morrison government’s piecemeal offering of policy on the run.

Albanese has much to address.

Maybe the post-election analysis was correct when it concluded that Labor’s criticism of the “big end of town” was off-key, but we need to hear more from Labor about our most disadvantaged, ostracised by the Morrison government, being welcomed back into the broader Australian community.

He must prosecute the imperative for climate change action and Labor must stop shilly-shallying – as it did in the last election – and set forth an unambiguous plan for Australia to cut emissions, secure energy supply, phase out coal mining (and compensate and/or retrain its workers) and prepare the nation for a future in which renewable sources will supply our energy needs.

Albanese must also deal with the China question in a way that Morrison has not, which also means some hard-headed decisions about the future of Australia’s relationship with the United States. The longer Australia considers the US alliance an untouchable taboo, the harder it will be for Australia to assert a foreign policy that is in the national interest.

Under the Morrison government, Australia has become an international outcast. On climate change, asylum seekers, press freedom, overbearing national security laws, the growing gap between rich and poor and Indigenous affairs Australia has been found sorely wanting.

Where is Labor’s voice on these issues? And on those issues which Labor feels bipartisanship is a convention to be honoured, at what point does bipartisanship become culpability?

The Morrison government has been so extreme in its conservative agenda that Albanese needs to reframe both the “national conversation” and his approach as opposition leader.

The Westminster system of government provides a platform for dissent and holding to account. And this government warrants plenty of both. It’s time that we heard loud and clear from Albanese that ‘this is not the Australia we want’ for this or future generations.

By all accounts Albanese is a good, decent and principled man. He needs to add “fighter” to his resume.

It’s time for Anthony Albanese to step up and get serious as Labor leader and as leader of the opposition. And he can start by getting into his big-boy pants and stop calling himself Albo.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist, writer and commentator. He is a former columnist with BRW, brw.com.au and the Australian Financial Review and was a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. He is on Twitter @DAngeloFisher