Anthony Albanese comes out of the shadows but budget reply is just the beginning of the challenge ahead

Anthony Albanese’s budget-in-reply speech, his first as opposition leader, has at last staked his claim as Australia’s alternative prime minister. Until now, Albanese’s leadership of the Labor party has been lost in a haze of bipartisanship and national emergency.

Fortune has not favoured Albanese since becoming federal Labor leader and leader of the opposition in May last year. The devastating Black Summer bushfires, promptly followed by the catastrophic coronavirus pandemic, has for the most part placed the “national interest” above the political fray and reduced Albanese to a political cipher.

There have been moments of political heat applied to the teflon-coated Morrison government – the “sports rorts affair” was a rare win of sorts for the opposition – but the Labor leader has gone out of his way to be conciliatory and even-handed with Scott Morrison, particularly during the worst of the pandemic. Morrison has returned the courtesy with trademark contempt, whether in the form of pointedly excluding Albanese from his national cabinet or routinely turning his back on him in parliament.

Albanese’s budget-in-reply marked the re-emergence of Labor from its self-imposed exile. It has at last reconciled itself with the unexpected loss of last year’s election and it has resolved to present an alternative vision for the nation and give voice to those sections of the community that are overlooked or disadvantaged by this government.

On Thursday night Albanese provided a glimpse of what Australia under his stewardship would look like.

Unlike the Seinfeldian Morrison government – a government about nothing – Albanese’s manifesto was about making a difference.

It was always clear that the Morrison government had no interest in exploiting the clean slate presented by the pandemic to reimagine Australia as a fairer, kinder and more equitable society. Scott Morrison couldn’t be less interested in such an Australia. His only interest is in a return to the hidebound conservatism of pre-COVID Australia – a conservatism he has prosecuted with uncompromising vigour.

White-picket fence PM

As I have previously written: “The returned Morrison government, full of Pentecostal vigour and conviction, was intent not only on preserving [John Howard’s] white-picket fences in the suburbs, it was going to build a white-picket fence around Australia.”

For now Scott Morrison has made do with building cubby houses and chicken coops in his backyard, but he has never lost sight of the white-picket fence.

Whether it’s the anti-intellectualism of his higher education “reforms”, plans to introduce an English-language requirement for partner visa applicants, a renewed commitment to water down welfare support for Australia’s most disadvantaged and a determination to make permanent pandemic measures allowing employers increased flexibility to change employment conditions, the signs could not be clearer that Morrison’s conservatism is set in stone…if not the stone age.

Morrison’s conservatism does not extend to an embrace of the values and conventions of the Westminster system of government.

It is hard to imagine an Australian prime minister with less interest in the proprieties of government and a more brazen determination to protect compromised, ineffective or incompetent ministers from scrutiny, let alone accountability.

When considering the list of ministers deserving the sack, censure or demotion – Richard Colbeck, Stuart Robert, Michael Sukkar, Angus Taylor and Alan Tudge come readily to mind – one can only speculate on just what it would take to raise the ire of Scott Morrison.

The recent announcement that Employment Minister Michaelia Cash will be promoted to deputy leader of the government in the senate at the end of the year illustrates the calibre of minister favoured by Morrison.

Albanese’s budget-in-reply was refreshing not just because of its policy content but because it offered the promise of a very different Australia.

Labor’s headline policy announcement, the overhaul of the childcare system – the centrepiece of which is the introduction of a universal 90 per cent childcare subsidy – does what the government’s budget did not: provide genuine stimulus to female workforce participation. The $6.2 billion plan (over three years starting 1 July 2022) not only acknowledges the disproportionate burden carried by women during the pandemic it also recognises the fundamental role of childcare in society and the economy.

Labor should be under no illusion

“The current system of caps and subsidies and thresholds isn’t just confusing and costly; it actually penalises the families it’s meant to help. It’s working mums who cop the worst of it,” Albanese said.

“Women are the key to kick-starting our economy again. In the worst recession in 100 years, we have to make sure women aren’t forced to choose between their family and their jobs.”

Albanese also unveiled Labor’s $20 billion nation-building project to modernise the national electricity grid and ensure that Australia has the infrastructure to become a “renewable energy superpower”. The 10-year project, to be overseen by a new government-owned entity, the Rewiring the Nation Corporation, would revitalise traditional industries such as steel and aluminium, create “thousands” of construction jobs, and drive growth in new sectors such as hydrogen and battery production.

Albanese’s budget-in-reply was a refreshing departure from the hectoring politics of the Morrison government.

But Labor should be under no illusion. Australians may not like Scott Morrison, and they might not be entirely comfortable with his corrosive conservatism, but there remains a prevailing view that he is a safer pair of hands. Australians have closed their minds to the flaws of this government because they cannot embrace the possibility of Labor in power. Australians are rejecting the impulses of their better selves because the Morrison government has convinced them that “mean and tricky” will always deliver better government than “well-meaning and altruistic”.

Anthony Albanese has at last come out of the shadows and his challenge now is to convince a nervous and battered populace that it should too.

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. Connect with him on Twitter @DAngeloFisher

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

 

Bill Shorten believes he was robbed of the prime ministership and that should make Anthony Albanese very nervous

Bill Shorten is a political animal. Unelectable, but a political animal nonetheless. And while he may lack appeal, he does not lack wile.

He better than most understands the importance of optics in politics, and that is said despite his predilection for jogging for the cameras.

Instead of retiring to the backbench following his second successive election loss he very forcefully let it be known that he wanted to be a member of Anthony Albanese’s frontbench – despite having reportedly backed and campaigned for his deputy Tanya Plibersek to succeed him as Labor leader.

Albanese obliged his former boss by appointing him shadow minister for the NDIS and government services. “I thank Albo for giving me these responsibilities,” said Shorten, his chummy informality very possibly masking a range of truths, not the least being that he too struggles with the pronunciation of Albanese.

As for Plibersek, she had publicly declined the leadership, declaring that “now is not my time”.

“At this point, I cannot reconcile the important responsibilities I have to my family with the additional responsibilities of the Labor leadership,” she explained.

Plibersek has consistently taken this position over several years, placing family before political destiny. But while Plibersek can be taken at her word on matters of family, and likewise on her assessment that time is on her side, it is still telling to note what she has turned her back on.

Having lost two unlosable elections on the trot Labor will be understandably gun-shy about entering the 2022 election as favourites…but it will be, particularly if the Morrison government continues on its shambolic way.

There is every chance, given the “Rudd rule” which is designed to protect incumbents from challengers, that whoever is leader of federal Labor today will be prime minister in three years.

But do you get the feeling that nobody in the Labor caucus believes that?

Plibersek has plainly taken the view that accepting the leadership presented to her on a silver platter might not be the gift that it appears to be. Faction hostilities, after a hiatus of six years, show every sign of reigniting.

Shorten’s decision to remain on the frontbench is replete with portent. Albanese must know that but there is little he can do about it.

Albanese has decided to accommodate Shorten’s request, which is a little like “deciding” to say “yes” (on anything) to an 800Ilb gorilla. There is no way that Shorten’s Right faction would have permitted the Left’s Albanese to consign Shorten to the backbench against his will.

Although the NDIS is a matter close to Shorten’s heart, Albanese, in choosing it and the strictly junior portfolio of government services, will be hoping that Shorten’s narrow frontbench responsibilities will limit the subjects on which Shorten can speak publicly.

It will be interesting – and revealing – to see whether at some point Shorten claims the right, as a former Labor leader, to speak on any subject of his choosing.

Long-time leadership rivals

Shorten and Albanese are long-time leadership rivals. After the defeat of the second Rudd government in 2013 Shorten and Albanese became the first to contest the leadership under the Rudd Rule. The rank and file membership backed “Albo” but the caucus backed Shorten and triumphed.

It is almost certain that if not for the Rudd Rule Albanese would have challenged Shorten at some point in the latter’s leadership of Labor in opposition. Former leader of the House Christopher Pyne was not just creating mischief in Parliament when he repeatedly referred to Albanese’s leadership ambitions, much to his Labor mate’s discomfort.

One critical factor that protected Shorten’s leadership against anyone who would dare unleash the cumbersome and divisive process of launching a challenge under the new rules was the importance placed on a united Labor party.

Shorten, who played a key role in destabilising the prime ministerships of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, benefited from the self-evident – if self-interested – assertion that Australian voters would only trust a united Labor with government.

Except that they didn’t. Having lost the second successive unlosable election Labor’s factions immediately cast aside all semblance of unity and amity. Television footage of the first post-election Labor caucus meeting rendered palpable the unease and discord behind the wooden smiles.

Albanese becomes federal Labor’s twenty-first leader – elected unopposed; Richard Marles (shadow minister for defence) is his deputy. The redoubtable Penny Wong remains Labor leader in the Senate (and shadow foreign affairs minister), and former NSW Premier Kristina Keneally (shadow home affairs minister) – a loved or loathed figure in the Labor caucus – is her deputy. (Time will tell which senator will be the first to switch to the lower house.)

Keneally’s leadership berth comes at Albanese’s insistence. To make it happen, Labor’s byzantine factions, perhaps for one last time, chose to accommodate the new leader’s impertinence. In the name of gender equality the very talented Ed Husic stepped aside from the frontbench to create a spot for Keneally.

Albanese was quick to claim credit: “I’m making it very clear as leader of the Labor party [that] I want the best team, and the best team includes Kristina Keneally.”

Sacrifices made and not made

One might reasonably pose the question: if Albanese’s role is to come up with the strongest possible frontbench surely places could be found for both Husic and Keneally? That should be but isn’t Albanese’s role; his role is to balance the competing demands of the reawakened factions. Keneally is on the frontbench thanks to Husic’s sacrifice and she is deputy senate leader thanks to Right powerbroker Don ‘Who?’ Farrell giving up his claim on the deputy’s role.

Farrell, a key player in the defenestration of Rudd as prime minister, will no doubt keep a keen eye on the favour balance sheet, particularly as a boastful Albanese felt it prudent to claim credit for Farrell’s sacrifice.

“Even though he had the substantial support of caucus colleagues, [Farrell] was prepared to step aside as Labor’s deputy leader in the Senate on the basis that he understood that I had made it clear that my view was there needed to be gender balance in Labor’s leadership team,” Albanese said with firmness, if not elegance.

Farrell will be able to reflect on his sacrifice at his leisure: he has been appointed shadow minister for sport and tourism.

Shorten, however, did not feel the need to take a hit for the team. He would have known that his continued presence on the frontbench would spark speculation about his remaining leadership aspirations, as indeed it has. But his words have spoken far louder than his actions.

At the abovementioned Labor caucus meeting Shorten, while pledging his love for the Labor party and loyalty to Albanese – “I am ready to help you with uniting our party and carrying the case for Labor values” – made a point of blaming everyone but himself for the shock loss.

“[O]bviously we were up against corporate leviathans, a financial behemoth, spending an unprecedented hundreds of millions of dollars advertising, telling lies, spreading fear,” he said.

“Powerful vested interests campaigned against us, through sections of the media itself, and they got what they wanted.”

These words are telling and should make Albanese very nervous. In blaming dark forces in corporate Australia and the media (read Murdoch) Shorten is saying that voters were denied the opportunity to consider Labor under Shorten as ready for government. From this can be extrapolated the corollary: given clear air, given another chance, Shorten would be much more attractive to Australian voters as the alternative prime minister.

Bill Shorten believes he was robbed of the prime ministership and that spells danger for Anthony Albanese. Meanwhile, Peter Dutton still harbours leadership ambitions and will be watching Scott Morrison like a hawk. RIP the Canberra bubble? Don’t count on it.

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