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