July 2022


How to be a prime minister

By Don Watson
Image of Anthony Albanese

Anthony Albanese. © Charly Triballeau / AFP via Getty Images

The task ahead for Anthony Albanese in restoring the idea that governments should seek to make the country better

Crammed into the pilot’s seat of a sluggish plane with a frozen rudder, pursued by Nazi Messerschmitts, peppered with flak, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was in a bit of a stew. It was not that at any moment he might be reduced to bits of burning debris drifting into the fields of France; it was the futility of the mission. What good was reconnaissance? One did not have to look down to know that, in the familiar way of human history, thousands of innocents were fleeing from barbarians.

But a liberating thought took shape in his mind. It came to him that we only advance, or at least do not regress, when good people – Madame Curie, for example – go about their work with all necessary diligence and skill. So, he thought, I must go about my work in this plane. I must do what a pilot does; nothing more, nothing less. I must keep my hands on this control stick and, despite every impediment, including my disgruntlement, fly on towards the light. He did, and he survived to write The Little Prince, before he fell like a meteor into the Mediterranean.

Saint-Exupéry’s thought was not particularly original or profound, but it does have some application to these times when political leaders seem to think success depends on being seen doing everyone’s job but their own. They put on hard hats, high-vis vests and gauze caps and propel themselves into the lives of innocent working citizens who have been reliably identified as politically useful. The images of their encounters with real people (aka forgotten people, quiet people et cetera) are projected into the living rooms and gymnasiums of the public at large, thus to persuade them that there but for the grace of God goes not an actual immunologist, ambo, hairdresser, test pilot or poultry boner, but one who might have been had not fate intervened to thrust him into his present wretched station.

They live by phoney gestures, phoney images, phoney lines: calculated phoniness. It looks democratic enough, seeing a prime minister rubbing shoulders with working people, listening, empathising, pretending to make common cause, until you realise, as you must if you see it every day for years, that the people into whose lives he pokes his nose are pretty much powerless to turn the tables. They can refuse the hand he offers, turn their backs, look surly and remote, but that is to let his manners corrupt their own.

The only practical revenge remains the ballot box. We must vote them out sometimes and hope the new lot comport themselves more decently. This recently we did. And with the fall of its most compulsive and ruthless practitioner, we have learnt that fakery need not win the political contest, and when combined with a smirk it is fatal.

It was not the most convincing take-off in the history of aviation, and many of us wished it was a woman in the pilot’s seat – at one point there seemed to be nobody in it – but who remembers that now? Albo is airborne. And thanks to scheduled meetings with foreign leaders that made him look like an instant prime minister, he gained altitude as soon as his wheels left the ground. That is Saint-Exupéry’s lesson: be the prime minister, and only that. No looping the loop or waving your hat to the crowd. Stay tucked up in the cockpit with the control stick firmly in your hand. Lead by example. If they insist you need an image, tell them it’s a prime minister’s you’re wanting.

It’s a radical step, of course, and it might take a year or two to settle into the culture. But imagine the pay-off if the mob begin to like you for taking your job as seriously as they take theirs. Some of it might even rub off on the ratbag elements in the media.

So, it’s goodbye to “How good is Australia!” and, as the PM sets course for a light on a distant hill, hello to “A Better Future”.

It is customary, of course, for Labor to inherit circumstances that make a worse future look more likely. This one does not fall far short of James Scullin getting the job two days before the Great Crash of 1929 and is at least on par with 2008 when Rudd ran into the GFC. A mountain of debt both public and private; rising interest rates; inflation here, in the United States and elsewhere; talk of recession and even stagflation; inert wages; chronic housing shortages; malfunctioning aged care, childcare, health, education, electricity grids and supply chains; and from the realms of the absurd, gas shortages that threaten to quadruple domestic prices, black-out suburbs and cripple industry. Really, Rudd’s task was a doddle.

There’s also climate change, of course. Easy to forget it in the circumstances, but it seems to have been the issue, swinging once impregnable inner-suburban seats away from the major parties and creating a squadron of teals and Greens who will not be satisfied with anything half-arsed from Labor.

And what to do about China? What to do about the world, really. We don’t have to share Peter Dutton’s view that Australia should prepare for war to feel we are edging closer to the verge of the unthinkable. Thank God for the submarines and our new alliances that almost certainly make sense to someone somewhere, or seemed to at the time. And thank God the Americans are only half mad and their president is still able to stand.

And there’s the fact that, for all the known thorny obstacles confronting them, just as often governments are unravelled – or saved – by things unknown when they set out. Wars, pandemics, sharemarket crashes, natural disasters, jealousy, stupidity, infidelity, boats arriving from the north – the defining factor of Labor’s coming term in office may be out of sight or still unborn.

Faced with this array, the new government could be forgiven for going into a holding pattern for the next three years. It’s been done before: blame the other incompetent crew for the calamities, say there are no quick fixes, set a few hares running and beg another three years to get the show on the road again. Voters often grant even ineffectual governments a second chance, and they are more inclined to do it when the alternative looks as fractured and malevolent as the new Opposition does.

But even were it not his nature to be dauntless, if the PM wants to assure himself of a second and a third term, he will need at least a modest pile of good works in the first. There is nothing like a sense of trajectory, of goals now well in sight but not yet reached, to fortify one’s rhetoric and make opponents’ slogans look base and pathetic. The prime minister will be wanting to say, “We promised you a better future and that is where we are going, it would be folly to change course now; our opponents, on the other hand, want to take us back, but we are going forward…” and so on, in the time-honoured way. God knows why, but it seems to be how human minds work.

Doing things is political insurance. If the pandemic cruelled the last government, it was because it had not been doing enough of anything else for COVID-19 to constitute an interruption. And so ingrained were their ways of doing nothing, they didn’t know how to do something when they had to.

For all the many obstacles ahead of it, it should not be too hard for an Albanese government, on paper the most capable and experienced since the 1980s, to tell a decent story after three years. Presuming its members can charm or coerce state governments, all but two of which are Labor, their best efforts should be enough to improve things in aged care and childcare, and at least show signs of stopping the slide in education. They might go some way to fixing the national electricity grid, find the means to build a lot of houses, set up a federal ICAC, conduct a referendum on the Uluru statement for the next term, and, with Tanya Plibersek consigned there, even make a bit of progress in the Murray–Darling. They might be hoping they can fudge a little and persuade the mob it would be madness to jump precipitately from fossil fuels: “Wherefore, gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and hope to the end… et cetera”, because you’re looking at a hiding sooner or later.

If after three years they can point credibly to progress where progress was possible, they can be forgiven failures where it was not, and survive the inevitable stuff-ups and even a catastrophe if it is not too evidently of their making.

It is the closest thing to magic in politics: how an election like the last one, in a beat, flips the world upside down. It’s as if someone has changed the channel, or the lens, or turned it back to front. The familiar goes suddenly out of focus and retreats, the real becomes unreal, words prove seasonable. There was Scott Morrison, still spruiking, thanking his wife, the army and Border Force. We’d heard it a thousand times and a day earlier we might not have noticed that he hadn’t thanked the nurses and doctors, aged-care workers, shop assistants, scientists, lab technicians and volunteers and the other “quiet Australians” he had dressed up as, and who had got us through the worst of the pandemic. But when he didn’t thank them in his concession speech, Mr Normal became abnormal – in an instant, the great marketer may as well have been marketing Rinso.

And there was Anthony Albanese, barely managing to hold body and soul together, lips clenching for fear his face would fall apart, eventually speaking in a tone and words so genuine they sounded foreign, of his country and his girlfriend, and his son and his son’s mother, it was as if in a few halting sentences Australian politics caught up with real life. Hollywood could not have pulled off the seeming transformation of that hour. And all those not-quiet women in all those seats gifting Labor government with 31 per cent of the primary vote.

It can’t last. Government is mainly a slog and, as a former incumbent used to say, they all get carried out in the end. Which is the more reason why this government should keep that moment alive. It can serve as a starting point for the story, a frame for the narrative that unfolds within it. Ending the cruel farce endured by the Nadesalingam family and getting them back to Biloela was the more resoundingly prime ministerial because of it.

If the government were able to quietly orchestrate Julian Assange’s return to Australia and put an end to the miserable pursuit of “Witness K” and Bernard Collaery, not only would it serve justice, it would make millions feel better about themselves and their country. It would prove the government’s mettle and give its story spine. And, because Assange means confronting Australia’s AUKUS partners, it might give that weird new creature a dose of credibility.

As a catchcry, Scott Morrison’s famous “How good is Australia!” was a ripper of a dog-whistle: anyone who thought Australia was a bit ordinary in places, or not as good as it should be, was an agent of perfidious gloom, or, who knows, a hostile power. It was designed to shut out opposition. Tony Abbott used the same routine in an even cruder form – remember “Team Australia”. All governments do this kind of thing, all despots too.

There is no point arguing with slogans. But there is a point to Labor asking what good is. In what ways is Australia good? Count the ways the country’s good and you’ll soon be thinking of the ways to make it better – which is a boiled down version of Labor philosophy, if not its reason for existence.

Australia is good because it abounds in nature’s gifts, and golden soil and wealth for toil, and all that, but also because it is a functioning liberal democracy. It is an open society and aspires in equal measure to social fairness and justice and reward for individual talent and effort. These are not difficult concepts, but if politicians and journalists mention them at all, it is usually in terms that pit one against the other – “lifters and leaners”, for example. In truth they are largely agreed upon, but neither major party dares admit it. Both are geared to meeting the requirements of an adversarial system. Rather than framing the debate, the principles are bent to its relentless unedifying churn.

If Labor’s ambition is to create an Australian social democracy (or if it prefers, “an economy and a society that works better for everyone”), laying down a few social democratic principles would create useful boundaries for the conduct of discussion and decision-making, and a foundation for decent policy. If talking about principles sounds like the sort of thing that Tories do, you haven’t been listening for the past decade or two. The Coalition abandoned Tory philosophy long ago, and Labor, thanks to teals and Greens, is in government because it did. Tories don’t “do” anything in Australia because there are no Tories anymore, and Labor shouldn’t flatter the Coalition with the name, much less with the word “conservative”, not this gaggle of corporate lackeys, third-hand Thatcherites and fossils-in-waiting.

The principles of liberalism and openness do not make a refugee policy fail. Reality might have demanded that the boats were turned back and internment camps established, but it did not demand replacing the values the country is grounded in with slogans of fear and loathing for brave and innocent people. It didn’t demand cruelty and indifference. There was no reason why the arrival of refugees should have so debilitated the nation’s conscience.

By contrast, the ideas of an open society and a liberal democracy, held in common by Bob Hawke and a real Tory, Malcolm Fraser, made for a “good” multicultural Australia. And for Robert Menzies, a conservative philosophy was no impediment to creating and generously funding public institutions essential to any country’s flourishing and worth, which recent Coalition governments have made a point of running down. Labor, which began the rot with its “efficiency dividends” in 1986, should make it a priority to run them back up again. It could begin small: call off the $500 million “extension” to the Australian War Memorial and give it back its solemn dignity. With 20 of the 500 million dollars, add the Frontier Wars to all the others it memorialises, and use the balance to pay down debt or rebuild the institutions where all the other – non-military – parts of Australia’s story can be found.

Imperfect though it is, democracy in many ways defines Australia. Other countries talk more about it. The United States, for instance, cannot help itself on the subject. Yet there are Republicans who say that America is not a democracy but a republic with democracy made to fit it where convenient; others that it is neither of those but rather an elective monarchy; and still others tried recently to tear democracy down in the name of… democracy.

Australia is decidedly neither a republic nor an elective monarchy, but only a democracy. Ask 50 of us what is good about Australia, and after we’d got past the weather, the sport and the landscape, it’s a fair guess 30 – maybe even 40 with prompting – would say it’s the democracy. That doesn’t mean they think it works, or that they shouldn’t get a greater say in things, or that the people they elect are better than mugs, but they think it should work and they should be listened to, and the pollies should be better than they are. In other words, democracy is an ideal, a value, a principle, a promise.

The Melbourne lockdowns are instructive. Neither the people opposing the lockdowns, along with mandatory vaccination and masks, nor the government that imposed them, seemed much interested in the question of what was democratic and what was not. Daniel Andrews said his government was imposing these restrictions to save lives. The protesters cried “Freedom!” and ran headlong at police they could easily have gone round. The Coalition appears to have decided that Victorians regarded Andrews as a brute and that it could count on the electorate loathing him.

Yet a majority in that electorate seems to have reached a different view, and a more sophisticated one than the politicians had bothered to offer. They decided that in a crisis, democracy’s guarantee of individual rights must give way to the duty of care for others (even old or ailing boomers), keeping hospitals functioning and looking after the people who work in them.

Meanwhile, many people in the electorate of Kooyong made it clear that in a representative democracy, representatives had better not divide their loyalties. Much the same sentiment played out with dire consequences for Labor in the seat of Fowler, and for Liberals all over Western Australia. Indeed, it is a consistent thread in the rise of independents across the country, and in the steadily declining primary vote of Liberal and Labor.

If all this means recognising that the electorate’s grasp of democracy is at least equal to that of the major parties and much of the media, Labor should not be shy about bringing its democratic philosophy into the conversation. What sort of a Labor Party does not believe in the capacity of people to weigh individual and collective interests in the balance, or the national interest and the corporate interest, the interests of the fossil-fuel industry and the interests of continuing life on the planet? A progressive party that will not give its ideas a name and take it to the people is hardly progressive. It’s a bolder strategy than just being photographed with them, but what a lift it will give to life.

There are other good reasons for a Labor prime minister to push these subjects into the centre of the conversation. No need for a civics lesson. Nothing doctrinaire. No Mill, Marx or an ancient Greek required. And no need to stop building houses, creating jobs and fixing the economy. But, to create a coherent story, a context for action and a dynamic for rhetoric, there is a need to set the boundaries of debate.

Labor should fly its ideological flag to make clear that progress will only, and can only, be made within the norms and traditions of democracy, and that social democracy contains the most democratic possibilities, and the strongest guarantees of democracy’s survival. The alternative is the near paralysis of the past decade – or worse. Donald Trump rode to power on the disaffections of people the New Democrats had abandoned. Smug in their neoliberal faith, they gave up on social democratic ambitions, even decried many of them, and those they didn’t the Republicans ground to dust. Forsaken by democracy, the people went beyond it. In Australia, despite the efforts of the Murdoch media, full of bullshit and incapable of shame, this has not happened and probably won’t. But that’s what Democrats were saying right up to the day of the 2016 election.

It’s not only for the right that the boundaries should be drawn. It would be a mighty contribution to politics and the nation if by its example Labor could persuade the woke side of the culture wars that the social democratic project is the last best hope for the redress of historic and continuing grievances, and the only defence against those who deny them. Applying that principle would mean that traditions of free inquiry, fundamental to democracy, are not subverted by such measures as the protocols recently introduced by the University of Sydney Library to restrict access to material deemed “sacred” and to offer First Nations people “a right of reply” to material they consider “inaccurate, offensive and outdated”. Think about where this might take us. Keep thinking. Or perhaps don’t.

Fly on, Albo. To that pinpoint of light in the darkness. It must be the light on the hill. No, sorry – it’s you.

Don Watson

Don Watson is an award-winning author. His books include The Passion of Private White, Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language, Recollections of a Bleeding Heart: A Portrait of Paul Keating PM, The Bush and Watsonia, a collection of his writing.

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