June 2023


The year of living cautiously

By Sean Kelly
Labor Party election-night event at the Canterbury-Hurlstone Park RSL, Sydney

Labor Party election-night event at the Canterbury-Hurlstone Park RSL, Sydney. © Andrew Quilty

What do the first 12 months of the Albanese government tell us about its aims, and how should we assess its success?

Novelist and Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk believes that when we read a book, we are – consciously or not – searching for its “secret centre”. Whether a novel in fact has such a centre is arguable, but our conviction that it does drives our reading experience. “Because we know – or assume – that novels have centres, we act, as readers, exactly like the hunter who treats each leaf and each broken branch as a sign and examines them closely as he progresses through the landscape.” Everything in the book – style, plot, detail – points to something beneath the surface, something “other than what is immediately apparent”.

Most people pay only passing attention to politics. But for those of us who follow it closely – anyone who might read this essay, say – this is exactly what we do when faced with a new government. Who are these people, really, and what are they up to? Wily politicians cannot be taken at face value: not their words, nor their actions. And so we have to guess.

A year into the Albanese government, we are still guessing. In part this is because the government does not obviously resemble those that have come before. The Morrison, Turnbull, Gillard and Keating governments are not good comparisons: those prime ministers took over midstream, when someone else had already set a tone. Tony Abbott and Kevin Rudd are the most recent leaders to have had the chance to impose themselves entirely, and the first years of both their governments were wild rides. Albanese’s first year has felt quiet by contrast.

What then of the governments that Albanese so often says he wants to emulate: the long-term ones? The Hawke and Howard governments seem to have made their mark early. It is a little shocking to see what John Howard got done inside a year: Telstra’s privatisation was enabled, incentives for private health insurance put in place, work for the dole tabled and gun laws passed, as well as industrial relations reforms that would lead directly to the historic waterfront dispute. Hawke’s government floated the dollar, solidified the Accord between businesses and trade unions, reintroduced Medicare, introduced the Sex Discrimination Act into the parliament, and saved the Franklin River by giving the Commonwealth control over World Heritage sites. Decades later, the impact of those combined 24 months or so is still felt.

What, in 10 years, will we remember from Albanese’s first year? Perhaps that is an unfair question: after all, that previous governments have acted a certain way does not mean this one has to. But then you could hold Albanese to his own words. Interviewed for this magazine late in 2021, he said of the Morrison government, “I can’t recall a government that had less of a sense of direction. Under John Howard, there was direction. He had a set of beliefs … [Even before COVID] there was no direction. There was no ‘Here’s the big economic reform, here’s the big social policy reform, here’s the big environmental reform.’”

Speaking to seasoned observers of governments, this is the question that keeps coming up: what is the Albanese government trying to do? What will its big reforms be? What, to adopt Albanese’s words, is its direction? Does it know? They are searching for its “secret centre”. They are wondering if there is one.

What would it look like to find the government’s secret centre? A particular belief? In what – fairness? Or a set of secret plans, a desired set of policies? A determination to rid the country of negative gearing and the “Stage 3” tax cuts? Would any of these resolve the question?

One veteran strategist I talk to says there are three aspects of being prime minister. The first is the tone you set. The second is your governing purpose, communicated largely through your policies. The third is how you respond to events.

So far, the government has put a significant emphasis on tone. Albanese is explicit about this. “I think the first year in office is an opportunity to demonstrate the character of a government,” he told journalist Phillip Coorey. “And we have demonstrated a government that is consultative, that’s inclusive, that’s determined to deliver on its promises, that is mainstream.”

The public seems receptive. Voters, say Labor insiders, have been surprised at how well Albanese has done. Some of this comes from positives: a sense that here is somebody they can invest trust in, because he has delivered on commitments. Some of it is the absence of negatives: no scandals, no surprises. His personal polling numbers, which soared after the election, have lately fallen back a bit, but Labor believes this is largely the predictable resurgence of partisanship. There is some concern, perhaps lingering from the campaign, that he is not good with detail. But there is nothing sustained and consistent, nothing personal that has found clear definition yet.

It is hard to overstate how much Albanese benefits from the fact Scott Morrison came before him. Albanese more or less says this himself. To Coorey, he said, “The feedback that we get all the time – really consistent, all ages, genders, everything – is that the adults are in charge, and that’s huge.”

The contrast is not only a matter of perceptions. Under Morrison, parliament often had nothing to do. Albanese’s ministers seem almost surprised at how much legislation they are passing. Nor is this just rhetoric: the recent budget included funding to hire more people to draft legislation.

Ministers repeatedly emphasise how collegial cabinet is, and what a contrast this must make with Morrison’s one-man-band approach. At each meeting, Linda Burney delivers a Welcome to Country. Then issues are actually discussed. The amount of experience in cabinet – so many were ministers in the Rudd–Gillard years – is seen as a significant advantage, and not only in their desire to avoid the mistakes of the past. They already understand what the job is. Within portfolios, ministers are given their head. Not that there is any doubt about who is boss: Albanese, I am told, sets parameters, and his ministers then act within them. When he puts his foot down, he means it.

There are difficulties too. There are deep concerns about the capability of the public service after the past decade. Political staff, I am told, feel they are under immense pressure not to make mistakes. There is some frustration with the control exerted by the prime minister’s office, as there always is. Overall, though, the sense is of processes working smoothly.

When you read a novel, it is obvious you will not really know its centre until you finish reading – and even then your perspective might keep changing. The same goes for a government: things look different in hindsight.

Albanese, when I put the Hawke and Howard comparisons to him, makes this point. He suggests to me that I am showing my age. There was chaos in the early stages of the Howard government, he reminds me – in that first year, two frontbenchers resigned – while Hawke was sharply criticised from the left. Albanese believes the historical contrast will show his government in a good light.

But then, if Hawke and Howard could not have guessed, after a year, how history would see them, isn’t the same likely to be true of Albanese? Right now, the government’s calm and grounded tone seems significant. But isn’t that because it is still early, our memories of what came before still fresh? What about 10 years from now? Will it still seem like one of the most important qualities of this government, a pointer to its secret centre?

There is another element of tone that senior Labor people believe is the one registering most with voters: a sense that the temperature of politics has changed. There is less lecturing and hectoring, less identifying enemies and picking fights.

At first this seems surprising, because of Albanese’s reputation as somebody who doesn’t mind a disagreement. His friend and Labor left colleague Meredith Burgmann told his biographer Karen Middleton, “If you’re in an argument with Albo, he will destroy you.” Albanese himself told Middleton that as a child he “played football the way I play politics. I always had a crack. I never took a backward step and could be a mongrel on the field.”

This drive to win has worked for him. Journalist Margaret Simons points out he has lost only one major political battle in his life, when Bill Shorten beat him to the leadership in 2013. But his method for winning seems to have changed. As prime minister, Albanese seems almost to take pleasure in his ability not to bite back, to avoid giving his opponents the fight they seem to want. When his government capped gas prices, one executive accused him of implementing “Soviet-style” policies. Albanese gently suggested the industry shouldn’t exaggerate how bad things were. “Don’t talk yourselves down,” he said, smiling.

In private conversations with members of the government you sometimes hear talk of getting things done without frightening the horses. It is meant as praise, and stems from the government’s belief it is achieving without causing controversy, by deploying skilful political management. But there is another reading that is increasingly prevalent in commentary: if nobody reacted, could it be because the policies weren’t as significant as the government believed? To put this another way: is the government’s concern with tone coming at the expense of its “governing purpose” or policies? In the days before the budget, the government announced a change to the way gas companies are taxed. The gas companies didn’t even try to fight it. The conclusion drawn by most was that the tax had not gone far enough.

Ministers dispute the idea the government is only doing small stuff. In fact, I am told, you would be hard-pressed to find a portfolio where significant things are not being done. Albanese has a long list, but in particular points to the government’s actions on climate and clean energy, including the way they have changed Australia’s place in the world. These, he believes, are his generation’s equivalent of the Hawke–Keating opening up of the economy, and are “at least as significant as any individual environmental initiative that’s ever been undertaken, including Franklin Dam”. Childcare, he says, is being transformed from a welfare measure into an economic and equality measure, a reform that becomes even bigger when paid parental leave is added. Labor disputes, too, the growing chorus arguing it is fundamentally centrist. This is a centre-left government, I am told. The party understands its constituency is progressive and voted for real change. Albanese himself also rejects the label “centrist” when I put it to him, though his own formulation may not satisfy doubters: “I think we’re Labor.” The day I speak to him he has received messages from several people who knew him when he was growing up, whom he describes as “Labor people, culturally”. One of the things he does, he says, is ask himself what they would think about his decisions. “Keeping in touch with those people is really important.”

Danielle Wood, head of the Grattan Institute, has been sharply critical of the government, saying it risks playing “footsies with the big social and fiscal challenges”. The main reason for this is its refusal to go after more revenue by embarking on tax reform. But Wood acknowledges, too, that not all reform takes money, and that some of the government’s other changes have been overlooked. Changes that encourage GPs to work with other health professionals in treating patients are, she tells me, “the biggest change to the way Medicare operates since it was first introduced”. In migration, we have already seen a “fundamental shake-up” that will deliver large economic gains. But these are missed, says Wood, because we tend to ignore changes that “can’t be sold in terms of two groups butting heads”.

There is at least one easy way to guarantee that type of fight: raise taxes.

Witness the mounting pressure on the government to change its stance on Morrison’s Stage 3 tax cuts. Over the past year, these tax cuts – legislated by Morrison and committed to by Albanese before the election – have become a kind of totem for the left. This is not without reason: they are worth hundreds of billions of dollars. Without hundreds of billions of dollars, Labor will not be able to touch far bigger reforms. The truth is that, on their own, many of those reforms would be welcomed by voters. That is not the difficult part – the difficult part comes when you have to convince voters to pay for them. Reversing the tax cuts, then, has come to serve as a proxy for Labor’s overall courage and commitment to the progressive cause.

This is the difficulty in the Albanese government’s approach. So far, at least, it does not want to pick fights. It seems to deliberately design policies so that they will not annoy too many people; on the occasions that some people are annoyed, it refuses to take the bait. So far, it seems true that voters – as Albanese has been saying for years – are sick of fights. But governments, historically, tend to be defined by the fights they pick. A fight is a clear sign that you have made a brave decision – you’ve risked anger in order to do what you believed was necessary. They are pointers to what a government truly cares about. Until the Albanese government picks a fight, and sticks with it, will we know what it really stands for? Fights, in other words, can reveal the secret centre of a government.

Avoiding political fights may not matter if the government is seen to be adequately responding to the challenges it faces. Here we come to the third aspect of the prime minister’s job: dealing with events. One suggestion put to me is that, while the government’s approach may be the best one, it also carries risk. That risk will only become obvious when a crisis hits. At that point, if the governing purpose has not yet been communicated to voters, a crisis can become disproportionately important in shaping the public’s view of a leader. Arguably, this is what happened to Morrison with the pandemic.

There is another risk, too, one that is less obvious and even more important.

Some dramatic events, such as the pandemic, are impossible to miss. They are also impossible for governments to avoid responding to. You are then judged by the effectiveness of your response. But other crises have to be identified; the government’s response is what makes clear there was a crisis. The Port Arthur massacre was a crisis, but not necessarily for the government: Howard, by acting, turned it into one. The same might be said of the waterfront dispute, and even the arrival of the Tampa. Paul Keating created a crisis when he described the danger of becoming a “banana republic”; that very act then created the possibility of responding to it.

Some ministers in the Albanese government talk in fairly dramatic terms about the problems they see in the country right now. The climate crisis is obvious. Health Minister Mark Butler says he is “terrified” at how few medical students are becoming GPs; general practice is in “the worst shape it has been in the 40-year history of Medicare”. Education Minister Jason Clare has reels of upsetting statistics: in the past 15 years the reading gap between eight-year-olds from wealthy families and eight-year-olds from poor families has doubled. Treasurer Jim Chalmers says the budget situation is “confronting” and that he wants a “serious conversation” with voters about how to pay for services, because while he’s pleased people think the adults are in charge that means talking to voters like they’re adults too.

Talking to voters like adults presumably means being strikingly honest with them. Despite these isolated descriptions from ministers, there is not, really, a sense of gathering troubles. There should be. We do not have enough houses. More and more people can’t afford to buy, and rents are rising fast. The quality of our services is falling. It is getting harder to see a doctor. Education levels are in decline, and the growing gap in education results between rich and poor could, in time, split the country. There are floods and bushfires. In short: Australia is becoming a tougher, meaner, more divided and more dangerous place to live.

This is a crisis, isn’t it?

Slow-moving crises – as this one appears to be – don’t always stay that way. Taking serious action on climate change faded from our national priorities until suddenly we were overwhelmed with bushfires and floods. It was only at that point that the previous government’s failure to treat climate change as the crisis it was became a political liability.

There is another risk with crisis: that it may derail your plans. While the government forcefully pushes back on the idea that this first year has been quiet, those within also insist they have bigger things planned. But you can’t do everything at once, and you have to do things in the right order. Sequencing is crucial to understanding how this government operates. Chalmers has described governing as “prioritising and sequencing”. It is important to remember that this is how Albanese won the campaign: he publicly laid out a clear, chronological strategy – “kicking with the wind” in the last quarter – and stuck to it.

The government’s hope is clearly that by establishing a tone, as well as its credentials on national security and economic security, it gains permission to do other things. If the government can prove it is restrained, responsible and trustworthy, then when it announces bigger changes, it hopes it won’t be seen as reckless. When it does embark on tax reform – whether or not this includes altering the Stage 3 tax cuts – the old framing of Labor as the big-spending and big-taxing party won’t be the only one available.

The most obvious and important bit of sequencing concerns the Indigenous voice to parliament. If there is one sign that Albanese is bolder than some give him credit for, it is this. It was the first thing he mentioned in his election victory speech. When future commentators write about the first year of his government, the fact he took steps towards the referendum will surely figure large. Referendums typically fail, and Australians – to put it in its mildest form – have not always valued Indigenous culture. The vote is likely to succeed only if Albanese and his government remain popular. Arguably, it would be foolish of the government to take on other difficult contests before that victory is secured. If he gets this bit of sequencing wrong, Albanese would be risking more than his own political future.

The question of how to order things is obviously a political judgement. Albanese’s whole adult life has been spent in politics. Those around him believe one of his strengths is his ability to read the politics of things and identify what the political pressures are shaping up to be; in conversation with me he refers to his own “gut instinct”. And, in fact, one of the distinctive aspects of Albanese as prime minister is how willing he is to talk openly about politics; Howard, perhaps is comparable. Take Albanese’s statement about demonstrating the character of a government in the first year: it is explicitly political, an acknowledgement that his behaviour is in part about communicating a particular impression to voters.

The most important political point Albanese makes is that he wants to be in government for a long time. On the day after the budget, Albanese was asked whether he was bold enough. He said that his aim was to lead a long-term Labor government that creates a better future, and that the budget was a step towards that. I hear this “long-term” refrain from almost everyone in government. In part, it is born from the searing experience of the Rudd–Gillard years and what followed: so many of today’s ministers saw their work torn down. To make it last, they believe, they must govern for years and years.

But if events intervene – if a crisis interrupts – then it is possible that all the things the government had hoped to get to, which it believed would end up as defining, don’t get done. At present, the government is focused on countering the risk from the opposite direction: that by acting too quickly and making mistakes you cost yourselves those years anyway. Whether you believe the government is going too fast or too slow, Albanese tells me, depends on whether you see it as a three-year government or one planning for something longer. He also reminds me that second terms are not guaranteed the way people think they are. Hawke and Howard almost lost after one term. You have to go back to Fraser, he says, to find a government that didn’t go backwards at its next election.

When other recent leaders insisted that they never thought about politics, there was a sense they could not afford to admit they were acting politically in any one situation, because it would make the truth too obvious: they were always acting politically, it was the sole prism through which they understood government. The fact Howard and Albanese are not fazed may suggest the opposite: they understand that politics is always there, that it would be foolish to deny it, but feel no fear in saying so because it is equally clear that politics is not the only factor driving them. One observer I spoke to believes that voters understand this, and that it is one of the major contrasts they have picked up on: for Morrison in particular, everything was subservient to politics, including government. Albanese is just as political, but for him the relationship is the other way around: politics as a means, not an end. When I point out to Albanese his willingness to talk about the role politics plays in his decisions, he says it would not be honest to do otherwise. He says, too, that telling people what you’re doing is part of how you bring them with you.

Albanese believes long-term government is, at this stage of the country’s history, a worthwhile end in itself. We have had too many prime ministers in too short a space of time, he says, which is “not in the national interest, just objectively”. He is also fond of saying, though, that he is not there to “occupy the space”. So, what does he want to do with it?

One interesting clue came during the campaign, when Albanese defended plans to subsidise childcare even for the wealthy by recounting the fact that his mother, while in hospital, had stayed in the same room that Kerry Packer had stayed in when the media mogul had a heart attack. “Public services which are universal make a difference to strengthen our society,” he said. “And I have said quite clearly that childcare is something that we should consider as a service that benefits the entire society.”

This is significant because, as historian Frank Bongiorno has noted, many of Labor’s largest reforms have been universal. Universalism, by bringing rich and poor together, makes our public services a joint endeavour; as with Medicare, both our quality of life and our sense of ourselves as Australians becomes tied to their success. There is a hint here of a grand national project, one that might unite Australians in a new sense of their country and what it might be.

Albanese has always understood that such large changes begin with smaller changes. Twenty years ago, he supported superannuation reform to allow same-sex couples to be treated the same as heterosexual couples. He told Karen Middleton that winning support for that was – compared to same-sex marriage – fairly easy, because it was people’s own money. “But once you did that, once you got into the debate and that logic, the principles of ‘people should be treated the same’ was easy to be extended.” He tells me that he didn’t then have marriage equality in mind as an aim – “’cause no one did”.

When I ask Albanese whether he has 10 specific policies he wants to see in 10 years, he says no, “because the world isn’t quite like that”. Then he reconsiders and begins to list things: progress on high-speed rail, making more things in Australia – such as solar panels and quantum products – a lot of movement on clean energy within five years, an Indigenous voice to parliament as a means to closing the gap, housing, addressing locational disadvantage.

The list is long, but is it actually specific? And should we expect such specifics from a prime minister? When I ask one minister whether the government has particular policies in mind, he says what the government has is bigger than that – that it all comes back to the phrase Albanese constantly repeats: “nobody held back and nobody left behind”. This, in turn, strengthens the commitment to sequencing: you don’t have to do everything at once if you know where you’re heading. After all, that is what happened with equal rights for LGBTQIA+ people: it began with a principle. That principle led to policies, which in turn shifted the way people thought about what was possible – what that principle implied if you followed it all the way to its logical conclusion.

Perhaps this is the proper reading of the changes the government has made so far. Higher wages for aged-care workers as the first step towards higher wages for all essential workers. Pattern bargaining as the first step towards a revivified labour movement. An anti-corruption commission as a precursor to serious donations reform. A 43 per cent climate target to make conceivable a far higher target down the track.

“You can’t view what we’re doing in isolation from how it will be received,” Albanese says. I think often of something he told journalist Katharine Murphy about the way he learns: “Action, reaction, action, reaction.” Perhaps the way to think of each policy announcement is as a test of both the government and the public, expressed through their interactions. When both groups pass that test, they get to move on to the next.

A year in, the government has not yet had to face what happens if the opposite occurs: if the public fails to embrace what the government is doing. Will the government fail its own test in response? What then?

There are so many ways for things to turn out differently from what Albanese obviously hopes. It is possible a crisis arrives and robs the government of the years it thought it had. Or perhaps this government is, as some suggest, merely timid; that it will get the years it wants by avoiding fights but, because it is always avoiding fights, will achieve only a fraction of what it wanted. Or perhaps it is in fact willing to start a fight but, when push comes to shove, shrinks back, something we have seen too many times in recent years. Albanese may have found a different mode of winning fights, but it is unclear yet whether he is still the political fighter that he used to be, the man who would not take a backwards step.

Political wisdom is inevitably based on what has come before. It is true that previous governments have been defined by the battles they have fought. Howard believed your political capital would run out one way or another – either you used it or it seeped away, and so the best thing was to use it fast. Keating had a different way of explaining a similar approach. Likening himself to the Road Runner and his opponents to Wile E. Coyote, he said: “If you run fast enough, you burn the road up behind you – there is no road for anyone else.” Both men were entirely willing to risk frustrating large sections of the country in the pursuit of the large, fast changes they believed both substantively and politically essential. Albanese’s approach is strikingly different. It is a new model, and therefore provokes doubt.

Until Albanese won the 2022 election, nobody thought a Labor leader could win government from Opposition by running as a small target. That was something only Liberal leaders got away with. And then Albanese won.

There has been plenty of talk in recent years about the impossibility of large reforms. But perhaps they seem impossible only because we are used to thinking of such reforms happening in one large bang, as they did before, under leaders such as Howard and Keating. Albanese talks openly about politics, about what is possible, and about altering what seems possible by stepping out change. He talks of “safe change”. If this sounds timid, it may be because we have not yet grasped that the meaning of both those words – “safe” and “change” – can be shifted over time by a determined government. Perhaps Albanese is pioneering a model of leadership that, in its apparently deliberate caution, is sharply different from what we have seen. What if fights are not necessary but a hindrance to this task?

Albanese tells me that because of his political history – leader of a minority (the hard left) within a minority (Labor Left) – and because of how he grew up, “I knew how to fight and I still know how to fight.” But he also says his approach has changed with age: “You don’t get change by yelling.” Only one year into his government, though, that remains a theory, largely untested.

At this early stage, many observers – myself included – remain hunters looking for the secret centre of this government, examining each leaf and broken branch, looking for something other than what is obvious on the surface. Perhaps, we think, a fight will break out, as it has in the past, and then we will know the truth.

But what if we are looking in the wrong place? What if the answer is right there on the surface? It is at least possible that the government’s centre will turn out to be what Albanese so often talks about: a patient commitment to long-term government in the pursuit of building a society in which nobody is held back and nobody left behind.

This may be part of the truth, but only part. In his lectures on the question of a “secret centre”, Orhan Pamuk makes a point that is obvious enough once you read it: there is no single centre. Instead, there are several. While reading a novel, we push this truth away, because we enjoy “the hope and the illusion that the world has a centre and a meaning”. We re-read great books because we want to experience again this hope.

Those of us who follow politics closely hold onto a similar illusion. And when we revisit governments of the past that we admire we tell ourselves they had a centre. They didn’t, of course. The real mistake is not the one that Albanese chides me for – of thinking that these governments were better or more orderly than they were – but of believing that they had a clear meaning at all, when the truth of every government is that it is a set of unpredictable interactions with the world, experienced differently by every person affected by it.

The power of a novel’s centre, says Pamuk, “resides not in what it is, but in our search for it as readers”. We never discover a centre in any definite sense, but nor do we abandon hope that one day we will find it. “When we discuss the nature of the centre,” he says, “we are discussing our view of life.” The questions confronting the Albanese government – how much time it has left, whether to move quickly or slowly, how to balance its passions against what seems possible – are interesting not because there are clear answers, but because they are the questions that confront us all. What Albanese believes is the centre of the government is a result of his experiences; the same is true of you.

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is the author of The Game: A Portrait of Scott Morrison, a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.


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