The Politics    Friday, December 8, 2023

What comes next?

By Jonathan Green

Image of Anthony Albanese

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese reacts during Question Time at Parliament House, December 7, 2023. (Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

How the government responds to recent challenges is make or break for effective progressive government in this country

A lot hangs on what happens next. Does this government somehow keep its nerve and steadily implement what, in some golden age of politics long passed, would have been called a “legislative agenda”, or does it clown around and just play politics? The routine answer is that it ought to combine a continuing energy for the first with slightly more attention to the second, but that’s a solution in search of a better understanding of the problem. The problem? We’ll get to that, but yesterday gave us a paraphrase of the alternative responses.

The government, beleaguered by the political storm over the preventative detention of stateless undesirables, managed not only quickly constructed legislation to potentially return the worst of those people to detention, but also secured the passage of sweeping changes to industrial relations law, a top-to-toe reform of the NDIS involving a complex recalibration of federal–state financial relations, the introduction of a national firearms register, the abolition of the conservative emolument drip that was the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, and a legislative reframe of the process by which judges might remove citizenship from terrorists.

In an equally crowded day for the opposition, Peter Dutton submitted to a rigorous interrogation from 2GB’s Ray Hadley – “Good morning, Ray.” “Late night, last night?” – while deputy Sussan Ley appeared in the corridors of the press gallery carrying a life-size cardboard cut-out of Anthony Albanese, branded “missing in action”, while she bemoaned his “international visits” and spoke of the urgent need to “front the Canberra press gallery”. (Around the same time, Anthony Albanese was in the PM’s courtyard announcing a bilateral security agreement with Papua New Guinea.) Even Sky News said it was “a bit of a stunt”.

More seriously, yesterday was the fifth day, the PM confirmed during Question Time, in which the opposition had ignored the government’s offer of access to the legal advice that has informed its response to the High Court’s NZYQ decision. As the saying goes in journalism, sometimes you just don’t want the facts to get in the way of a good story.

It’s when we look at the nature of that story that we begin to see the extent of the problem – a problem that confronts not just this government but anyone engaged in the practice of effective progressive politics in this country.

The High Court made a decision; it obliged the government to act. The consequences were untidy; the choices were few. The ensuing “debate” over the High Court’s decision is a pretty fine example of a broken system, one that in this instance obsessed over political consequence, entirely unheeding of the fact that simple solutions don’t exist, and if they did they would be the remedies of a police state.

The government confronted not only the invidious reality presented by the court, but also a surrounding media-driven machine of perpetual political motion. That machine has become a fixture of our politics, a mechanism that first creates an air of political crisis around an issue where none may reasonably exist, and then reports on the continuing play of that crisis as a thing of political consequence. It’s self-fulfilling and destructive of any sensible, purposeful public life. Politics can always be played.

And this is the question for this government, as it looks to tackle the necessary task of shifting its popularity from a baseline that suddenly seems to offer dark premonitions of existential challenge: does it attempt to master that game of circular, media-fuelled politics, or does it stick to its guns and go about assiduous, but quiet, delivery?

Conventional wisdom has it that the Albanese government needs to shift gear in the play of its politics, to be more proactive and better disciplined in turning the purely political agenda to its advantage. But that framing implies some kind of natural logic in the issues that an overwhelmingly hostile media choses to invest with its chosen framing of “crisis”. That logic isn’t there, and the goalposts are on wheels. Crises are created – look at the preventative detention issue – to satisfy the media’s need for the heated adversarialism that it is all-but exclusively geared to report.

It’s not a winnable game, and perhaps the seeds of defeat lie in the choice to become actively involved in it in the first place. Can it be avoided? That question rests on where public attention is focused and whether its distracted scepticism about political actors and acts is best shifted through creating substantial legislative and policy achievement or through the endless empty performance of distracting cardboard cut-out politics.

The challenge must be to make good government more compelling than the colour and movement of media-manufactured rolling crisis. If our system demands a continual response to the latter as the price of political survival, it won’t just be the Albanese government that’s doomed to a long night of failure.

Jonathan Green

Jonathan Green is a writer and ABC broadcaster.

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