Albanese has every reason to keep doing what he’s doing
There is disappointment in certain quarters that Labor leader Anthony Albanese is playing both sides on the hard issues like climate change, refusing to be pinned down. At worst, Albanese gets castigated from the right and left. The Australian yesterday ran an almost-gotcha piece on an apparent shift in Albanese’s language on coal – a failure to love the stuff sufficiently – while elsewhere there is exasperation at the antics of the pro-coal Otis Group at a time when the nation is still reeling from “black summer”. Like Howard versus Beazley, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has certainly made this line of attack a feature of his criticism of Albanese in parliament – saying he “wants to have it each way on every bet”. But the truth is, it’s working. A senior Labor operative made the point recently that last year Albanese would never have dreamed he and the ALP would be ahead in the polls at this point in the electoral cycle. Why would Labor want its internal policy debates to distract from a government careering from crisis to crisis – from Hawaii to sports rorts to coronavirus to robodebt?
Albanese has made the point repeatedly that it’s the position come election time that matters, not what’s happening today. Instead of rushing to fixed decisions, what seems to be happening in Labor is something a little more tactical, and perhaps even thoughtful. Some digging back into Labor history is going on. Two key economic speeches today illustrate the point.
In the first, an address at the Queensland Media Club, Albanese outlines a “positive ageing strategy”, reaffirming Labor’s support for a gradual increase in superannuation to 12 per cent, against opposition from some in the Coalition, the Grattan Institute and ACOSS. Albanese points out that it was the Labor government of Andrew Fisher – “a great Queenslander” – that introduced the old-age pension in 1908, “ensuring for the first time that working Australians could retire with dignity. We were one of the first nations in the world to do it.” Albanese hits a few aspirational notes – no mention of franking credits – and slips in a few digs at the cuts to pensions under then treasurer Morrison from 2015, and dragging the chain on deeming rates. He cites a Deloitte study that found a 3 per cent increase in workforce participation by over 55s would give the economy a $33 billion boost. Plenty of upside there.
In a second speech, Andrew Leigh reaches back to the late Victorian premier John Cain, who took Labor to power in 1982, ending 30 years of Liberal rule. If Victoria is the country’s most progressive state now, it was not always so, and it started with Cain. Labor has won 71 per cent of Victorian state elections since 1982, but governed only half that time federally. Reflecting on last year’s defeat, Leigh cites Andrew Charlton’s analysis that Labor’s primary vote fell on average by 1.3 per cent over the prior 10 elections. In 2019, it fell by 1.4 per cent. “That’s a structural trend, which goes beyond personalities and unexpected events,” says Leigh. “Following our election loss, there were more explanations for why we lost than we had policies. What struck me was the number of people who contended that we should discard ideas based on nothing more than politics. As a friend of mine put it, it was akin to saying, ‘the kids didn’t like their Christmas present – let’s buy them something different next year’.” This reads like a not-so-veiled defence of the rigorous platform taken to the last election – a plea not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Leigh pulls no punches, contrasting the Cain government’s “austere integrity” and commitment to sound policy with today’s “show ponies and charlatans” (not sure which party he’s referring to there). Then Leigh gets stuck into policy, arguing that Australia’s economy has slipped into a “deep structural malaise” since the Coalition was elected, partly due to declining productivity and partly due to a failure of Australian companies to innovate or invest. “It’s not just that companies aren’t investing simply in technology,” says Leigh, “they’re not investing in anything at all.” There’s been “a motza of mergers, but a scarcity of start-ups”. The result? Declining complexity of the Australian economy. And record wage stagnation – continuing in the latest official figures today. The answer? Leigh reaches back to Cain who “taught progressives that idealism and discipline were essential to bringing about change. His government was productive and innovative – characteristics that are essential not only to the Australian economy, but to any reforming Labor government.”
Morrison says today’s Opposition is nothing like the Labor of Hawke and Keating, and he might be right. But if Labor goes back to its roots and takes the time to get its platform right, it could be.
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Paddy Manning is contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly and has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is the author of Inside the Greens and the unauthorised biography of Malcolm Turnbull, Born To Rule?
There is disappointment in certain quarters that Labor leader Anthony Albanese is playing both sides on the hard issues like climate change, refusing to be pinned down. At worst, Albanese gets castigated from the right and left. The Australian yesterday ran an almost-gotcha piece on an apparent shift in Albanese’s language on coal – a failure to love the stuff sufficiently – while elsewhere there is exasperation at the antics of the pro-coal Otis Group at a time when the nation is still reeling from “black summer”. Like Howard versus Beazley, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has certainly made this line of attack a feature of his criticism of Albanese in parliament – saying he “wants to have it each way on every bet”. But the truth is, it’s working. A senior Labor operative made the point recently that last year Albanese would never have dreamed he and the ALP would be ahead in...