Monday, February 8, 2021

Today by Rachel Withers

Small target, big cuts
On policy, Labor takes a conservative approach

Image of Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese launching Labor’s Pandemic Recovery Jobs and Industry Taskforce in Cairns

Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese launches Labor’s Pandemic Recovery Jobs and Industry Taskforce in Cairns. Image via Twitter

The Labor Party is making moves to further develop its policy agenda, readying itself for a 2021 election, but it’s clear that the party is as spooked as ever, still haunted by the ghost of 2019’s loss. Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese wants Australians to know he’s “on their side” – so long as helping them can be offset with fiscally responsible spending cuts.

This morning, Nine Media reported on a leaked email from deputy leader Richard Marles to the shadow cabinet, revealing that the party would begin working on priority policy areas – and reminding members that all new policy proposals had to be offset with proposed spending cuts. “As Anthony has made clear, all policy proposals should consider options to minimise the fiscal impact and/or be fully offset by savings within respective portfolios,” Marles wrote. In a previous email sent to shadow cabinet members last Tuesday, finance spokesperson Katy Gallagher asked members to identify the electoral risks and benefits of any policy proposal, including what groups would be adversely affected by their proposed offsetting cuts. “We are hoping that this process will draw out all the great ideas (and savings),” she wrote. Although “savings” is in brackets, she seems to be saying the quiet part loud. Shadow cabinet members have been ordered to finalise their policy proposals by March 26 – fully costed with offsets and savings.

Labor is looking increasingly set on taking a conservative approach this time around, ditching 2019’s big tax-and-spend agenda, with the focus more on how to appear fiscally responsible (and avoid claims of its platform being “uncosted”) than on actual policy. Albanese appears to be going in the “small target” direction that former leader Bill Shorten recently cautioned against, and some anonymous shadow cabinet members are already unhappy, telling Nine that emphasising budget repair right now sent “mixed messages” and “lacked imagination”. “This looks like we are just going to contest 2019 again without our big policy reforms,” one said. 

Speaking to the media after the leak, Albanese said he made “no apologies” for the fact that Labor wanted to be fiscally responsible. “We think it’s important,” he added. Albanese was in Cairns at the time giving a press conference to launch Labor’s Pandemic Recovery Jobs and Industry Taskforce – a taskforce Labor had “launched” back in December, though perhaps they’re merely trying out the government’s approach of announcing things multiple times for added effect. The taskforce, chaired by Bendigo MP Lisa Chesters, will travel the country tracking the pandemic recovery, with its findings to influence its election campaign – though it was not scheduled to provide its first interim report until August 2021, according to its original launch. Albanese will spend the rest of the week up in Queensland, in a six-day campaign of incessantly reminding Queenslanders that he is “on their side”. “During this week and indeed every week from now up until the next election, I have one message,” he said. “I’m on your side.” (One message indeed – he’s used it in almost every tweet today.) He better hope the electorate of Grayndler doesn’t end up on the growing list of coronavirus hotspots around the country, or Queensland may not want him “on their side” of the border much longer.

Meanwhile, Labor MP and deputy chair of parliament’s audit committee Julian Hill has released a new report, “Australia’s Global Performance: Falling Behind”, comparing Australia’s wellbeing and progress under seven years of Coalition government against global rankings (surprise surprise, we’re falling behind). The report, drawing on research from the parliamentary library, the OECD and international data, will be “central” to the Opposition’s policy development process in the lead-up to the next election, the Australian Financial Review reports – though how exactly Labor is going to dig Australia out of the hole it’s in while offsetting all its expenditure isn’t clear. According to Guardian Australia, the review will shape the next stage of Labor’s campaigning, but in what direction? It will be tough for Labor to attack the government for its negligence without offering up some big ideas of its own.

But the more things change, the more they stay the same. As Labor begins to make moves to formulate some kind of policy agenda, however big or small, the government’s policy agenda remains stubbornly bare, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison saying last week he is unlikely to pursue significant economic reform at the next election – he isn’t going to “pursue things for the sake of vanity”. (That’s one way to refer to “governing”.) There’s an obvious void there for Labor to step into; whether the party is willing to do it remains to be seen.

“[Scott Morrison’s] shift is glacial. And the glaciers are melting.”

The prime minister’s slow movements on climate policy will be too little too late if he doesn’t pick up the pace, says Professor Lesley Hughes, a founding member of the Climate Council.

“We’re not worried, or I’m certainly not worried, about what might happen in 30 years’ time.”

Deputy Prime Minister and Nationals leader Michael McCormack is focused on now, not 2050, as he suggests excluding agriculture from a 2050 net-zero emissions target.

The world’s newest dictatorship
Myanmar’s democratically elected leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, was arrested last week as part of a military coup. The country is now back under complete army control. Today, Jonathan Pearlman on what led to the coup, and what happens next in Myanmar.

The amount Australians withdrew from their superannuation accounts on compassionate grounds in 2019–20, amid concerns of a surge in applicants taking money out early.

“Australians may have to prove they’ve had a COVID jab to travel overseas or access public services, with the federal government rolling out plans for digital and physical ‘vaccination certificates’.”

The federal government announces plans to record coronavirus vaccinations on the Australian Immunisation Register.

The list

“Only two centuries ago the Australian coastline was surrounded by an extensive network of oyster reefs, almost all of which are now gone. Indeed of 118 identified flat oyster reef systems, only one remains, and of 60 commercially viable rock oyster reef systems, only eight remain, suggesting approximately 90 per cent of rock oyster and 99 per cent or more of flat oyster beds have disappeared. On the South Australian coast alone, reef systems covering at least 1500 kilometres have been entirely wiped out.”

“These displays of public hand-wringing serve to affirm middle-class Australia’s favourite fantasy: that we live in a post-racial society in which racism, where it still persists, is the sole domain of the working class, the uneducated, the lone Collingwood fan … The reason it’s so hard to talk about middle-class racism is that it never presents itself as such. It is always presented as something else – a joke, an objective presentation of neutral statistics – or else outright denied.”

“The federal government has scrambled to revise eligibility for its COVID-19 vaccination program after initially excluding refugees, asylum seekers and foreign nationals with expired, cancelled or no visas. Health Minister Greg Hunt unexpectedly announced the new position to the media on Thursday afternoon … The about-face came after The Saturday Paper asked the Health Department early last week which categories of foreign nationals would not be eligible for the vaccine and whether these groups would be excluded, based on public government documents that suggested some visa-holders would be ineligible.”

Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Monthly Today.



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