Anthony Albanese and Labor’s three-year mission: finding 1.35million voters


In other words, I could have destabilised Bill by leaking, but didn’t. “So we need that discipline.”

Albanese and Shorten are not friends. There have been subterranean tensions ever since they competed for the leadership in 2013. Each has eyed the other warily. But Albanese has participated as a team player.

He helped Shorten in practice debates, for instance, to prepare for his three televised confrontations with Scott Morrison during the campaign. Albo played ScoMo.

Illustration: John ShakespeareCredit:

In fact, Albanese is probably the first Australian federal politician since Peter Costello who was in a position to challenge his leader, but did not. Costello, despite his ambitions, did not challenge John Howard. He exercised restraint to preserve the unity of the party. Albanese has done the same.

Has Australian federal politics finally graduated from the decade of the “my turn” vanity impulses that infected both parties and shattered the people’s trust? It’s far too early to be sure, but it’s a positive.

Another refreshing exercise in restraint came this week when Labor’s Ed Husic took himself out of the contest for a frontbench position. The likeable Western Sydney MP has done good work as shadow minister on the digital economy, pointing out the need for an Australian artificial intelligence policy, for example.

He could have expected to stay on the front bench but decided to demote himself and step away from the factional fighting for position.

Illustration: Jim Pavlidis

Illustration: Jim PavlidisCredit:

Husic, of the NSW right faction, told his factional colleague Chris Bowen: “Even if we win, we lose.” Meaning that the right could have won the ballot, but only by inflicting division and infighting. His decision opened the way for Kristina Keneally to sit on the front bench.

The new leader phoned Husic on Friday morning to see if he could offer him a consolation prize, perhaps an assistant shadow minister job, but Husic declined. He will, no doubt, be back in future.

The second problem solved in Labor’s defeat was that a more publicly appealing leader was elected. Albanese was the obvious successor as the candidate who ran a close second to Shorten at the last leadership contest. Albo won the ballot among the party rank-and-file but Shorten trumped him by winning the caucus room vote.

Albanese is not only popular, he happens to be pretty battle-hardened, not easily panicked. And, though he’s from the NSW left faction, he has had many years of constructive co-existence with the NSW right. He will be a centrist leader at a time the party desperately needs to demonstrate that it can be centrist and unifying.

You will not hear him disparaging the well-off, business owners or “the top end of town”. He agreed this week to the proposition that, under Shorten, Labor had alienated small business people. “There is no point gilding the lily,” he said. “That is the truth. I want to appeal to people who are successful as well as lift people up. Labor will be seen as pro-business as well as pro-worker.”

Finally, the defeat gives Labor a clean chance to review its policy offerings. Albanese will need the fresh start. The electoral setback reveals the yawning chasm between Labor’s primary vote and the government’s.

The Coalition parties together won 41.5 per cent of the primary vote, on the count so far. Labor managed 33.3. The Coalition advantage of 8¼ per cent represents about 1,350,000 voters, a daunting deficit for Labor.

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What’s Albanese’s diagnosis of this problem? Beyond the Bill factor, now resolved? Labor is seen as the better party on health care and education. Service delivery in these areas is chiefly a state function. But while these are vital federally, they are not the main game. National elections must be fought and won on the national economy, in the Albanese analysis.

This is where he intends to put Labor’s emphasis. Or, in the retail rhetoric, it’s all about jobs. As he put it in his first press conference as leader: “Labor supports economic growth as the core part of our agenda. Because jobs are always first, second, and third priority of this great party. Not just any job – good jobs, with fair pay and fair conditions.”

The new Labor leader intends to stick doggedly to the mantra – “jobs, jobs, jobs”.

One of the reasons Labor did so poorly at the polls was that it lost itself among its many messages. Was the election a referendum on wages, a fair go for all, a climate change choice, was it about putting health first, was it about inequality, was it about a better deal for the younger generation?

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It was, according to its own hydra-headed rhetoric, all of the above. An impossibly chaotic campaign message.

Albanese doesn’t only face a problem of the scale of support but also of balance. Labor was hard hit in Queensland because, in part, of its ambiguity over the proposed Adani coal mine. Labor couldn’t bring itself to clearly commit to allowing the mine to proceed. Queenslanders want the economic activity that it’s supposed to bring.

Adani is also a symbol of something bigger. Queenslanders want to be taken seriously. Some saw Adani becoming a plaything of the Green-Labor left in the southern states. This was an implicit dismissal of the reality of Queenslanders’ lives and their needs.

But if Labor moves too enthusiastically to cheer the mine in order to win support in Queensland, it will lose some of its support in Victoria. The federal result shocked the Queensland Labor government into accelerating its approvals processes for the proposed mine. There’s no ambiguity in the Annastacia Palaszczuk government any longer. It’s all systems go.

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But federal Labor doesn’t have that luxury. It still has to consider its support in the southern states. The Albanese solution? He’s not going to cheer the mine, but he has completely disavowed any federal Labor involvement. He repeatedly points out that all the relevant federal approvals have already been granted. Twice.

To block it now would take some extraordinary federal intervention outside the existing Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, and he is not contemplating any such thing. The mine is likely to be under way by the time of the next election; Albanese expects it will not be an issue by then.

What about the unpopular tax policies? The Liberal Party’s scare campaign against Labor zeroed in relentlessly on two of Shorten’s proposed tax measures – the curbing of negative gearing, and the abolition of cash payments of dividend imputation credits to self-funded retirees. The Liberals portrayed these as a housing tax and a retirement tax.

A Labor campaign director would have simple advice for Albo – ditch them. But here’s the rub. If Labor ditches these revenue-raising measures, how does it pay for its promised spending measures? Its free dental care for pensioners? Its zero-cost cancer treatment plan? Its childcare plan? And much more.

The only way to square the circle would be to accept a massive federal deficit. And Labor is certainly not going to do that.

The Albanese answer? He doesn’t have one. Yet. He’s adopted the catchphrase that he will “hasten slowly”. He doesn’t need an answer for a while. The next election is three years away.

This is sensible. There is no urgency for a new opposition leader to offer policy certainty. Especially when the economic picture may be about to change quite markedly.

The incipient slowdown in the Australian economy, in the world economy, may end up smashing all expectations for federal revenue, wrecking the government’s budget plans among other things. If so, it will be the government forced to change policy. There’s no need for Labor to put itself under unnecessary and artificial pressure while events unfold.

And, in the meantime, Albanese can busy himself with where to find Labor’s missing 1,350,000 voters, and other details.

Peter Hartcher is political editor and international editor of The Sydney Morning Herald.

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