Albanese’s way of doing things has been on full display with his unveiling of Labor’s national target of zero net carbon emissions by 2050 without any supporting policy architecture surrounding it. This left Labor exposed to the predictable scare campaign from the government focusing on the potential cost of jobs and so on.
A lot of the government critique along these lines is silly. On one day last week, Scott Morrison vowed not to commit to an emissions reduction target unless he was absolutely certain of its effect on every single worker, household and business.
Shortly after, he explained away the government’s imminent failure to achieve a promised budget surplus by asking “hands up those who thought there was going to be a coronavirus epidemic when the budget was released last May?”. Indeed, who can ever be sure of what’s around the corner, but you set your goals and work towards them anyway.
What was more damaging for the ALP was that the bare announcement of the target left the way open for the government, which ran out some of its technology roadmap for cutting emissions on Friday, to present itself as the outfit that’s really interested in cutting-edge technology – despite its lack of interest in promoting and encouraging research and development for the past six years. And while the Coalition continues to host a solid group of anti-science MPs who’ll still be railing against the theory of human-induced climate change on their deathbeds years from now.
Under Shorten, Labor did a lot of policy work on new technologies in this space as well as wider industry engagement, but on taking over Albanese declared the ALP’s policies a clean slate, so it’s Year Zero.
Although Albanese is pursuing what he would see as a patient, steady, even conservative, course as leader – delivering headland speeches, speaking in generalities and waiting to unveil full-bodied policies much closer to the next election – it’s arguably quite a gamble.
Although the ALP’s primary vote of 33 per cent at last year’s election was very poor, it’s still only eight seats short of a lower house majority. But Albanese has gone out of his way to portray the election loss as a disaster, the ALP’s worst outing in 100 years – which it was not: Labor suffered a net loss of one seat and the government made a net gain of one, giving it a majority of just two seats.
By framing the election result this way, Albanese has from the beginning denied himself the opportunity to establish a coherent and potentially damaging story about the government. Just imagine if, rather than implicitly boosting the government’s sense of legitimacy, he had started by borrowing from the opposition leader’s playbook that Tony Abbott followed so well after the Coalition’s 2010 election loss.
If Albanese had argued from the moment that he took over as leader that the government had fibbed its way to re-election – about the economy, about its competence, about climate change, about its honesty – and that it had only just got over the line and was a shaky proposition with a tiny lower house majority, that would have left all of Labor’s options open. He could have built up a narrative and progressively exploited it.
Many subsequent events would have fed into this narrative: the continuing revelations of sports rorts, the shaky prospect of a budget surplus, the Prime Minister’s loss of the vote for his preferred deputy Speaker due to several National MPs siding with Labor. Instead, Labor’s attacks look disjointed and more like politics-as-usual.
Like it or not, in our system oppositions have to seriously wound governments before they can get the public to properly contemplate what they have to offer. They need to persuade, and they need time to be persuasive. Because social democratic parties naturally are more likely to promote change, voters habitually apply tougher tests on them than conservative parties before giving them support.
Albanese is personally more popular than Shorten, who never recovered from his 2015 appearance at the trade unions royal commission, when his credibility took a real hit. But is it enough? Albanese’s determination to wait until closer to the election before revealing key policies is a very pre-digital, 80s-early-90s way of doing things. It’s quite a punt to assume in this distracted 24/7 age that voters will be waiting around, keen to pay attention, especially if the reasons for removing the government haven’t been properly established.
Leaving the heavy lifting for later carries a lot of risks.
Shaun Carney is a regular columnist.
Shaun Carney is a regular columnist. He is the author of books on industrial relations and the life of Peter Costello, and has been commended by the Walkley Award judges for his political columns.